WARSAW – A month or so ago, fan behavior was a hot button topic both locally and around the country. What was considered tolerable versus, in the case of many, crossing both the proverbial and literal lines at ball games.
After a pair of area high schools joined the fray in allowing students into games for free, and once again watching some interesting video on a national scale, conversation shifts to, ‘How are we going to get people to go to the games?’ (and hopefully not fight with anyone!).
The news of NorthWood, and within hours, Fairfield, joining the likes of Culver, South Bend St. Joe and Plymouth in permitting free admission for students to home games sent waves around the area. Would other schools follow suit? Would parents eventually get in free? What about travel sports? Can candy and popcorn be free, too? What kind of economic windfall would it create, pro and con, to make such a bold move?
From the eye test, the games alone are not selling themselves. Using a very recent example, the international soccer match between Liverpool and Dortmund should have had enough juice to create a gameday atmosphere at Notre Dame Stadium. Granted, it was hotter than a snake’s heinie last Friday night. But for a college campus that thrives on everything being historically relevant, two of the world’s premier soccer franchises only filled half of the stadium. Why? Was it the weather? Probably not, considering the Cubs put 40,000-plus into Wrigley Field the next afternoon against the Padres and it was 94 degrees in the middle of the day. Was it ticket prices? Maybe, at $75 for meh seats for an exhibition on a Friday night, that’s pretty steep. But consider what a Notre Dame home football game costs when face value is north of $125 for meh seats against a Ball State or Wake Forest. And you haven’t parked or bought anything from Hammes yet.
Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald puts NCAA football's attendance problem and really society's eventual downfall in perspective:
— Rick Tarsitano (@RickTarsitano) July 20, 2019
At the hyper local level, schools are trying to do what they can. The announcements from Norm Sellers at NorthWood and Mark Hofer at Fairfield were in response to both making athletic events affordable, but to also drum up interest in their products. Both schools have quality programs. Fairfield boys and girls basketball both have won sectionals in the past three years, and volleyball has been state relevant for over a decade. NorthWood football was ranked No. 1 in Class 4-A last season heading into the state tournament, and both basketball programs have peppered the top 10s in recent years. There’s still plenty of civic pride in both communities, which comes up often in larger school communities, namely South Bend, where neighborhoods just don’t have the same feel they did a generation ago.
New Warsaw athletic director Matt Binkerd stated, “One of my goals coming in is how can we turn games into events.” Likely the goal of most athletic directors, the challenge is building momentum, whether at Warsaw or Triton or Lakeland Christian or either of the aforementioned Elkhart County schools, is to put out a product people want to see. Can NorthWood volleyball build enough momentum to get kids to want to come support it? Can Matt Thacker rally enough support in the halls to get Fairfield’s football program back to respectability, then in turn getting the students back on board and into the seats on Fridays?
Part of the issue at the soccer friendly at Notre Dame was familiarity. While Liverpool had just won the UEFA Champions League, not many in the stadium seemed at all familiar with Dortmund, especially with its lone and heavily advertised American, Christian Pulisic, gone on transfer to Chelsea well before the match even began. Many students at Warsaw may not know both soccer teams were ranked in the top 10 last year, simply because most of the social focus tended to shift to Fridays at Fisher Field. Schools like Lakeland Christian or Westview, which don’t have football, usually have solid support for its soccer, both sides. But that doesn’t necessarily translate, however, into the gyms for volleyball in the same calendar timeframe.
So we come back to ‘why?’ and ‘how?’. Free admission for students is a big, and bold, step for the ‘how?’ portion. By taking away the financial excuse, it’s up to the kids then to respond. But that then lends to the ‘why?’, which is typically the hardest part for a marketing guru to solve. People love to use the busy excuse, mostly because cell phones have made it a constant process to remain busy and diverted. What gets people’s attention in the athletic realm is success. And not always wins and losses, either. In watching over 20 varsity sports for the past two decades, I’ve seen more students at a gymnastics meet than a boys basketball game on consecutive nights, largely because of the product put forth. I watched a softball regional need three sets of bleachers added at Wawasee because close to 200 kids came out to support their team in a tournament that took place after school let out. The followings the Warsaw boys and Tippecanoe Valley girls basketball teams had in their state runs this past decade were remarkable. It can be done.
Can concepts like free admission bolster student pride in their schools? Yes. Will it happen over the long term? It’s possible, but that’s where the marketing of the schools comes into play. For everything Liverpool did to market its match at Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish still had football adverts playing on the Jumbotron in the spaces in between. The 40,000 at the soccer match will still be 81,000 this fall. And that goes to marketing. NorthWood football will still have fans show up, they always do, and Nate Andrews and his staff will continue to post videos on Twitter and Instagram in support of their kids and the brand. But it’s up to Norm Sellers to also remind people of a very young girls soccer team that needs fans, too, and swimmers that could use a few extra cheers in December adjacent to The Pit.
There’s not really a good excuse to turn down a free ticket. As a friend once said, free anything is a good something. Gestures by both NorthWood and Fairfield are great ways to jump into the upcoming school year to transition back from the ‘me’ generation to a ‘we’ generation.