Big Red Business: Nebraska looking for ways to improve Gameday experience
Call it Husker Highway, a multi-block stretch in front of Memorial Stadium that’s transformed into a massive pregame entertainment zone and carnival.
A row of food trucks hours before kickoff, live music, the pregame radio team holding court, big LED screens to track college games, rides and games for the kids, a healthy dose of Herbie Husker, the Cornhusker marching band and cheerleaders, autograph stations filled by football greats -- and of course, a chance to greet coach Scott Frost and the team as they get off the bus and file into the stadium.
This could be Nebraska’s version of Bevo Boulevard, which backs up to Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin and completely transforms San Jacinto Boulevard into a pregame streetparty with thousands of party-goers. Texas rolled out Bevo Boulevard in 2018 with the goal of creating the best gameday atmosphere in the country.
The party is free, no game ticket is required, beer is sold at happy hour prices, and activities mostly shut down 30 minutes before kickoff to allow fans to get to their seats.
It’s caught the attention of athletic department marketing gurus nationwide, including those at Nebraska who traveled to Austin this season to see Bevo Boulevard for themselves.
“It was a real eye-opener to me in terms of how many families came out,” said Garrett Klassy, Nebraska’s senior deputy athletic director for external operations. “It’s very family friendly.”
Welcome to big time college football, where schools are having to dig deep into their marketing toolkits to compete with technology, television and comfort and convenience to draw fans inside the stadium and to keep them coming back.
Even at Nebraska, which is riding an NCAA record 57-year, 375-game sellout streak, adding more zip to the gameday fan environment is important for keeping the streak alive.
Will a Husker Highway -- or whatever you want to call it -- become a fan friendly favorite in Lincoln?
While Klassy was non-committal on that question, he did say that the athletic department is looking at a variety of ways to improve fan experiences both outside and inside Memorial Stadium.
Nearly everything is on the table, Klassy said, including new menu items at concession stands, adding more value tied to season ticket seat donations, tweaks in the crowd-pounding music selections, better merchandising, and boosting the pregame tailgating and atmosphere around Memorial Stadium.
“Nothing is set yet for 2020,” Klassy said, “but there will be changes.”
However, one thing is not on the table: Alcohol sales will continue to be banned inside Memorial Stadium, he said.
Fannies in the seats
It’s no secret that colleges around the country are looking for ways to boost football attendance, which has been falling for years. Average football attendance fell in 2018 for the seventh time in the last eight year, from 42,108 in 2017 to 41,509 in 2018, the latest figures available.
Blame it on rising prices for tickets, parking and food, the glut of games on television, and the digital generation that embraces other forms of entertainment.
Even Nebraska is not immune.
One area of concern is the actual attendance to games at Memorial Stadium, where official capacity is 85,458. “Live” attendance accounts for fans who actually entered through the gates and watched the game as opposed to the official number listed on the box scores that accounts for the number of tickets purchased.
According to the actual attendance numbers provided by Nebraska’s athletic department, the Ohio State night game drew the highest “live” attendance for the 2019 season, with 79,502 scanned tickets.
The other high points were the home opener against South Alabama (77,910), Northern Illinois (76,984) and Northwestern (74,935).
The Indiana game drew 72,468 while Wisconsin’s actual attendance was 66,860.
The season-ending home game against Iowa generated 60,802 fans in the stands, resulting in about 25,000 empty seats.
By contrast, 2018’s final home game against Michigan State, which was played in sub-freezing temperatures and snow, drew 61,401 fans in the stands.
Granted, kickoff times, the weather and other factors influence actual attendance, plus the scan rate is “not an exact science,” Klassy said. “You can’t tell me there were 6,000 empty seats for the Ohio State game.”
Judging by high 90 percent renewal rates for season tickets annually, there continues to be great demand. That protects the sellout streak.
“We have a healthy waiting list for suites and luxury boxes,” said Klassy. In terms of general season tickets, the waiting list stands at about 1,500.
Renewal season is already underway, and the athletic department expects to have a good idea of seat availability by March.
Still, fan loyalty can only take you so far. Ultimately, winning cures all ills. As one fan mentioned, it’s getting harder to remain loyal during this down period. He said he and his wife enjoy traveling from the Kansas City area for the pre-game and post-game environment in Lincoln -- but the games haven’t been as much fun.
There go the Irish
Nebraska athletics officials certainly took note of what happened in November to Notre Dame, which saw its 277-game sellout streak snapped in a game against Navy. The Fighting Irish’s streak --the second-longest in college football -- dated back to 1973.\
Notre Dame’s ticket philosophy is different than Nebraska’s. About half of Notre Dame’s tickets are season ticket packages for a stadium that holds about 78,000. Their national fan base is the reason why they have such a low number of season ticket holders and why there are so many single-game tickets for sale.
In fact, Notre Dame officials acknowledged their sellout streak might have ended sooner if not for the ticket office offering deep last-minute discounts on group sales.
Nebraska doesn’t offer single-game sales right now unless an opponent returns their unused contracted tickets.
While Notre Dame’s athletic director downplayed the ending of the streak, it’s a different story at Nebraska. “The streak is very important to us,” Klassy said. “It’s even more important to the people of Nebraska. It represents a sense of pride and says a lot about the culture of the state.”
A lot has changed with Nebraska football since Tom Osborne coached his last game in 1997. Long winning streaks have come to an end. The same with conference championship, bowl games, and coaching continuity.
But one benchmark has remained constant -- the sellout streak, which dates to Bob Devaney’s first year as head coach in 1962.
Next in line?
Like Notre Dame, Oregon, Alabama, Virginia Tech, and Florida among others have seen lengthy sellout streaks end in recent years. Ohio State’s streak of 16 consecutive home games with more than 100,000 fans ended in a 2018 game against Rutgers.
Who’s chasing Nebraska?
It appears to be Oklahoma. The Sooners’ sellout streak stands at 129 games dating back to the beginning of the Bob Stoops era in 1999, an athletic department spokesman said.
Impressive, but, Oklahoma would need to sell out every home game for another 35 years to match Nebraska should Memorial Stadium’s record end next year.
It’s not clear who comes next. Georgia is riding a streak of nearly 80 straight official sellouts.
Penn State, Texas A&M, Tennessee, Auburn, Ohio State, and LSU typically are among the nation’s leaders in average football attendance. But none sell out game after game, year after year.
The University of Michigan claims title to another attendance streak. It has drawn 100,000-plus fan for 293 straight home games at the Big House -- every game since Nov. 8, 1975, an athletic department spokesman said.
In addition, the Wolverines have led the nation in attendance 42 of the past 44 seasons; the only years that Michigan did not lead the country in home attendance was 1997 and 2014.
Surveying the fans
Nebraska’s athletic department typically sends out 1,500 surveys to different groups of fans -- including those from the visiting team -- after each home game. It sent out 3,000 questionnaires after the season finale against Iowa.
The response rate is quite high, about 1,200 come back per game.
What are fans saying? The No. 1 issue is with cell phone and WiFi, said Klassy. “It’s a big one,” he said. “Fans want us to improve” the online network.
Other trends: Fans comment about the desire for more diverse concessions. They also have comments about security and merchandising. Klassy did not divulge details.
Ohio State has taken several steps in recent years to enhance the experience inside Ohio Stadium, adding Wi-Fi, giving fans the option of purchasing chairback seats, improving food and drink options, introducing beer sales and trimming the size of concession lines.
A $10.5 million Wi-Fi project included the installation of 4,018 antennas and 47 miles of copper and fiber connected to more than 2,000 access points. According to news reports, the network has been a rousing success.
The Bevo Boulevard experience
Just because Texas has hit upon a winning pre-game fan experience doesn’t mean it will work in Lincoln.
There’s the weather, for one thing; Texas fans can kick back hours before a November game bathed in sunshine and warm temperatures. Nebraska, not so likely. In addition, Austin has a rich variety of musicians to draw on for appearances on Bevo Boulevard.
Klassy said one of his objectives is keeping current fans engaged on game days in Lincoln while at the same time creating a fun experience for kids who will become future fans.
“At the end of the day, Johnny and Jane won’t care so much about who won or lost,” said Klassy. “But if they had fun, they’ll be begging mom and dad to take them back.”
That’s why Nebraska’s senior marketing team hit the road this season to check out fan atmosphere inside and outside the stadium. Klassy and Bradon Meier, senior associate athletic director for marketing, walked around the stadiums at Colorado, Illinois, Minnesota, Purdue and Maryland, looking for ideas that might click.
“Every place is unique,” Klassy said. “We want to see what works but you can’t just copycat other schools. Just because it works somewhere doesn’t mean it will work in Lincoln.”
Steve Rosen writes about the business of sports for HuskerOnline. Questions, comments, story ideas? Reach Steve at email@example.com.