To Fix Its Mysterious Attendance Woes, the Sport Looks Far Afield—to Professional SoccerNo sports fans are as maniacal as the people who pack Southeastern Conference football stadiums on Saturdays. To call college football their religion may be generous to those who believe in a supreme being.
But not even Southern football fans are sure things to show up to games any more—and their increasingly unpredictable behavior has sent officials from SEC athletic departments searching for ways to win them back.
Their common destination this off-season was an unlikely location in Big 12 country. But they weren't scouting other colleges. They were chasing an experience so foreign that it doesn't currently exist in the Southeast: a Major League Soccer game.
In May, a group from Florida's athletic department became one of hundreds of sports teams to visit Sporting Kansas City, the reigning MLS champion, and Sporting Innovations, the team's spinoff consulting firm focused on fan engagement and technology.
The trip wasn't as unorthodox as it sounds. As colleges seek out ways to enhance their stadiums and entice a generation of absentee fans, they are looking at MLS teams as models, even though the average MLS crowd is about a quarter of the 75,674 that the SEC averaged last season, the top figure in college football.
"The word is out," said Portland Timbers president of business operations Mike Golub, "that it's a special game experience."
Pac-12 officials also took a trip to Kansas City. They were so impressed that they signed a deal with Sporting Innovations, which is quietly influencing the way college-football teams operate, to help them on fan-related issues. "They know what their soccer fans want," said Pac-12 chief marketing officer Danette Leighton.
This week at SEC Media Days—an event in Hoover, Ala., that unofficially kicked off the season—Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said that SEC football nuts and European soccer buffs were kindred spirits. But college-football fans and MLS fans have a lot in common, too. The average age of Sporting KC's 14,000 season-ticket holders is 29.7 years old, relatively close to a college-aged demographic, said Robb Heineman, chief executive of the team's parent organization.
At first glance, Florida doesn't look like the sort of school that would need to solicit tips from a soccer team. The Gators are the most popular college-football team in Florida, according to Public Policy Polling. They won national championships in the 1996, 2006 and 2008 seasons. School records show that 86% of students used tickets they bought as recently as 2009.
But the Gators failed to qualify for a bowl last season, and the rate of students showing up to games fell to 66%. For the stunning Nov. 23 home loss to Georgia Southern, the student section was only 45% full and more Florida students bought tickets and stayed home than bought tickets and actually used them.
Sporting KC is trending in the opposite direction. The team formerly known as the Wizards averaged 10,287 fans a game in 2010. Then it rebranded, moved from a minor-league baseball stadium to soccer-specific Sporting Park and saw attendance climb to 17,810 a game. That number has increased this year to a franchise-record 19,709 per MLS game.
How they pulled that off intrigues colleges that are struggling to fill their mammoth football stadiums. In addition to Florida, which sent a representative to Kansas City in the fall before a bigger team went in May, three other SEC schools have visited Sporting KC, Heineman said, while Oklahoma State announced a deal with Sporting Innovations in March.
"They're all dealing with the same issues: ticket sales going down and a difficulty getting students to come early and stay late," he said.
MLS executives believe their league's stature forced them to come up with creative solutions for attendance problems before they struck bigger sports like the NFL and college football. The Portland Timbers, for one, scored with fans by making the in-game experience reflect the city around them. Timbers Army members park their bikes outside the stadium, and the concession offerings inside include artisanal, small-batch chocolate. The result: Its 10,000-person waiting list for season tickets is longer than almost every college-football team's.
Sporting KC's approach to accommodating younger fans goes beyond giving them fast Wi-Fi so they can use their smartphones. At a time when some colleges don't keep records on student attendance, Sporting KC collects data on everyone from season-ticket holders to single-game buyers through Sporting Innovations technology, which they offer to college clients. They now have close to 250,000 profiles of fans who have attended games, Heineman said, with information as detailed as when, where and how they bought tickets, what time they arrived at games and who they sat near.
In exchange for that information—which they say allows them to understand their fans better—they offer perks. Sporting KC pays for their fans to attend road games and organizes social events for young professionals in Kansas City. They also strive for irreverence and to be transparent in their transactions, Heineman said, which separates Sporting KC from other teams in pro sports.
It is helping them reach the audience that has eluded colleges recently. One supporter group, the Mass St. Mob, formed in Lawrence, Kan., home of the University of Kansas. Many of the Mass St. Mob's members go out of their way to see Sporting KC's home matches, which are more interactive than any other sporting event, said Adam Crifasi, a 26-year-old electrical engineer.
"You feel like you're part of the game," he said.
By: Ben Cohen