|The Pirate who walks out to Purple Haze is a part of Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium’s pregame festivities.|
ECU Enhances Game Day Experience
Ian Mueller is a junior at East Carolina University, studying business, and can be found on most Saturdays wearing his purple and gold gear, eagerly waiting to watch his beloved Pirates. During game days in Greenville, North Carolina, Mueller is usually out and about visiting tailgates around Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium; mingling with fellow Pirate fans and friends. But as kickoff time approaches, Mueller slips away from the tailgate lots and does not enter the stadium. Instead, he walks into the house of his friend, Dan Ciocia, lounges on the couch and flips on the game on Ciocia’s enormous flat-screen television. “My freshman year I went to games,” Mueller said. “Most of the time, it’s standing in the ‘Boneyard’ (ECU's student section) ... when you could just watch it at home on the TV, where you can sit down, do whatever you want and relax while watching the game.” Muller’s sentiments reflect a concerning trend in modern day college football. Fans all across the country are choosing not to pay the price of admission to avoid being sardined amongst large masses of people in favor of a more convenient alternative. According to an ESPN.com report, the average crowd at a Division I football game was 46,456 in 2008. Since then, that average has dipped below 46,000 for FBS schools in each of the last five seasons. ECU is no exception to this issue as the size of its crowds has decreased every year since 2011. Usually floating in the high 40-thousands, the school’s attendance experienced a large drop off of over 3,000 fans in 2013, falling to an average of 43,985 per game. “It’s definitely a growing issue and it’s a concern across the nation,” said ECU Associate Athletics Director Shelley Binegar. “You can sit at home, watch multiple games, flip through multiple channels, get up and get something from the refrigerator or use the restroom without lines, without paying for parking, without having fans around you that maybe you don’t enjoy. “We have to provide something better than what you can get on TV.” What ECU is selling is an enhanced game day experience that Binegar and the rest of the athletics department have gone to great lengths to provide fans choosing to attend a game. This year alone, ECU has paid $3 million to install a new Wi-Fi system in order to improve cell reception inside the stadium and introduced a brand new “Promo Squad,” which is comprised of eight college students who stay in the upper deck and do giveaways, games and throw shirts for fans who are further away from the action. Binegar said even the crowd’s reaction to the songs that are played before and during games are monitored for fan engagement.
But for every feature ECU has implemented, several more ideas were considered and not chosen. For instance, Binegar says a system that allows fans to order concessions from their phones could be in the works in the next few years and possibly an app that displays the length of restroom lines.
But above all else, there is one controllable variable that has the largest effect on paid attendance.
“The top solution is to win games,” ECU Creative Media Specialist Brian Meador said. “If you win a lot of games and you do it in a real entertaining way, people are going to want to come out.”
The Pirates (6-2, 3-1 American Athletic Conference) are on pace to have one of their best seasons in school history behind the nation’s fourth ranked offense. And despite ECU having already two late kickoffs at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium and all of its games being national televised, the attendance numbers have spiked up to 44,755 in four home games.
Fifth-year ECU head coach Ruffin McNeill, who played for the Pirates from 1976-1979 as a defensive back, defends having the games easily available to a national audience, which is made possible because of the American’s TV deal with ESPN, and hasn't noticed much of a difference in the stadium.
“Maybe some schools it may affect ... but I expect our stadium to be packed as it always is,” he said, adding, “You can’t put a value price on the exposure the TV program is getting.”
The American’s TV deal pays ECU about $2 million annually, which helps fund football and the other 18 varsity sports, but that isn’t nearly enough to get the school out of the red ink. The rest is mostly left up to ticket sales, and football is the cash cow.
“TV is a double-edged sword," Binegar said. “We love it because it’s national exposure, it helps with recruiting, it helps with our alumni that live here, it helps with admissions and applications to the university in general because of that increased exposure ... but the negative is that there is a voice in the back of your head that says ‘You know, I could just watch it on television today.’”
As television’s coverage of college football games becomes more and more sophisticated, the more this issue will continue to grow. It isn’t going away any time soon and although there are several easily identifiable variables influencing this issue, there are other less-tangible factors are difficult to place a value on.
Meador, who graduated from ECU and has worked in TV and the media for the last two decades, recalled his in-stadium experiences while watching ECU’s signature win over N.C. State in the 1992 Peach Bowl.
“I had so many friends who watched it on TV that day and they can’t say they experienced it the way I did and the way all those thousands of people did at Fulton-County Stadium that day,” Meador said. “At the end of the day, you’re cheering on that football team that is just a few hundred feet away and you can’t get that on TV. I don’t care how good HD is. Real life is 3-D when you’re at the stadium.”
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