Hot Topic Thoughts

This week's news involving the movement of the Rutgers/Connecticut game to a prime-time Sunday slot was a hot topic near the water cooler and on the message boards. Fans residing on both sides of the issue made valid points. In the end, as we all know too well, only the mighty dollar counts. Nevertheless, the topic is worth the banter.

The state of Big East football took a major step forward when West Virginia defeated Georgia in this past year's Sugar Bowl. It served as a proclamation of sorts, that the Big East's best are as good as anyone else's. The pressing question about the still-fledgling conference is, how about the rest of its teams?

The rest of the conference, from top to bottom, is as competitive as any other. Outside of, perhaps, Louisville, which sits atop just behind the Mountaineers, anybody can beat anybody else. In that case, competition breeds excitement, excitement breeds viewership, and that in turn leads to ratings and ultimately fannies in the seats. Right? Not exactly.

The issue in the Garden State is without a doubt as different as in any other state. Let's deal with what's closer to home. Two themes will serve as our areas of discussion: attendance and its subsequent effect on perception with an understanding of the reality of what makes the New Jersey culture unique.

The (attendance) concern isn't about the 10-15K fans that show up to Rutgers Stadium every single game, and have been doing so for years. They'll continue to go, no matter the time or place. It's about the additional 10-15K+, students included, that may or may not be brought on board on any given afternoon. These folks, for better or for worse, need incentive to come to games. Unfortunately, it's these same folks (and you know who you are) that are the first to reschedule at initial signs of distress – weather, inappropriate time of day, inappropriate day altogether: the reasons are endless.

Rutgers Yearly Average Attendance
1998: 23,297 (56% of capacity)
1999: 25,865 (62% of capacity)
2000: 24,556 (59% of capacity)
2001: 20,455 (49% of capacity)
2002: 19,818 (48% of capacity)
2003: 27,339 (66% of capacity)
2004: 30,994 (75% of capacity)
2005: 33,184 (80% of capacity)

During the last two years, during which Rutgers Football Head Coach Greg Schiano's teams have, at the very least, rivaled some of the most successful Rutgers teams in recent history (and in last year's case redefined gridiron success), Rutgers Stadium has sold out once: Michigan State.

Indeed, while attendance has swelled in recent years, it has not kept up with the Scarlet Knights' on-field success. A 13%, relative to the 2003 average, increase in 2004 attendance was followed by a 7%, relative to the 2004 average, increase in 2005. Both in relative and absolute terms, the rate of attendance increase has dropped: the absolute increase from 2003-2004 was nearly two-thirds greater than the increase from 2004-2005. Certainly, one is not to expect increasingly greater attendance figures as the overall numbers reach maximum capacity. However, in neither of these instances (2004 or 2005) was maximum (average) capacity truly within grasp's reach.

So what then is the reason behind lagging attendance figures? To appreciate the reason is akin to being one step closer to finding a remedy.

Understanding the situation is simple, for those that have been immersed in the New Jersey culture for a sufficiently long time.

New Jersey lives and breathes between two of the greatest cities in the United States. It lies forever divided, split in two halves: a northern half associated with New York City, its chic lifestyle and up-scale mind-set and a southern half that lives and breathes a generally blue-collar Philadelphia attitude. So long as the identity of the state remains unfound (commentary regarding The Sopranos not included), it becomes questionable, whether as a state supported institution, Rutgers may gain the respect it needs to move within the boundaries New Jersey has created for it: to become part and parcel of New Jersey culture. The outlook for the creation of an increasingly homogeneous personality for New Jersey remains, as always, a continued work in progress.

This was the overreaching task that Rutgers Head Coach Greg Schiano undertook when he came to Rutgers. To help bridge this New Jersey gap, to bring the two parts closer together.

Understanding this particular aspect of the New Jersey culture has separated Greg Schiano from his predecessors. You can't tackle a problem, until you know what that problem is. But the problem, however you want to phrase it (just as long as you acknowledge it), remains. It's the culture, and not necessarily football culture, that needs to change.

In New Jersey we live in the land of perception first and foremost - reality comes second. Fans and close followers of the Rutgers Football program have seen a structure previously unbeknownst to them built across the Raritan – it's called a foundation. You won't get a disagreement from me, but that's not the topic at hand.

The topic of conversation attempts to discuss the implications of a Sunday night game and the perception thereof – not for us, but for those that still need to be convinced of what is happening on the Banks. They are they chief target.

The cause was the move – the effect will be positive, negative, or a wash? That depends on what impact you believe attendance figures may have.

The issue here, given the importance of perception, is what everyone else sees and their interpretation of it. If the past, recent past at that, is any indication, the newly established time slot is anything but ideal in terms of timing.

Not for the 10-15K that would show anywhere, anytime.

But for the rest, that need, and will continue to need, an incentive. That's the reality of the place we call home – New Jersey.

41.5K for a Sunday night game, some have suggested. On what basis can such a statement be made? Even 30-35K smacks of fantasy.

The 2005 South Florida game, in early November, amidst better than ideal weather conditions, drew a whopping 31K fans. Despite a 6-2 record, and bowl eligibility clinched the previous week, nearly 10K fewer fans decided to show their faces to Rutgers Stadium. That's a quarter of Rutgers Stadium's capacity – not a small fraction by any means (I won't mention the West Virginia game – that example is much too obvious).

Still wonder what a Sunday evening game, at 8 PM ET, will draw?

And, what of the perception that follows?

The question that needs to be asked is whether a Sunday evening time slot is sufficiently attractive for the remaining 10-15K+?

Exposure is warranted and indeed desired, if it paints a rosy picture. Is it so desirable otherwise?

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