From the Cheap Seats

Too often we get lost in a season and forget to step back for the big picture. True, there is a big football game this weekend. It's the first road game of 2004 in fact. While this may seem the wrong time to bring it up, MizzouCard says now is the perfect time to address declining home attendance. Better yet, he has a plan...

Filling a Few Seats

One would think that I would be in a good mood. After all, our football team is off to a pretty solid start. It feels like we are back in the game, and that most definitely pleases me. Indeed, that is basically what I ask for as a Stanford fan. Let's be competitive, so we can let the excitement build through the week, so we can be proud of our guys, so we can hope. Every once in a while, let's win big, of course. But always let's be in the running. After the past two years, it feels like we are back in the game. That does indeed put me in a good mood.

But I am sick and tired of watching Stanford games and being blinded by sunlight bouncing off empty gold seats. This is starting to get embarrassing, folks.

Of course, I am all for a new or substantially renovated stadium. But that is not going to happen for a few years, at best. Let's keep pushing for it, but let's also realize that we have to do more in the short term, before a new stadium is (hopefully) authorized, financed, and constructed.

Let's do a better job of marketing our football team, also. Surely we can do more to get folks to our games. At a minimum, let's figure out how to get our own students to invest a few hours every other week. But we have to be realistic about marketing, also. Right or wrong, for whatever reason, folks just do not seem to want to buy tickets to our games. So even the world's best marketing plan (and we should settle for nothing less than the world's best at Stanford) is not likely to fill up those seats.

It is time for us to use some Stanford creativity to do something about this. When something is bothering us, we should try to figure out if there is anything we can do to help to solve it. Therefore, I challenge all Booties to do whatever we can to come up with ideas to get folks into those seats.

Sitting here in the middle of flyover country, living on the limited income provided by a teacher's salary, I realize that there is little that I can do directly. But, being a bit of a nut, particularly about all things Cardinal, I refused to give up that easily. So I tried to come up with an idea for a program that might help get some fans into the seats.

The remainder of this column, in the form of a letter to Drs. Hennessy and Leland, outlines the best idea I could formulate. It is not a cure all, of course. It might not even work. But I believe in trying something instead of just complaining. [I encourage you to come up with other ideas and to forward them to the Athletic Department, also.]

Of course, if I send this letter with my signature alone, it will promptly be classified as the silly ranting of a long forgotten (okay, make that "never noticed in the first place") unimportant alum and tossed into the circular file. While that, of course, might still occur even if several of us sign it, perhaps a friendly suggestion letter from a group of Stanford fans might at least generate a few moments' worth of consideration. One never knows. All one can do is either (a) complain about the darkness or (b) try to light a candle, even if the effort may be futile.

Therefore, if any of you think this idea has any merit, I would be pleased to add your names to the bottom of this letter before I mail it. [Also, of course, if you have any ideas about modifying the letter or its proposal, please send those via the bulletin boards.]

If you are willing to "sign" this letter, please send a short note to my Bootleg ezInbox (MizzouCard). If you want to sign the letter, include your (actual) name and address, along with any Stanford designation, e.g., "B.A., 1984" or "Stanford football parent" or "Season Ticket Holder since 1967" or "Buck/Cardinal Club Donor" or whatever.

Unless cooler heads here convince me that this is an absolutely horrible idea that I should not even bother forwarding to the powers that be, I will send the letter, with the signatures of all who would like to "sign" it, in about a week or ten days. I will mail a copy to each person who "signs" it. [This, of course, means that your name and address will be shared with all of those who sign the letter. I do not believe in anonymous letters. If the Founding Fathers could sign the Declaration of Independence, we can sign a letter like this.]

Dr. John L. Hennessy       Dr. Ted Leland
Office of the President    Athletic Director
Building 10                Arrillaga Family Sports Center
Stanford University        Stanford University
Stanford, CA 94305-2061    Stanford, CA 94305-6150

Dear Dr. Hennessy and Dr. Leland:

We are lovers of Stanford who are also Stanford football fans.

As noted below, we have various ties to Stanford. Some of us are current students. Some of us are alumni. Some of us have sons who are members of the team. Some are fans who have been rooting for Stanford for years.

As loyal Stanford football fans, we are excited about the current team and its success on and off the field. We congratulate you on this success.

Frankly, though, we are also a bit discouraged. In game after game, far too many seats in Stanford Stadium are empty. It is difficult to walk into the Stadium or, for those of us who no longer have that privilege because we now live far from the Farm, to watch a television broadcast of a Stanford game and see sunshine bounce off row after row of unoccupied seats. More importantly, we worry that our football players, and those who might consider becoming our football players, are themselves at least a bit disheartened by the empty seats.

Therefore, we encourage you to continue to do whatever you can to market our program to potential new Stanford football fans, including Stanford students. Also, we hope that you are seriously consider renovating Stanford stadium to make it a more fan-friendly, modern sports arena with a reasonable seating capacity that can be reached with some frequency.

However, we realize that neither marketing to potential ticket buyers nor stadium renovation will eliminate empty seats in the foreseeable future. Therefore, we would like to propose a new program that could put additional Stanford football fans into thousands of seats that will otherwise go unsold and unoccupied. As outlined below, we believe this plan will have the added benefit of generating good will for Stanford in the Bay Area and beyond.

The Program: A Synopsis

The basic idea is this: Let's give away some of those seats. Not to just anybody, though. Instead, keeping with Stanford's educational mission, let's use free seats to motivate students to learn.

At our current capacity, there are about 25,000 seats that will go unsold, regardless of marketing efforts, for almost every game, with the exception of Big Game and some Notre Dame games. So block out 25,000 seats, presumably in the end zones, for the "Leland Stanford Junior Scholars Program."

To qualify to become a Stanford Junior Scholar, a student would have to be named to the honor roll in the previous school year. Every student from a participating school who is named to the honor roll would be sent a Stanford Junior Scholar identification card. That card would entitle the student to attend any Stanford football game free.

Suggested Program Details

Of course, you would have to tailor the program to make it work at Stanford, and you and your staffs know more about how to make such a program work than we do. Nonetheless, we do have a few suggestions for your consideration.

1. Geographic Reach: We suggest offering this program to schools throughout the Bay Area. Every Stanford Junior Scholar might indeed decide to take in a game and, perhaps, to bring along a friend or a parent. While many of your Stanford Junior Scholars from distant parts of the Bay Area might not be able to attend many, or any, games, those students would still obtain a connection to Stanford that will benefit the University and its sports teams. As you know, our University and its sports teams do not enjoy much support from non-alumni in the Bay Area. A program that reaches out to them when they are young enough to still be developing loyalties to teams might help to develop some non-alumni support.

You might even allow otherwise qualifying (i.e., honor roll) students who are not from the Bay Area (or not from participating Bay Area schools) to contact Stanford to join the Leland Stanford Junior Scholars program.

2. Target Age Group: Consider offering this program to anyone in grades one through twelve who was named to an honor roll in the previous school year. If you think it is important to separate the young kids from the older kids, designate one end zone for the younger kids and the other for the older kids.

3. Transportation: Of course, you would need to get your Stanford Junior Scholars to the Farm. We have a few ideas there. First, to encourage parents to drive, let any Stanford Junior Scholar purchase a five dollar ticket for the Scholar's parent. Let the Junior Scholar buy tickets for siblings or friends for the same price, so that parents can bring their whole families or their child's friends. Second, let any adult accompanying three or more card-carrying Stanford Junior Scholars into the game free. In addition, provide a parking area that can only be used by vehicles transporting three or more Stanford Junior Scholars.

4. Reaching Economically Disadvantaged Children: Of course, not every Stanford Junior Scholar knows an adult who owns a car or van to drive to the Farm. Here is where the beauty of this program, but also its hard work, kicks in. Send Stanford buses, vans, or other vehicles to schools in economically disadvantaged areas like East Palo Alto to drive your Junior Scholars to the game. Encourage Stanford students to volunteer to chaperone these students as a community service project. If you do not have enough Stanford student volunteers, let students at other Bay Area colleges, especially those without football programs, volunteer for this duty. Providing students from those schools with an opportunity to see Division I-A football and simultaneously earn the right to put the wonderful word "Stanford" on their resume should generate significant interest from students at other colleges.

5. Encouraging Attendance: To encourage attendance by Stanford Junior Scholars, you could establish a program that rewards those who attend regularly. For example, perhaps for the semi-annual Big Game, you would only be able to offer 5,000 Stanford Junior Scholar seats, instead of 25,000. Award those seats to the Junior Scholars who have attended the most games in the past two seasons, as determined by scans of their Junior Scholar identification cards at previous games.

6. Tailgate: Part of college football, of course, is tailgating. Consider setting up a special Stanford Junior Scholars tailgate tent before one, some, or all game(s). Arrange for educational presentations by Stanford faculty members and students. Once a year, have the tailgate after the game, so Stanford coaches and football players (as well as athletes from other sports, perhaps) can stop by to thank their younger fans. These young men are a great asset to our University. They could do a lot to solidify the good will generated among kids and their parents by the Stanford Junior Scholars program.

7. Newsletter/Website: Create a newsletter or website for Stanford Junior Scholars. Be sure to include not just items about Stanford athletics, but also educational items from Stanford professors.

Advantages of the Program

As we see it, the Stanford Junior Scholars Program would have the following benefits.

1. Increasing Attendance and Fan Support: First, of course, it would increase the number of fans supporting our football team. The new fans would be mostly young people. Young fans tend to be the most enthusiastic fans. Stanford Stadium could use as many enthusiastic young folks as we can cram into the place.

Dr. Leland, we remember that you are a believer in "Big Hairy Goals." We encourage you to take this approach to this program. We are not suggesting a program that puts a few hundred extra fans into the first few rows of end zone seats. If that is all that can be accomplished, perhaps the program is not worth the trouble. We encourage to set a very high goal of tens of thousands of extra fans in the end zone seats.

Indeed, we suggest this Big Hairy Goal: Make Stanford the university (and, for that matter, the football team of any kind) that gives away the most tickets to football games. Then brag about doing just that. Contact the folks at Guinness and see if we can set a world record for giving away tickets.

Our excess seating capacity is a problem, but the Junior Scholars program can turn that problem into an advantage. Perhaps no other university could "afford" to give away 25,000 seats. With our excess seating capacity, we can. Let's take advantage of that opportunity!

2. Promoting Academics: Both of you have spoken about your legitimate concern that athletic programs sometimes diminish academic programs at many colleges and universities. Here is a program whereby an athletic program can be used to promote academics. After all, to qualify for a free ticket, a student must study and perform well in school. Also, through Stanford Junior Scholars tailgates, newsletters, websites, etc., we can use students' interest in athletics to promote learning.

3. Creating New "Alumni": As you know, one of our main football rivals is supported by a large group of "subway alum" fans who never attended that university. At Stanford, our support from non-alums traditionally has been rather minimal. With the Stanford Junior Scholars program, we would create a group of students (and some parents) who have ties to Stanford. Even though most of those students will ultimately attend other colleges, many of them could also remain loyal to Stanford throughout their lives.

4. Contributing to the Community and Generating Good Will for the University: Frankly, many "non-Stanford" residents of the Bay Area are not very fond of us or, at least, not as fond of us as we would like them to be. Some believe that we do not care enough about the Bay Area and its residents. While we realize that this is an unfair characterization of an institution that has probably contributed more to the Bay Area than any other, perception is important. With the Stanford Junior Scholars program, Stanford would be making a direct contribution to the well-being of the Bay Area. Efforts to bring students from economically disadvantaged parts of the Bay Area would be especially critical here.

Doing good is more important that being known for doing good. Even if nobody ever writes a single newspaper story crediting Stanford for contributing to the education of students in the Bay Area, this program will indeed be doing just that. But we are confident that Stanford's contributions will be recognized.

We realize that, like any other program, this one has its disadvantages. For starters, there might be some revenue lost from giving tickets to those who would otherwise purchase them. However, given the small crowds at many of our games, we must sadly conclude that lost revenue would be minimal. We are hopeful that increased concession sales would more than make up for this minimal lost revenue.

The out-of-pocket costs of this program probably would be a bigger hurdle. However, a corporate partner for the program might help to defray some expenses.

Finally, whenever a program like this is started, there is some risk of failure. If only a few students take us up on this offer, it will have minimal effect. However, we believe this is a risk worth taking, because of the potential benefits of the program. Stanford has been built into a world class university because we have been willing to take risks.

In the end, we believe that the Stanford Junior Scholars program has the potential to turn a problem—empty seats at Stanford Stadium—into a unique advantage for our beloved university and its football team. If you decide to implement such a program, we stand at the ready to do what we can to try to help you make it a success. Please do not hesitate to call on us.

We encourage you to implement this plan for the 2005 football season.

Thank you for your consideration of this proposal. Best wishes for continued success with the world's finest university and its athletic program.



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