Bridging the Gap Between UW Football and its Fans

Heading into the California game this past Saturday, it stood to reason that we would see enhancements to the fans' game day experience at Husky Stadium. After all, over a year has passed since Todd Turner assumed control of the athletic department at the University of Washington. Certainly that would be enough time for small changes to be implemented. During the embarrassing loss to the Cal Bears, however, it still felt like we were mired in the neglectful days of the Barbara Hedges era.

Never mind the dreadful performance on the field, we have no choice but to wait and see if Tyrone Willingham can turn the program around. What was massively disappointing was the dreary stadium ambiance which reeked of the same old tired routine. Turner raised ticket prices this year, but has done nothing to improve the game day experience for his customers.

Meanwhile, due to the airtight seal put around the football program since Tyrone Willingham became coach, the fans don't know the players, and their interest in the team continues to wane. Information often seems to be choked off. For all intents and purposes, practices are closed. By contrast, at USC, the alums and LA celebrities attend Trojan football practices. It is an event unto itself. The followers of USC feel involved and close to the team. They revel in the rich tradition of that powerful football program. The peripheral attention doesn't seem to be distracting the Trojan players. In fact, it undoubtedly adds to their swagger, being the center of attention. USC's athletic department, meanwhile, isn't hurting for donations, even during their .500 seasons from a few years back.

But not in Seattle. There is a frightening and growing disconnect between the Huskies and their fan base. Furthermore, young people aren't taking to the Dawgs. It showed itself to me in a small way the other day, when I was playing basketball with some guys in their late teens and early twenties. Out of curiosity, I asked them if they were going to watch the Husky-Bear game on TV. "The Huskies are sorry, I don't watch them," was the gist of their comments.

In Turner's defense, several people within the athletic department have commented on how organized and efficient things are running with him in charge. His integrity is touted far and wide as impeccable. But the fan base is feeling neglected and taken for granted. They are seething with frustration, and I am not sure that Todd Turner is hearing them.


In recent weeks, the athletic department has been calling Tyee members with a survey consisting of about fifteen questions. Those being questioned were supposed to give an indication of how willing they would be to fund projects; ranging from luxury suites to a remodel of the Don James Center. In the words of one anonymous Tyee member, "They asked me that if they were offering luxury suites, would I be willing to buy one? They were phrasing it in a way that was trying to appeal to the social prestige of it. But you know what? I've been giving them a lot of money for many years, and I don't need to give anymore just to feel prestige." Another well-heeled Tyee member said, "I feel like the athletic department is asking a lot from us. They raised ticket prices, and I understand the need for that. And I understand that we can't always have a winning football team. All programs go through down cycles. But I spend a lot of money on this and I feel a little taken for granted."

The fans that interact on Dawgman.com's message boards are sounding off too. A Dawgman member going by the moniker "DevilDawg" fumed publicly in a thread discussing Todd Tunrer's raising of ticket prices. "I pulled in yesterday morning and find out its 40 dollars to park your RV and tailgate. Are you (bleeping) kidding me? You're gonna just rape the fans that show up early every Saturday… I'm pissed. Between my 6 tickets, of which two were given away at the gate for free, we spent $330 on tickets, $40 on parking, another $110 to fuel up the RV and had another $150 on food and beverages and that's not including the $30 I dropped inside the Stadium on concessions. That's almost $700."

A guy named T90Dawg commented on his seating section this year. "All new faces around me this year nor did I try to upgrade. A group that sat in my area for the last several years aren't there and at least one of them gave up his seats (I ran into him in Centralia and he said the price increase decided it for him). Had two Cal fans sitting next to us where last year it was Husky fans."

Finally, a fan named PRedoubt chimed in. "(With the score) at 49-17, I started to do the math as to what it was costing me to sit there. I almost puked."

Winning football games, of course, will ultimately determine whether the program is financially successful. In another era, the foundation to Mike Lude's success as Washington's athletic director was the 1978 Rose Bowl championship. But there are models out there to make the best of UW's situation, until things improve on the field.

The appeal of college football is the energy of young people and college students. People in their forties, fifties and sixties love to connect with that energy and of remembrance of their college days. Todd Turner needs to treat Husky football more like a retail business. He can look partially to the Mariners as an example. Part of the reason kids love going to Safeco Field is because there is a lot to see and do, and eat and drink. As a result, those kids grow up feeling connected to the Mariners and loving baseball.

Here are some other ideas for the Huskies to consider: Sell tickets for $5 in the Fun Zone, or donate them to the Boys and Girls Clubs. Get Harry the Husky over there, and throw some beach balls into the crowd to be batted around, and do things to show the kids a good time. (It won't bother the Tyees, as they don't sit near that section.)

Offer discount ticket packages to affluent workers at Microsoft (with discounted advertising for XBox, etc., in the game programs.)

Instead of having an elderly gentleman leading the dog out of the tunnel, instead utilize a couple of the best-looking cheerleaders.

Enlarge the size of the marching band and create an environment where the fans can't wait to see them perform. Provide them with bright and well-pressed uniforms, and severely polished instruments. Show a pride and range demonstrated by the likes of Ohio State's and Michigan's bands.

I remember former UW director Bill Bissell's bands in the 1980s playing lively songs like "Angel in a Centerfold" from the J. Geils Band, and the student section leaping to its feet and going nuts. In turn, the student section's liveliness energized the whole stadium. I also remember the crowd laughing and enjoying a game played on Halloween, when the band came out dressed up as ghosts. The fans loved this. (These days, the band will do a tribute to Star Wars, and the disinterested masses will head for the restroom or yap on their cell phones.)

Todd Turner should lease some kiosks where entrepreneurs can sell different kinds of foods- like Indian, Thai and Italian. And bring back those field goal kicking contests at halftime between two fans; get the crowd involved, as each contestant can represent one side of the stadium. Whichever contestant wins, the side of the stadium they represent gets 50-cent hot dogs (or something like this.)

And a quick aside-- Get the Husky players involved with the community and connect with Seattle-area kids. I remember the thrill as a 10-year old, being the captain of Chuck Nelson's team at the Husky summer camp—we were known as "Nelson's Nuggets."

Finally, open up the practices and cater more effectively to the Tyees. Bring back elements of the Husky Hunters program that Coach Baird has affectionately written about and discussed. Encourage involvement with affluent people in their thirties and early forties, to one day replace the older generation that continues to be the epicenter of donations. Endeavor to make all the contributors feel like they are working with the program. Don't just arrogantly raise ticket prices.

Most of these ideas are inexpensive, and would help bridge the chasm between the team and fans. After all, if the fans are going to have to endure several more dreary games like the one against California, why not make it as lively as possible?

As one of the anonymous Tyee members said, "I never thought I would say this, but I can see myself canceling my season tickets in another year or two, if it continues like this."


Derek Johnson can be reached at midnightjazz@msncom

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