Monday, October 30, 2006

UH's attendance problems, and why complaining won't solve them

Last Saturday I went to Robertson Stadium to watch the the University of Houston Cougars host Conference USA opponent Central Florida. The weather was great, the tailgating was excellent, and the game was exciting. The Cougar defense struggled mightily, giving up a whopping 530 yards to the Golden Knight offense, and the Cougars found themselves down by a score of 17-21 at halftime. But the Coogs stepped up in the second half; the UH offense took advantage of a UCF defense that was equally abysmal to score 34 points, and the UH defense, for all their troubles, managed to make a crucial third-down stop and create a turnover in the fourth quarter to seal the win. The Coogs won, 51-31, and exacted revenge against a team that beat them last year. With the win, the Coogs improved to 6-3 on the season and clinched bowl eligibility.

The worst aspect of the game, other than the horrible defense, was the poor attendance. Only 13,242 showed up to see this game, and the complaining from the Coog faithful (that is, the ones that actually show up to the games) continues to reverberate on message boards and blogs across the city two days later. Even the campus newspaper has gotten into the act, angrily suggesting that the high-school-like turnout is the reason why the University of Houston is derisively known as "Cougar High." Houston Chronicle sports reporter Michael Murphy, likewise, has also been very critical about attendance at UH football games; he called the turnout of 18,154 for the UTEP game two Saturdays ago "a joke," "dreadful," and said that "UH fans should be embarrassed;" following this past weekend's game, it appears that he (as well as many die-hard Coog fans who read and respond to his blog) are even angrier (read all the comments, if you have the time).

As somebody who has attended UH football games since I was born, who regularly drove back to Houston on weekends from places like Austin and Denton just to see the Cougars play, and who even delayed my flight back to Dubai last month by a couple of days just so I could catch another UH game, the fact that so few people bother to show up to see this team play troubles me greatly. Cougar football has always struggled to draw decent crowds, and over the years I've joined other UH fans on various message boards in writing volumes about Cougar football's attendance problem and ways to possibly fix it. I've even devoted an entire page to the problem on my website.

Why does an institution that has been around since 1927, has produced about two hundred thousand alumni during its existence (most of whom live in the Houston area), has an enrollment of 32,000 students, and is in a metropolitan area of 4.5 million people draw so poorly? Last year the Coogs just barely avoided falling below the NCAA's Division I-A attendance cutoff of 15,000 fans per game, and while this year the Coogs should fare slightly better due to the decent turnouts for Oklahoma State and Grambling, the draw of only 13 thousand fans for an important conference game on a beautiful Saturday afternoon is nevertheless as baffling as it is depressing.

As I noted on a previous post about the Coogs and their attendance problems, the causes of UH's inability to put fans in the stands are many. Some of these factors (or as many angry diehard UH fans would say, "excuses") are related to the team's on-field performance, while others are related to structural factors associated with the University of Houston and the metropolitan area as a whole which have nothing to do with the team itself. Some of them are perfectly valid. Some of them are essentially ridiculous. But they all, collectively, contribute to the reality of the University of Houston's attendance problems.

To list the reasons that are most often given:
  • the program's poor performance over the last fifteen years has caused a lot of people to "give up" or to otherwise ignore the program;
  • Houston is a "fair-weather" or "front-runner" city whose sports fans only support teams, pro or college, when they are winning;
  • much of the local population is made up of transplants from other parts of the country or the world that have little to no interest in the local schools;
  • the Coogs' membership in non-BCS Conference USA causes people to perceive the program as an inferior, "second-tier" product and therefore ignore it;
  • the University of Houston's status as a "commuter" school with a large "non-traditional" student population and its relatively small number of students living on-campus creates an apathetic student which, in turn, becomes an apathetic and unsupportive alum;
  • local sports fans are not interested in watching teams they've never heard of, such as Central Florida or Alabama-Birmingham; they are only interested in attending UH football games when a "marquee" opponent (e.g. Texas, Miami, Oklahoma State) comes to town;
  • the school's location adjacent to "a bad neighborhoood" (Third Ward) scares people away from games;
  • the local sports media does not cover the University of Houston to the same extent that they cover pro teams, Texas or Texas A&M;
  • the University of Houston administration does a poor job of supporting the program or marketing it to students, alumni and the region alike;
  • game times conflict with work, family or personal obligations, reducing the number of people able to attend the games;
  • people would rather stay at home and watch football games (UH or otherwise) on TV than travel out to the stadium and be at the mercy of the elements; and
  • there is simply too much competition for the entertainment dollar in a place as large and as diverse as Houston.
Many of these factors (or, if you must, "excuses") are, like it or not, legitimate. I do believe that the University of Houston's status as a so-called "non-traditional" or "commuter" school, with a small on-campus population and a relatively large percentage of older, foreign and part-time students, creates a smaller pool of supportive alumni than does a university with a "traditional" student population. It is absolutely true that Houston is, by and large, a "fair-weather" sports town that only supports local teams when they are winning. (Don't believe me? Ask the Rockets.) And the problem regarding Conference USA's perception as a second-tier conference is a very real factor as well; the exclusionary nature of the Bowl Championship Series, as well as the amount of coverage the national sports media gives to the six BCS conferences (as opposed to the five non-BCS conferences) creates a perception that non-BCS programs like Houston are not "big-time" and therefore unworthy of support.

And, to be sure, some of these factors are being addressed. The University of Houston is preparing to unveil a new master plan that, among other things, increases the number of students living on campus. This, in turn, will hopefully increase the percentage of "traditional" students that are likely to support their school's athletics programs while they are at school as well as after they graduate. The Cougars, under Art Briles, are bowl-eligible for the third time in four years and the program is, on the whole, much more successful than it was under Kim Helton or Dana Dimel. Hopefully, by creating a program that wins with more consistency than it loses, the Cougars will attract some of the "fair-weather" fans to the stands (of course, following up an upset victory over Oklahoma State with an upset loss to Louisiana-Lafayette doesn't help).

Other factors are harder to address. There's nothing that can be done about Conference USA's perception as a "second-tier" conference except for the schools of said conference to collectively start beating the "big boys," finding their way into the top 25 rankings, and strengthing the conference's reputation. Given the tremendous resource and recruiting advantages possessed by the BCS schools over the non-BCS institutions, that's easier said than done. There will always be competition for the entertainment dollar in this city; this isn't Auburn or Tallahassee or Lubbock, where there is literally nothing to do on a Saturday other than watch the football game, and there are always going to be people who would simply rather spend their Saturdays at the Greek Festival, at the Renaissance Festival, at a movie or at a fishing pier than at a football game. Among those who are willing to spend their weekends watching football, it's a simple fact that the University of Houston (and, for that matter, Rice and TSU) faces fierce competition from "big-time" schools such as Texas and Texas A&M as well as the pro offerings of the Texans (and I'm not the only local blogger who understands this). And I'm afraid I just don't have an answer for the tens of thousands of apathetic UH alumni who live within 50 miles of Robertson Stadium yet don't bother to attend the games. If they weren't involved as students (and many of them weren't, for whatever reason), then chances are they're just not going to be involved as alumni.

Some of these reasons for non-attendance are less compelling. While I'm sure that the 2:30 kickoff time for the Central Florida game was a problem for some people - I'd personally have a hard time attacking somebody for not going to the UH game because the early kickoff interfered with his child's soccer game - the fact is that every school in the nation faces a similar situation. I'm sure kids play soccer on Saturdays in Ann Arbor or Knoxville, too, yet there's still 100,000 people in those stadiums on a given Saturday regardless of kickoff time. Anybody who considers themselves a UH fan but who decided not to see the game just because the Coogs were playing Central Florida (as opposed to a BCS school like Oklahoma State or a school with a famous band like Grambling) ought to be ashamed of themselves; the team should be able to count on their support regardless of whom they're playing. And I am especially annoyed by people who would rather stay home (or go to a bar) and watch the game on TV than attend the game in person. Last week some woman even logged on to coogfans.com to complain about the fact that the Buffalo Wild Wings in Rice Village wasn't showing the UH game on TV when the actual game was being played only five miles away! Unbelievable! And, while local coverage of UH sports could be better, blaming the local media such as the Houston Chronicle for Houston's attendance problems is little more than a pointless exercise in scapegoating.

But whatever the reason for poor attendance at UH football games might be, and whatever validity or weakness that reason might have, there is one absolute fact: continually whining about the attendance problem will not solve it.

Over the past couple of weeks, I've read a great deal of angry teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing about the Coogs' ongoing attendance problems on various Houston Cougar online forums. People have written about how angry, disgusted and embarrassed they are about their fellow UH fans. People have blasted the university administration for not supporting the athletics department and the athletics department for not promoting the game. I've seen posters call out the generic "apathetic alumni" and "apathetic students," blaming them for the program's attendance woes. The inevitable "if we don't draw better we're going to have to drop football"-type posts have appeared. In short, I've read a lot of bitching, moaning, whining, crying, griping, fussing and complaining. And while I agree with the sentiment, and while I'm sure that it's cathartic for the "true" UH fans to get their frustrations off their chests by blasting the "untrue" fans, the simple fact is that not one bit of bitching, whining or complaining is going to solve the University of Houston's attendance problems.

As a wise old fan on one of the UH athletics message boards said last week, bitching about attendance never put a single butt in any seat. All it does, instead, is reinforce the cloud of negativity that continues to hang over this struggling program. I'm sure assistant coaches at universities that compete with the University of Houston for high school recruits have been working overtime over the last couple of days, scouring the UH message boards on the internet and cutting and copying every angst-ridden diatribe about Cougar football attendance that they can find, in hopes of using the words of its own fans against the program ("see, attendance at UH games is so bad it's all Cougar fans can talk about!") as the fall recruiting season heats up.

What I'd like to see, rather than the constant barrage of complaints, are some reasonable suggestions as to how to get more people to come to the games. For example, the apathetic students and alumni: it's hard to convince people such as these to attend UH sporting events if they have no interest in doing so, and shaming them into attending (for example, by telling them how much they suck if they don't support their school's athletics programs) is not likely to acheive positive results. So how do we entice them to come to the games and to support their own school's football program? Maybe we tell them about the wonderful tailgating scene that's evolved since games were moved from the Astrodome to Robertson Stadium, or that Art Briles' offense is as exciting and as unique as you'll see anywhere in college football, BCS schools included. It's easier to attract flies with honey than vinegar, after all.

Over the last day and a half, I've seen an encouraging grassroots effort begin to develop on at least one UH athletics message board; posters are discussing ways to invite family, friends, neighbors and co-workers to this weekend's game. Sample e-mail texts to send to "lost sheep" are being posted for review and replication; some posters are planning to paper the campus with flyers, people are comparing notes as to how many "extra" people they'll bring to this weekend's game. Some fans are looking for solutions to the attendance problem, and, regardless of how many extra fans their efforts might result in attracting, their efforts are better than the endless complaining.

I will always be concerned about UH's attendance struggles, but I've come to accept the fact that complaining about them will not solve them. I cannot control who goes and who doesn't go to the games; I can only control my own actions. So, I go to as many games as I can. I bring extra people to the games when I can. And I take comfort in the fact that, however great UH's attendance problems might be, I am not part of them. I ask for other UH fans to do the same.

If you have any interest in University of Houston athletics, and if you can make it to this weekend's game, I humbly suggest that you do so. The Coogs will be kicking off at 2:30 aganist last year's conference champion, the University of Tulsa Golden Hurricane. Tulsa has a solid team which finds itself parked just outside the top 25 in both the AP and USA Today polls. Unless the Cougars host the Conference USA championship game, this will be the last time prolific, record-breaking senior quarterback Kevin Kolb steps out onto the Robertson Stadium grass. The weather is supposed to be good. The pre-game and post-game tailgating, I promise, will be excellent. Come check it out; the team needs your support, and you might just be surprised at how much fun you have.

I'll be there, whether you are or not.

3 comments:

Mike said...

How much do they charge for a walk-up ticket? Would they rather have 15,000 butts in seats and not have to suffer the indignity of charging $3 for a walkup? (If so, I got no sympathy).

Thomas said...

Ticket prices for most home games range between $25 for sideline seats to $14 for endzone seats (with prices as low as $10 for children). Large group seating packages offer tickets as low as $7.

While I think these prices are generally reasonable, I myself wonder when the athletics department will start pulling out all the stops, e.g. offering the $5 ticket promotions, etc.

Mike said...

They clearly should have done so a long time ago; because that's still too pricey for me to drag my family out (if it were in our neighborhood). And it's clearly too pricey to drag out people around there too.

I have little patience for complaints about empty seats when the management clearly hasn't tried to lower the price. See UT basketball the first few years I lived here; they'd rather have thousands of empty seats than let people in for a couple bucks for the low-demand OOC sacrifices - losing out on guys like me who aren't UT alums but would go watch basketball (or football) if the price were right.