Every Stanford fan I know practically had an aneurysm when they heard Jim Harbaugh’s critical comments about fan support. We know that Jim Harbaugh will someday leave Stanford, and by someday we don’t mean in Joe Paterno years. No, it will likely be sooner rather than later. But it would be terrible to lose Harbaugh because of something within our control, i.e. attendance. If a Notre Dame or a USC or an Alabama (hypotheticals all, of course) happened to come calling, then whatever. I could deal with that. But I’d hate it to be because of something that seems to be within our control. Particularly when it would seem that the old verities about Stanford football have been swept away so dramatically and so quickly by Jim Harbaugh’s regime: contrary to common belief, Stanford football can play tough, Stanford football can recruit well, Stanford football can finish close games. So I decided to undertake a study of Stanford football’s attendance, to see whether Stanford football does, in fact, have a problem when it comes to fan support. Though the raw attendance can’t tell us why these statistics are the way they are-they can’t tell us if we happen to have Cal and Notre Dame scheduled the same year; they can’t tell us about the economy-they can give us a small clue about the state of Stanford football fan support. I’ve decided to start with 2006, the first year of new Stanford Stadium. If anyone can find data prior to 2006, I’d be grateful. (Source is cnnsi.com. The data are available if you e-mail me at datahir AT stanford DOT edu)
The numbers are disappointing. There’s been a decrease in Stanford football’s fan support over the history of its stadium. In 2006, the announced fan support was 41,742 per game. 2007: 39,332.125 (It’s very disappointing when eighths of a human are your fan base—you never want ghouls/specters as your fanbase). 2008 so far: 31,403. Now, you might note a critical problem with this study, which is that certain opponents are more anticipated than others. Every other year, Notre Dame and Cal are at home, or USC is at home. Moreover, we haven’t played those anticipated games—only USC this year—yet, making it an unfair comparison between previous years and this year. So I’ve automatically excluded those teams, plus any teams that were ranked at the time of our playing them. I’ve also thrown in the September, 17 2006 stadium opening as a special event. The new averages: 2006: 38,439; 2007: 35,527; 2008: 31,403.
Now, some people have thrown out a “lag” theory, which is that it takes about a year for the results of last year to be figured into fans’ expectations, and, hence, their attendance. So, as this theory runs, the gate receipts were punished in 2007 for the 2006 team’s sins. Well, according to this theory, we should be doing great in 2008, what with the resounding wins over USC and Notre Dame, and yet our announced attendance continues to suffer.
It could be that Stanford football is systematically lying about its announced attendance figures: in 2006, so the theory runs, the school wanted to make its shiny new stadium seem like a success, and so they announced figures that were maybe a little higher than they actually were. That’s a plausible motive, I suppose, but I have no proof to support it, so it must be rejected.
No, I think the real explanation is very simple. Quoth James Carville, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Credit cards are defaulting, retail sales dropped off a cliff like they were Wily E. Coyote, and the less said about industrial production, the better. Silicon Valley doesn’t seem to be avoiding the malaise so far. And, however much you love football, you have to admit that food and home come above taking your kids to a game.
Well, you might ask in response, how come other college stadia are still selling out this season? I saw the Niners and Raiders on TV last Sunday, so they must’ve sold out, right? So what’s special about Stanford? I think there’s a plausible counter to this. Basically, Stanford has been so mediocre and so bad for so long, and its alumni base is so relatively small, that going to Stanford football games isn’t a tradition; it’s a discretionary thing to do. Michigan fans, Notre Dame fans, SEC football fans, (insert other team here), all of them have been rooting for their teams for years, and probably their parents have been rooting for them too. There isn’t the same broad tradition for Stanford football. I’m sure some people have been rooting for Stanford football like that, but because of Stanford’s relatively small size, they can’t fill Stanford Stadium on their own. Furthermore, because of Stanford’s national reach, otherwise interested alumni will find themselves living in New York or Chicago or LA or someplace. In other words, Stanford will find it structurally difficult to attract fans.
Unless, of course, it can hook the casual fan and turn the casual fan into a diehard. Unfortunately, the path for this looks difficult because of the economy, because, by definition, going to the game is discretionary for the casual fan. Therefore, Stanford football must wait on the good graces of the economy to get better. Knowing Stanford football’s luck—no, I don’t mean Andrew Luck—Jim Harbaugh will be coaching in the NFL by the time the economy turns around.