- Jake Trotter, ESPN Staff Writer
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Coming soon to a college football stadium near you: interactive phone apps, live pregame locker room footage, concession stands filled with food from local eateries.
And plenty of Wi-Fi.
With college football fans choosing the HDTV home experience more and more over going to games, schools everywhere are stepping up the fan experience to lure them back to the stadiums.
“We want to make sure that the fan experience in the stadium is better than the experience at home on your couch,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said. “That is a significant challenge. Obviously television does a great job. So you’re competing against that a little bit, and competing against a lot of other things as well.”
The national epidemic of declining attendance, most troublingly among students, has spurred athletic departments across the country to get creative in improving their football stadium fan amenities, while also investing heavily in the most obvious of solutions.
“If you take a photo of fans in any stands, a high percentage of them will have their heads down on their phones or iPads or whatever,” Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said. “To keep fans in the stands, you have to keep up with the technology, so they can continue to use those things in the stadium.”
Concerned by the decline in national college football attendance, the Big Ten last year formed a game-day experience subcommittee, which found that boosted cellular service and Wi-Fi availability throughout a stadium was paramount.
Previously, Penn State was the only Big Ten program with stadium Wi-Fi. But this summer, Wisconsin announced it would be spending $6.2 million to install a Wi-Fi network at Camp Randall Stadium for the upcoming season. Earlier this year, Nebraska's regents approved $12.3 million for a Wi-Fi and sound system project for its stadium. Ohio State and Illinois could soon have Wi-Fi capability in their stadiums, as well.
“We’re looking at technology overall,” said Smith, who chairs the subcommittee. “We’re encouraging schools to get Wi-Fi if they don’t have it, so their fans can have access to that second screen.”
Because of the cost, only a handful of schools have committed to putting Wi-Fi in their stadiums, but many more have moved forward with enhancing the cellular service.
“We live in this social media world in which people want to be connected and want to converse during games,” said Kirby Hocutt, athletic director at Texas Tech, which recently installed a digital antenna system at Jones AT&T Stadium. “It’s important to be able to send and receive messages inside the stadium.”
But while offering Wi-Fi and better cell service might be the two biggest components to getting fans back to games, schools are hardly stopping there.
Smith said that this season leading up to kickoff, Ohio State will begin showing live shots on its video board of the Buckeyes prepping for the game in the locker room. It also will be airing behind-the-scenes footage of the players, such as team meetings at the hotel on Friday nights.
“Things you won’t be able to see at home,” Smith said.
Others are attempting to create stadium-exclusive experiences.
Baylor will be introducing a phone app for its new McLane Stadium, which is coming equipped with Wi-Fi, that will allow fans to rank game highlights that would then be shown in order accordingly on the video board.
“We wanted to be very interactive, as far as capturing the interest of younger fans,” Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw said.
McLane will also have unique tailgating experiences by land and water. As with the stadiums at Tennessee and Washington, McLane will have a boardwalk connected to the Brazos River, where fans can “sailgate” before games. Elsewhere, fans will be able to tailgate on top of the turf from the old Floyd Casey Stadium.
“Our priority when we set out on this new stadium was to try and create the best fan experience in college football,” McCaw said.
In the past, new stadiums and renovated stadiums usually also would have meant bigger stadiums. But many schools are prioritizing their money toward making their stadiums better, not just bigger, for their fans.
This week, Oklahoma will put a proposal before its regents that would pour millions into completing the bowl on the south side of Memorial Stadium. The Sooners have a school record 92-game sellout streak, but sources have told ESPN.com that the project will aim to create better and more comfortable seating throughout the stadium, as opposed to substantially increasing its seating capacity of 82,000.
At Iowa State, regents have already approved plans to complete the bowl in the south end zone of Jack Trice Stadium. But even though the Cyclones have set single-season average attendance records the past two years, the capacity hike figures to be a modest 6,000, so the stadium will hold roughly 61,000.
“We really think it’s going to make the stadium more intimate and really capture the atmosphere for the fans,” Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard said.
Pollard said school officials have also discussed constructing a walkway before the 2016 season that would go over the main road east of Jack Trice, and connect the stadium entrance to a primary tailgating area.
“We would dress it up where it would be a fun place to tailgate,” Pollard said. “It would also get fans off the road and to their cars a lot quicker and safer.”
Through a $450 million renovation, Texas A&M is in fact significantly expanding the capacity of Kyle Field from about 82,500 to more than 100,000. But as part of the renovation, the Aggies are also doubling the number of women’s bathrooms. And they’re developing a phone app that is supposed help fans deal with traffic around the stadium.
Even schools that aren’t building or renovating stadiums are developing ways to augment the fan experience.
Associate athletic director Jesse Martin said Oklahoma State is adding video boards to its concession areas so fans can watch the game while they’re still in line.
Wisconsin will have 700 TVs around its stadium this year, and beginning this season, its concessions operation will offer food from local restaurants.
“You come to Madison, you want to have a brat,” Alvarez said. “Well, we’re going to take one of the best brat shops in town, and put them with our concession stands.”
West Virginia began selling beer inside Milan Puskar Stadium three years ago, and this year, athletic director Oliver Luck said, the stadium would begin selling wine.
Hocutt noted Texas Tech recently offered a payment plan to its season-ticket holders. And according to Rutgers athletic director Julie Hermann, the school, in its first year in the Big Ten, will begin opening their RV lots a day earlier so people can go in the night before the game if they want.
“When people come to High Point Solutions Stadium, we want to give them as great an experience as we possibly can,” said Hermann, who added that she already is talking with local transit authorities about the best ways to funnel people out of the stadium parking lots so they don’t have to wait as long in New Jersey traffic.
New fan amenity ideas are still being hatched.
“We’ve got people brainstorming all the time,” said Alvarez, who added Wisconsin officials have discussed the possibility of creating a phone app where fans could order gear from the team shop and have it delivered to their suite during a game.
Smith has been intrigued by the possibility of implementing a college version of NFL Red Zone, giving Ohio State fans the ability to watch key plays from around the Big Ten or even the country while waiting for the Buckeyes' game to start.
“The NFL shows Red Zone on its video boards,” Smith said, “and we’ve been thinking about how we could do something of that nature.
“We have to think differently and try some things. If we do six things, and only two stick, then great. We won’t do the other four. That’s kind of where we are. There’s no science to this. But it’s about thinking outside the box and finding ways to make the experience in the stadium better than staying at home.”
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