- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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It's not surprising that Big Ten athletic directors spent part of their meeting last week discussing football attendance, a growing concern despite the sport's surging popularity.
The real surprise: How much the ADs focused on a group whose devotion to gamedays rarely is questioned. They're the folks with the shortest commute to stadiums, discounted tickets and the most direct connection to the team on the field. And yet they're showing up less and less, even in regions where football resonates the most.
"How many stories were written this fall about student attendance?" Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas asked during a recent interview. "Even SEC schools like Alabama, we're talking about a drop in attendance. In 2012 and 2013, that was the difference for us, our student numbers.
"How do you get the students engaged?"
It's a question Big Ten athletic departments are asking, whether their schools are seeing tangible drop-offs in student attendance or maintaining strong Saturday turnouts.
"That's your next generation of ticket buyers," Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke said, "so you better be paying attention."
Some Big Ten student sections have as much tradition as the teams for whom they cheer. The Block I at Illinois just completed its 103rd season. The Block "O" at Ohio State celebrated its 75th anniversary this past fall. Penn State's Nittanyville often is rated as the nation's No. 1 student section.
But almost every Big Ten school is examining how to get students to show up for games and stay until the end. Images like this and this and this have become more common. Iowa reduced its student section size by two sections last fall after sales dropped and no-shows rose.
Some challenges are local, whether it's ticket prices at Illinois or early kickoffs at Nebraska or pricing and seating structure at Michigan or tailgating space at Minnesota. But there are common issues that are getting attention, particularly from the league's newly established football gameday experience subcommittee.
"For students, something like Skull Session at Ohio State or the Tunnel Walk at Nebraska or a Whiteout at Penn State, you're never going to be able to replicate that anywhere but the game," said Big Ten associate director Kerry Kenny, the liaison to the committee. "Those types of things obviously help drive attendance and keep people interested in coming back, but it's that other piece, of how to make that experience a total immersion in the game."
Technology is part of that piece, and Big Ten schools are either implementing or exploring total stadium Wi-Fi and cellular service upgrades. Students are avid social-media users, and many would benefit from stronger in-stadium coverage.
Jake Bradley, director of football operations for the Block "O", said it's nearly impossible to communicate between the two student areas at Ohio Stadium -- at the North and South ends of the facility -- because cell service is poor. While improved coverage would be nice, Big Ten student section leaders don't think upgrades would have a dramatic effect on turnout.
"Being able to text and get on Instagram in the stadium is very difficult," said Kurt Hansen, who oversees the Block I at Illinois football games. "There are so many people on their phones. But do I think it makes that big of a deal? No."
The bigger issue at Illinois, aside from the team's on-field struggles, is the pricing structure. There's no difference between standard student tickets and Block I tickets. Because the Block I charges an additional fee for the perks it provides for students, the overall cost becomes higher.
Prices also have been an issue at Michigan, which switched from seniority-based seating to general admission seating last season in response to declining student attendance (26 percent absences in the 2012 season) and late arrivals.
Early kickoff times also present a challenge in the Big Ten, especially for schools located in the Central time zone. Although Wisconsin hasn't had a decline in student attendance, according to associate athletic director Justin Doherty, it's typically a late-arriving crowd.
Steve Dosskey, president of the Iron N student section at Nebraska, said students often don't filter in until 15-20 minutes after kickoff because they're at off-campus tailgates. (Nebraska's campus is dry.)
"People usually get there, but we have a difficult time filling up the student section by kickoff," Dosskey said. "Naturally, we're going to have better attendance for the [2:30 p.m.] and for the prime-time games."
Purdue used to spend half the season in the Central time zone, and Burke admits, "I feel for the schools that have 11 o'clock kicks. That's really hard."
Tailgating opportunities are very much on students' radar. Minnesota provided a new tailgating area for students before the 2013 season, and the Block I holds tailgates before each home game.
"Let's face it: Most college facilities don’t sell alcohol," Thomas said. "Do you lose kids because they'd rather go down to the local bar and hang out with their friends? That does affect some of us to some extent, but [selling alcohol is] not a place we're considering going."
One place more Big Ten schools seem to be going is more attractive nonconference schedules, which could boost student turnout.
Nittanyville president Brian Sanvido saw more empty seats for a September game against Eastern Michigan. Greg Licht of Iowa's Hawk's Nest noted that sweltering heat and an FCS opponent (Missouri State) kept students away for a Week 2 game.
"The tailgate scene in Iowa City is pretty prevalent," Licht said. "If there isn't a big-name opponent or students don't have a reason to see the opponent, they'll stay outside."
The Big Ten still has plenty of places where attending football games is woven into student culture. Penn State students take great pride in Nittanyville's ratings, camping out before games and filling the stands behind one end zone.
"You feel like you've affected the game," Sanvido said. "Students latch on."
But not as much as they used to, so Big Ten leaders are paying attention.
"There's so many options for our young people," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said. "The demographic is changing; their interests are changing. We have to respond."
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