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Thursday, May 16, 2013
B1G ADs focused on game-day upgrades

By Adam Rittenberg

CHICAGO -- The Big Ten is steeped in history and tradition, but the conference needs something more to connect with the target audience of football recruits and regular students.

It needs to be cooler, especially on game days. And whether it's perception or reality, many don't view Big Ten football as very cool at the moment. Legends and Leaders certainly didn't help. Neither does the continued absence of November night games. The league still boasts amazing venues and plenty of pageantry, and programs have seemed more open to new marketing tactics, whether it's alternate jerseys (hated by some traditionalist fans, incredibly popular with recruits) or more prime-time games.

But something is lacking. Coaches, such as Ohio State's Urban Meyer, have noticed it. So have Big Ten athletic directors.

Whether it's more night games, night games in November, larger scoreboards, better Wi-Fi service, stronger acoustics or broader concessions, the Big Ten has to do more.

"Part of that is to make the league be perceived in reality what it is, and that's a little bit more hip, a little bit more cool," Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis told ESPN.com. "I have three kids that are age 14, 18 and 20, and they're a great resource for me to bounce ideas off from a Michigan State perspective. But I think we need to take that as a league a little bit as well.

"It's not your grandfather's conference any more. There's so much greatness and so much tradition that needs to be continued and talked about, but also try to add a little unique freshness that's unique to young kids."

TCF Bank Stadium
Even Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium, the Big Ten's newest football arena, isn't the gem planners intended when students don't show up.
Hollis is one of the most innovative athletic directors in the country, masterminding events such as outdoor hockey at Spartan Stadium and a basketball game on an aircraft carrier. Last winter, he proposed playing four simultaneous basketball games at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Veterans Day.

And yet even Hollis has seen recent examples of young people tuning out on game day, such as last fall when Michigan State hosted Iowa on a dreary day in East Lansing.

"One of our biggest no-show rates in football was the Iowa game," Hollis said. "And I'd go out and walk the streets and start talking to kids, 'Why didn't you go?' And they said, 'We couldn't text because it was raining.' They couldn't have their phones out.

"That kind of hit me pretty hard."

Michigan State put in new massive video scoreboards at Spartan Stadium last year, but Hollis knows he needs to do more. Part of a $20 million renovation to the stadium will include some new restrooms and concession stands at the north end of the stadium. The addition also will include a recruiting room.

"We need to make sure we continue to deliver in our venues what's being delivered, and then some, on television," Hollis said. "What's that going to look like? A more comfortable place. It shouldn't be a hassle. … We're putting in more bathrooms, we're looking at a $2 million Wi-Fi system that allows more interaction. We're going to have to deliver wider seats, more comfortable seats. It's making our concession stands more presentable."

Student attendance for early kickoffs has been a problem at places such as Michigan and Wisconsin. Michigan AD Dave Brandon this week called student turnout "unacceptable," and coach Brady Hoke is offering free doughnuts to all students who show up before noon kickoffs this fall.

Minnesota has the Big Ten's newest stadium but still struggles to get students to show up in droves.

"They're the centerpiece of the fan experience," Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague told ESPN.com, "so getting them there changes everything that goes on. We're a new stadium, so we have an unbelievable video board. A lot of the problems that plague other stadiums, we don't have. Our [public-address system] is perfect.

"We've got to do more and more, but our top priority right now is student attendance."

Teague had a group from Minnesota's Carlson School of Management study student attendance at the school. They found that students want a gathering place before games, so the school is providing an entire parking lot near the stadium, Teague said, which will be monitored.

The recruiting component also can't be ignored.

While many interpreted Meyer's post-signing day comments to a Columbus radio station as a direct shot at the recruiting efforts of other Big Ten programs, his fellow league coaches viewed it more as a call to upgrade the game-day experience during the fall.

"It was more, how can we continue to further our brand? How can we make our in-game experiences improve? How can we make our pregame experiences improve?" Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the coaches met in February. "All those things in the vein for our fans, the game-day experience of Big Ten arenas and for recruiting."

Indiana athletic director Fred Glass has made football game days a priority since his arrival, adding more night games, a kids' area in the south end of the stadium and other features. Attendance is on the rise, but Glass is still seeking ways to make upgrades.

He turned down Adidas' offer of new uniforms for IU's men's basketball team in the NCAA tournament, but would be more open to a wardrobe shakeup for the football squad.

"More highlights, more scores, more fun, coloring outside the lines a little bit," Glass said. "We'll play to our strengths -- the band, the cheerleaders, the pageantry of college football, flags and color, engagement of students -- and spent a lot of time really trying to enhance that. That's not only a great thing for our fan experience, it translates into the cool factor for recruits who come in."