Tuesday, April 15, 2008
Updated: February 24, 6:49 PM ET
College Football: Spring's Got Game Now
By Tony Guadagnoli
Special to ESPN SportsTravel
• Photo gallery: College football spring games
Gas tanks are being topped off. Ticket scalping is in full force.
Hotels in Columbus and Lincoln are selling out, some requiring a minimum two-night stay.
And folks all around Happy Valley are bringing out their new recipes, updated barbecue grills and latest tailgate gear.
Geez, is it that time already? Yep, sure enough, football is in the air
spring football, that is.
As the old saying by former Longhorns sports information director Jones Ramsey goes, "There are two sports in Texas, football and spring football."
But now you can include the entire South and much of the rest of the college football world.
From Gainesville to L.A., universities all over the country are using spring games as the perfect interlude between bowl games and fall practice to feed the appetites of ravenous fans. TV executives and potential recruits also are paying attention.
"I just think it's the overall popularity of college football," said Karl Benson, Western Athletic Conference commissioner. "TV ratings are up across the country. The college football fan base is expanding."
Nebraska's spring game slated for Saturday at 81,067-seat Memorial Stadium has sold out, according to wire reports. Alabama put 78,200 fans in seats for its intrasquad game last weekend. More than 60,000 people witnessed Florida's spring game, LSU attracted 33,624 spectators and 23,306 showed up for the Oklahoma tilt.
Indeed, schools are parlaying their regular-season attendance successes into blossoming springtime fanfare.
Of the 119 major college gridiron teams, 24 averaged 100 percent capacity or more during the 2007 regular season (led by Oregon at 109 percent at Autzen Stadium) and 40 averaged at least 95 percent capacity. Average attendance has increased every year since 1996.
Spring games and drills have been around for some time run 40 scripted plays, limit contact, give third-stringers a chance to play and call it good. But now these "glorified practices" are becoming events unto themselves.
Most schools have their spring games broadcast on TV and radio or at least made available to fans via streaming video or Web casts.
ESPN's popular College GameDay crew was in attendance at a spring game for the first time Saturday and broadcast live two hours before the start of Florida's annual Orange and Blue Debut at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville.
Besides the on-field action, which also was telecast live by ESPN, the Gators afforded fans a player-autograph session, the Fastest Gator on Campus contest and a formal unveiling of a stadium sign for quarterback Tim Tebow's Heisman Trophy.
This Saturday, the Big Ten Network will broadcast a 3½-hour spring football showcase from Chicago with live look-ins from the afternoon's slate of conference spring games.
This tide turned (where else?) in Alabama. The 2007 A-Day Game in Tuscaloosa drew 92,138 fans, setting a national record. (Many more were turned away at the gate.)
"People love spring games, particularly in the South, for several reasons," said Tony Barnhart of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, whose Mr. College Football blog is immensely popular.
"It's a long time between the end of the season and the first game in August and September," Barnhart said. "The spring game serves as their 'fix' in that long drought without football. It is a celebration of the return of spring
a good excuse to get outside and do some tailgating -- not that Southerners ever need an excuse.
"If there is new excitement in the program, the spring game serves as an early kickoff to the season. That's why 92,138 showed up in Tuscaloosa last April."
Some bigwigs were so impressed with Alabama's turnout that they decided to turn spring intrasquad games into multiday festivals, headlined by major music stars.
The Gridiron Bash had hoped to conduct concerts the day before spring games on 16 campuses and have fans compete for a $1 million general-fund scholarship for their schools. But the Gridiron Bash was axed after colleges became concerned that having current players participate would violate NCAA rules.
MSL Sports Entertainment, the producer of the Gridiron Bash, cited last-minute glitches by the NCAA for postponing the event, but the NCAA disputes that.
"MSL Sports Entertainment, the organizers of the event, elected to postpone the concerts of their own accord, and not under the direction of the NCAA," the NCAA said in a release. "We never expressed any concern with the actual event being conducted as scheduled, but only with the participation of student-athletes as part of the for-profit event."
The NCAA does not allow football players or any student-athletes to receive free concert tickets not available to the rest of the student body.
The Gridiron Bash idea may be revisited in the fall, but it's spring that's got game now.