Stanford Football has all the trappings of an easily marketable team this year – a top ten ranking, a Heisman candidate quarterback, the only two-way starter in the NCAA, and a charismatic coach. Yet, the athletic department has struggled to fill all of the seats in Stanford Stadium this season.
The problem glared when Stanford couldn’t muster a sell-out against #13 ranked Arizona in a game broadcast on national television. Erin Andrews, ESPN’s star sideline reporter, made it to Palo Alto for the game, but whole sections of red seats were left vacant for the Cardinal’s 42-17 thrashing of the Wildcats.
ESPN blogger Ted Miller noted the lackluster crowd in his Pac-10 column: “The Stanford football revolution will be televised, which is good because not a lot of people are bothering to see it live.”
Stanford’s only sell out this year was on October 9 against USC, a figure that was largely due to an influx of visiting USC fans.
Some have contended that the Cardinal’s recent history of poor performances may be contributing to the attendance struggles. When Jim Harbaugh was hired as head coach in December of 2006, the Stanford Football program was in tatters. The Cardinal was coming off a 1-11 season and attendance woes were not a priority.
The sentiment around the program was that fans would start showing up again at the newly renovated stadium if Harbaugh produced wins. Four seasons later, the Cardinal is headed to their second straight bowl game, perhaps even a BCS game, but the attendance is still lagging.
Harbaugh, who is usually tight-lipped with the media, lashed out after only 36,379 fans showed up for the homecoming game against the Washington State Cougars.
“Our fans didn’t even bother coming to the game today,” said Harbaugh.
Tom FitzGerald, who covers Stanford sports for the San Francisco Chronicle thinks that Stanford’s poor attendance will contribute to Harbaugh’s eventual decision to leave the Farm for a more traditional college football powerhouse.
Harbaugh played quarterback at Michigan, where the “Big House” routinely attracts more than 100,000 fans. A total of 113,090 fans showed up for this year’s home opener against Connecticut after the Wolverines won only five games the year before.
“Frankly it’s bewildering that they can’t sell out,” said FitzGerald. “And it’s not that the Bay Area doesn’t love college football. Cal is drawing great crowds year in and year out.”
And the problem doesn’t seem to have much to do with ticket pricing. The cheapest ticket at Cal’s Memorial Stadium costs $51, while Stanford fans can get into a game for only $12.
David Vargas, Stanford’s director of football marketing, attributes Stanford’s struggles to a small, spread out alumni base and the Cardinal’s poor play in the pre-Harbaugh era.
Vargas estimates that there are approximately 50,000 Stanford alumni living in the Bay Area. “If every alum in the area showed up,” said Vargas, “we would barely just fill up Stanford Stadium (capacity 50,000) and that’s an unrealistic expectation.”
Stanford Football is also forced to contend with a myriad of sports entertainment options. There are two MLB teams, two NFL teams, an NBA team, and an NHL team in the Bay Area.
“We’ve had somewhat of an inconsistent product over the years,” said Vargas. “And there are many entertainment options in the Bay Area, even beyond sports.”
This inconsistency manifested itself under Cardinal Coaches Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris. The team won only 16 games from 2002 to 2006, giving fans little reason to cheer. In 2006, Stanford was winless at home, scoring only 33 points all year in front of its home fans.
Vargas thinks that Stanford lost a huge chunk of its fan base during this era of losing, and that it will take time to recapture people.
FitzGerald, however, was not so optimistic. “Something is wrong,” he said, “If they can’t sell out this year, I think it’s out of reach.”
In addition to trying to sell more tickets and attract new fans, Stanford’s marketing department is trying to convince the people who do buy tickets to show up to the game.
Vargas pointed out that the North End Zone of Stanford Stadium, which is usually half empty on game day, has actually been sold out for every game.
He suspects that the rise in the number of televised games has demystified the live-attendance experience. “You can watch the game live on TV at home or on TiVo,” he explained. “And there’s not a tremendous drop off when you’re sitting on the couch compared to being at the stadium.”
“But that’s on us,” he said. “It’s our job to promote the collegiate football attendance experience. That’s why a lot of our television and radio ads focus on selling the Stanford game day experience.”
It’s unfair to compare Stanford to other top ten teams like Oregon and Auburn, which attract 59,000 and 87,000 for every conference game. Stanford has only 6,878 undergraduates, which makes it tough to build a huge fan base.
It is hard to pinpoint a model football school for Stanford to emulate. Northwestern and Duke are similarly sized private institutions, but neither have a rich football history. Notre Dame and USC have huge, loyal fan bases, but neither seem to be a realistic example for Stanford.
Both schools have won eleven national titles, and USC has the luxury of playing in a huge city, Los Angeles, that has no NFL team, making them the only show in town.
In 1999, when the Cardinal qualified for the Rose Bowl by winning the Pac-10 with a 9-3 record, Stanford distributed 51,000 tickets per game. This year only 40,000 tickets per game have been sold.
However, Vargas points out that the strong 1999 attendance effort was bolstered by two marquee games – one with Cal and one with UCLA. He noted that this year’s schedule included only one such game, the early season matchup with USC.
When Harbaugh was hired, skeptics wondered if it was possible to build a successful football program at Stanford in the modern era. They said it was too hard to recruit with Stanford’s tough academic requirements and that it was impossible for such a small school to compete with the likes of USC, Cal, UCLA, and Oregon.
Harbaugh has proved them incorrect thus far, but has been confronted with the possibility that the most difficult part of coaching at Stanford is getting people to show up. Stanford’s football product is phenomenal, but the Bay Area still isn’t buying it. Can a fan base be built? Only time will tell.