After leaving Ray Jay Thursday night, where a ranked USF team on ESPN won by 36 points against last year’s conference champion in front of 16,797 people, there was more consternation about the lack of support for a quality football team than ever.
But this here website has popped off annually on USF attendance basically since we started doing this. So writing another screed vilifying USF fans and administration seemed pointless. There’s plenty of blame to go around about, and all parties involved are responsible.
Everyone has a solution for the USF attendance problem. Most of them have been tried before, and all of them are in my Twitter mentions. But there is no quick fix. It’s a culture that has to change, from the administration to the alumni to the current students.
I’ve spent the past three days talking to everyone I think has a valid opinion on USF attendance, and how to solve the problem. Donors, administrators, city leaders in Tampa Bay area, former employees, students... everyone.
Absolutely none of those people wanted to go on the record. There is a level of terror about crossing USF’s administration by those in and out of the university community that is almost North Korean.
So I took what I learned and put it here.
What USF Can’t Control
- When you play back-to-back weeknight games against mediocre opponents, your attendance is going to suffer no matter where you are. 98% of college football wouldn’t have sold out the last two games either. Attendance is down nationally, and in a competitive sports market like Tampa, it makes things even tougher. The AAC needs to help out USF here: no more than one weeknight home game per conference team.
One season ticket holder: “There’s too many season ticket holders with too many kids to make that work. You’re not getting your kids to bed after midnight for Temple.”
But everyone agrees that it shouldn’t be this bad, and that the relationships aren’t being built for the future. And unless some drastic measures are taken soon, it could be bad for Cincinnati in less than three weeks too. Remember: ECU for Homecoming last year drew just 16,585.
- The home schedule doesn’t offer a lot of marquee names to the casual fan. Wisconsin should have been playing here this year, but they asked to move it back. You can’t make Power Five schools come to Ray Jay. And if you give them terms that are too favorable in terms of two-for-one scheduling or rebates, your hurt yourself financially.
- The American’s best teams still don’t have tremendous name ID outside of Navy and Houston, and this season’s game against C. is on the road. We knew this was going to be a bad schedule, but USF couldn’t do anything about that.
What USF Can Control
- USF Athletics has had four development directors in the last four years. The staff in marketing has been turned over multiple times as of late. And that’s not just for external relations, but across the department. College athletics is a transient industry, but not this transient. And the churn has affected the ability to design and implement a plan.
Plus USF is just weird. Since the start of the program, fans have been coddled by an inclusive, fan-friendly infrastructure. For years, when Bulls patrons were supporting just a men’s basketball team, those that were a part of the “family” received a level of service and support from Athletics that was unusually kind for a school competing at a high level.
But when subsequent athletics leadership has tried to take stewardship like that away, as is sometimes necessary when an organization grows, some fans have rebelled and felt excluded.
- Yes, USF fans are entitled. And with their feet and wallets, they’ve shown they’ll stay away if you don’t make them feel special. That is the reality. But when you do entitle them, they will show up and support your program wholeheartedly. See 2000-2010.
Last year when we went to student organizations, we found out the problem was even worse than we thought. It seems many of those same challenges are still around. They’re trying, but it’s a relationship that has to be built peer-to-peer, 365 days a year.
A couple USF staff people tell me they think it’s ridiculous that USF has to ask students to go to games. But when USF has done that in the past, they had a lot more butts in seats than they do now. And everyone I’ve talked to agrees that a large student crowd makes the atmosphere at games so much better for everyone, including those in the paid seats.
But a significant majority of people I talked to said the problem starts with the president’s office, and a few pointed directly at Judy Genshaft. They said not enough is being done to get everyone bought in, from prospective students to current staff to young alumni to big donors. They said the level of commitment to building loyal students and alumni isn’t nearly big enough.
A donor asked: “Why isn’t every freshman University Experience class required to come to Athletics for a day and see what it’s about?”
One current USF staffer not in Athletics: “USF sends emails, they don’t build a culture.”
USF used to have marketing professionals solely dedicated to getting students to games. Bring them back.
- Several folks also pointed to the revised marketing structure when former Chief Marketing Officer Tom Hoof was brought in August 2013. He was given a wide berth to control the marketing and messaging for departments across campus, including Athletics.
Hoof was “non-renewed” in state employee parlance in May 2016 after his ideas clashed significantly with the president’s office. He was replaced on an interim basis by John Robinson, chief communications officer USF Health who acted as CMO for Athletics. By all accounts he’s a great guy, but he had no experience with sports marketing.
Hoof got quietly disappeared the way so many USF employees at senior staff level do, which is why as one person told me: “If you have a mortgage, you keep your mouth shut.”
Joe Hice, formerly of Enterprise Florida, replaced Hoof in the role a month ago. His Twitter avatar is fantastic. The reporting structure has been changed somewhat, but how that will affect future USF marketing is unclear so far.
- There’s also a belief that an overemphasis on selling season tickets, combined with a very weak home slate, makes marketing even tougher. Also, the new ticket plan implemented a couple years ago brought down the donation level for most ticket holders, but some that weren’t grandfathered in lost lots of priority. A few of them still hold a grudge.
- This will be debated by those on staff, but how much earned media is USF getting locally? Where is Charlie Strong at events in the area? Can players be sent to the mayor’s Food Truck Rally in downtown the week of games?
I can’t confirm this complaint. I don’t watch a ton of local media, and when I’ve looked at things like local news coverage of USF in the past... it’s actually better than UF, FSU, and Miami. Believe it or not, USF gets more coverage than those teams in this market, not less.
Also this is a common complaint of people who don’t see USF marketing reaching out to them, despite being huge fans of the program.
- Under the current ticketing structure, current alumni get 20% off. There used to be a program where young alumni paid as little as 25% of the gift associated with the ticket they used in their first year after graduation. It scaled up to 50% in Year 2, and 75% in Year 3. It might help get the new grads in the habit of going to Ray Jay.
Note: this is not a comprehensive list. It’s just things I haven’t heard ad infinitum previously from fans since 2002.
So What Can They Do?
If USF agrees this is a crisis, it should be all hands on deck for Cincinnati. Here’s what you need:
- Unyielding, unrelenting text messages and emails to students. Feel free to annoy them a bit this time. Show up in person at student organization meetings over and over until the game.
- Maybe even a statement from the president’s office about the importance of being a part of the USF community? How good the football team is, and how much they deserve the support of their fellow current students?
- As far as the sidelines, it might cost him some recruiting time, but Charlie Strong needs to be on local television during the bye week more than Gayle Guyardo and Reggie Roundtree combined.
- Publicly acknowledging that the attendance isn’t good enough, and that you’re not getting an on-campus stadium (and tacitly, a better conference) without an uptick in support from the seats might be a first step. You've got to admit there's a problem before you can fix it.
Will any of this happen? Who knows. But something has to change immediately.
And though much of the above is university-focused: the fans and alumni, even if none of the above gets addressed, have to just show up anyway. Because if you want to be a big-time program, you have to act like it as a fan base too. The day of the week is one thing, but if the game’s on Saturday, don’t complain about the kickoff time. All those last-minute kickoff time decisions didn’t stop you from buying tickets during the Grothe years and showing up whenever you were told to show up. Fans at big-time programs build their entire Saturday around the game, whenever it is. They don’t see if it will fit into their schedule.