Bedlam on a budget?

As Oklahoma and Oklahoma State prepare to square off in the annual Bedlam battle, fans are taking a hard look at what they spend to attend college football games.
by Jenni Carlson Modified: December 4, 2013 at 10:23 pm •  Published: December 4, 2013

Walk across Athletic Avenue south of Boone Pickens Stadium on game day, and you're sure to find the orange and black plastic flamingos.

And once you do, you're sure to find Jimmy Ritter.

The Oklahoma State University alumnus is always there tailgating under four tents — three orange, one black, all with “Cowboys” somewhere on them — before going to the game. He has been at all but two games since he and wife, Cara, bought season tickets three years ago. No matter the opponent. No matter the weather.

No matter the cost.

On the final week of the regular season, fans across the country will flock to stadiums one last time, including in Stillwater where a big crowd is expected for Bedlam, subfreezing weather be damned.

“We're kind of those crazy, passionate OSU fans,” Ritter said.

Ritter lives in the Kansas City suburbs, so he spends nearly $800 every time he attends a game — and that's on a weekend when he's lucky enough to stay with family.

As committed as he is to paying the price of attending games — he also sacrifices his whole weekend to go — Ritter is at the intersection of the battle that athletic departments are waging to draw fans to their stadiums. Next season, he's cutting back and attending only three games, a trend that he sees continuing.

“Depending on who the games are (against),” Ritter said, “we'll probably do the same thing the next year.”

National statistics indicate the Ritters aren't alone and that fewer fans are willing to pay the cost of going.

The downturn has not hit our state's biggest schools, quite an accomplishment considering the increasing lure of the Thunder. But neither the University of Oklahoma nor Oklahoma State are assuming their run of good teams and big crowds will continue. In Norman, a review of the stadium and game-day experience is underway while in Stillwater, a firm has been hired to improve in-game technology available to fans.

Officials at both schools know they're in a competition for fans' entertainment dollars and time.

“What you would like to think is the value of game day in Stillwater or Norman ... far exceeds the price of that ticket,” OSU athletic director Mike Holder said. “As long as, in that fan's mind, he agrees with you, then you're probably going to win the battle.

“But when it tips the other direction is when you're going to see some real erosion in the fan's willingness to make that trip, make those sacrifices.”

Some already have passed that tipping point, punting season tickets and taking their chances with Stub Hub if they want to go to a game. Others are passing on going to games altogether. As the price of everything in and around the stadium rises and television broadcast quality improves, there are more and more people who are choosing to stay home.

***

Wink Kopczynski grew up such a big Sooner fan that OU was the only school that he applied to out of high school.

He arrived on campus the same time as running back sensation Adrian Peterson.

“So, it was an exciting time for the program and the university as a whole,” Kopczynski said.

He missed only one home game during his time at OU and even made the trip to Dallas for the OU-Texas game all but one year. He sat in the student section with a bunch of his Phi Delt brothers. He loved every minute of it.

His love for the Sooners hasn't waned.

His attendance has.

Since graduating in 2009, he and his wife have traveled from Tulsa to Norman two or three times a year for a game. They make a weekend of it, seeing their family and friends, eating at their favorite restaurants and visiting their favorite haunts.

But as much fun as they have, they can't commit to going to every game.

“We aren't that far from Norman,” Kopczynski said, “but life just gets in the way.”

They know they can watch the games in high definition on TV — and likely see things that they aren't able to see when they're in the stadium — and there are some opponents that just don't fire them up.

Louisiana-Monroe? Tulsa?

Pass.

“It's hard to justify spending a lot of money on tickets, gas, food ... for a game that you know will be over by halftime,” Kopczynski said.

There always have been issues that keep fans like Kopczynski from attending more games, but technology has altered the equation. Secondary ticket markets such as StubHub.com give fans an alternative to buying season tickets and provide single-game tickets. Home entertainment systems are improving all the time. Getting cheaper, too. And social networking sites such as Twitter have taken the in-game community of fans to the virtual realm.

You still can complain about an official's call — just keep it under 140 characters.

Schools are trying to figure out what can be done to counter those changes.

At OU, a comprehensive review of the stadium and the game-day experience launched earlier this season. Much like the last time it did a similar review a decade or so ago, OU athletic director Joe Castiglione expects to uncover a wide range of needs from fans.

Will the stadium need more chairback seats? Better concessions? Easier access?

“We're trying to appeal to a very diverse audience,” Castiglione said, “and we want to make sure we're thinking about every single thing.”

Even though Castiglione isn't sure what changes the review will ultimately recommend, there is one aspect of the game-day experience that is largely out of his control.

TV.

Used to be, games were rarely broadcast. Even a really good team might only be on television a few times a season. Now, just about every game played by every major-conference school is broadcast.

That is because of multibillion-dollar deals between networks and conferences.

As part of those contracts, the networks can wait until as few as six days before a game to decide the kickoff time. They want to see what matchups are biggest, then put the best one in prime time and slot the others accordingly.

Not knowing game times until a week before the game can be tough on fans trying to plan other events. Everything from weddings to youth soccer games can be affected.

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by Jenni Carlson
Columnist
Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football...
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