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

It's a hassle.

Castiglione acknowledges as much. Any AD would. But without the $20 million that each Big 12 school receives annually from the conference's contracts with ABC/ESPN and FOX, OU and OSU would struggle to pay the golf coach's salary and provide the soccer team's travel budget and fund the dozens of other sports that they sponsor. Without that TV money, they would have to compensate by increasing football ticket prices to a level where it would be too expensive for nearly everyone.

More irony — big-time football schools need TV even as the high-definition broadcasts and the DVR technology are convincing more and more fans to avoid the traffic, skip the crowds and stay home.

But those in college football say they hold the ultimate trump card.

“We create that experience that can't be replicated anywhere,” Castiglione said.

Sooner and Cowboy fans were reminded of that last weekend. As their teams were on bye weeks, they got to sit home and feast on some of the best games of the season, including the game to end all games. Can you believe what happened at the end of that Auburn-Alabama game?

Who wouldn't want to be there?

Of course, there are some folks who would say last weekend was the perfect argument for staying home. You can watch every game. You don't have to pick just one.

“It's pretty compelling to sit home sometimes and watch it on television,” said Holder, the OSU athletic director. “We like to think there's no substitute for the atmosphere, the feeling you get when you're in the stadium.

“But that experience at home is getting better all the time.”

***

Holder wants to improve the in-stadium experience for Cowboy fans, and he believes technology is a big part of that.

OSU recently entered into a partnership with Sporting Innovations, a Kansas City-based group that is an offshoot of the Major League Soccer team there. Sporting Kansas City plays in a stadium that many consider the most technologically advanced in all of sports.

The team, for example, has an app that allows fans in the stadium to turn their smartphones into a DVR.

“They're going to be consulting for us over the next five years to try to help us better connect with our fans and then try to create more of a team atmosphere among our fan base and our actual football team, basketball team, whatever it may be,” Holder said.

He realizes that today Boone Pickens Stadium doesn't have the technological infrastructure to do what Sporting KC does, but he wants OSU to explore what can be done.

Kyser Thompson and Eric Bruno believe athletic departments must explore technological advances. They work for Now What, a market-research firm based in New York City that has been hired by the SEC to examine fan behavior, and one of the biggest shortcomings that they have detected is the ability for fans to stay connected in the stadium.

When they're at home, fans can use their tablet or smartphone, get on Twitter or Facebook and have that second-screen experience. At the very least, they can check on other games.

In the stadiums?

Not so much.

Big 12 schools decided before this season that they would show highlights of other games in their stadiums, but many of the highlights are old. And these days, that means they're a few hours old.

Fans want something closer to the NFL RedZone, an up-to-the-moment look at the day's biggest plays.

Providing in-stadium highlights was such a big deal to one NFL team that it considered using part of its new scoreboard to show the RedZone.

“These are fans who care about other games,” Thompson said, adding that will continue to be the case with the four-team playoff starting next season and teams continuing to jockey for position during the regular season. “You want to be updated. You want to know what's going on.”

In the short span of a couple years, being connected all the time has become an expectation of fans.

Another problem that Thompson and Bruno have uncovered is that college football fans feel like going to games is less of an experience than it used to be.

“When you put it against other sports, especially pro sports, college stadiums are not even really close,” Bruno said.

Time outs, fans have told them, are boring.

Some fans might disagree with that. Watching the pom squad or listening to the marching band or seeing which school has the male cheerleader who can hold up a girl the longest counts as entertainment to them. Same goes for seeing Bullet gallop or the Sooner Schooner run or the OU drum major lean back so far that the top of his hat nearly touches the ground.

Still, other fans want more.

“I feel like if they were to make it a full-on experience, a four-hour deal,” Bruno said, “then they could win more fans and they could actually keep people in their seats.”

***

Jimmy Ritter has few complaints about the in-game experience at OSU. Oh, he'd like better nonconference opponents and a better public address system.

“We spent all this money to build this ... ,” he said, holding a gray Solo cup in one hand and motioning with his other toward Boone Pickens Stadium rising above the parking lot across the street, “and we have a P.A. system that's awful.”

But really, none of that is what will keep him from going to every game next season. Cara always has wanted to go to New York City around Christmas, so they will save some money by selling half of their OSU season tickets. They've already decided which games they'll attend — Texas Tech, Iowa State for homecoming and Texas.

Ritter would love to go to every game because of the feeling he gets when he's in the stadium. He loves going to his seats in Section 224 and seeing the same folks, people who he doesn't know all that well but is best friends with for three or four hours on game day.

Yes, the cost of going is high, higher even than the Ritters expected when they first bought their season tickets.

“We thought you had your tickets, and you were good,” said Ritter, who graduated from OSU in 2009, a year after his wife. “Maybe it was because we were young and dumb ... you don't really realize how much you spend with all the ancillary costs.”

But still, the feeling that he gets on game day when he's in Stillwater surrounded by other Cowboy fans is something he knows he'll miss when he's not at games next season and beyond.

It's always worth every penny.


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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