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On Expansion and Empty Seats

UNC returns to Kenan this weekend, after two weeks on the road. Since demand for this particular game seems pretty low and falling, we can expect continued complaints about the low attendance at home games this season. Attendance isn't off very far from last season's average, but with the opening of Blue Zone there are more empty seats than before. This has led to fan amount of criticism, like this article from Jonathan Jones a few weeks back. But unfortunately, it doesn't really grasp the reasons why the stands aren't full. Jones suggests the following:

If the reasoning is the heat, then I ask: Isn't it always hot this time of year? If it's in protest of UNC's decisions regarding the program, then I ask: Don't you know you're only hurting the players?

And if it's because James Madison and Rutgers aren't strong opponents, then I beg: Look at the rest of the schedule.

Before I begin, I should put it out there that I attended every Carolina game for five years, and nay broke that streak when I took a job that required my presence on Saturdays. Since I left the state, first for California, then D.C. I've only made the occasional game I've been able to travel for; about one a year, sometimes two. You may consider me part of the problem, being unwilling to travel six hours or so seven times a year. In which case, you're probably not going to like the rest of his post.

Fans aren't staying away because of the heat. And while there may be a tiny minority protesting Butch Davis's firing – probably the same folks that were flying pro-Davis banners over the stadium last season – they're not the problem. They're rabid fans who have just traded love for hate, and will be back sooner or later.

No, the people not coming to the games don't have a reason for their absence; they're just not there. Some of that's the scandal, true. Fans associate themselves with their teams, and they don't want to be as much a part of something in the news for allegations and investigations week after week. They don't stop showing up out of protest, they just find other things to do. And yes, here the quality of opponents plays a part. Enthusiasm is going to be as strong for a game against James Madison, or 2-2 Louisville. This isn't going to matter to the faithful; they'll attend regardless. It's the edge cases, a few years removed from college or the area, who suddenly have kids, or job responsibilities, or other things pressing for their time. They're the ones who aren't going to be swayed by an afternoon seeing UNC play Rutgers, when if anything they can catch the game on an HDTV in the living room.

Hectoring these fans isn't going to bring them back. In fact, it's a little insulting, as are the tropes coaches seem to fall back on about how hard the players are working. They are working incredibly hard. But there are a host of other athletic teams at every university working just as hard for an audience of tens, not to mention the countless students giving their all for orchestra performances, academic talks, and many other things you can attend on a college campus that don't get broadcasted on ESPN. Football is a revenue-generator for a lot of schools, and berating the people that finance it just seems spiteful. Coaches and universities set their schedule strategically, in part to include what they believe will be easy wins, both to improve their team and ensure their continued employment. But you can't complain when fans decide they don't want to show up for a game designed to have a foregone conclusion.

It's interesting that for years the NCAA strictly limited the number of televised games (at one point as low as eleven per year) because colleges were afraid TV viewing opportunities would cut into gate receipts. This eventually backfired when 61 schools decided to deal directly with the networks, leaving the NCAA with no money from football broadcasts today. (Instead, they're financed almost entirely by the NCAA basketball tournament, and are too cowed to challenge the bowl postseason by instituting a playoff there.) Now however, the increase in television quality and the availability of every game, at least locally, may cut into attendance. As does the restrictive broadcast rights further afield. Ever try to follow Carolina football from the west coast? You have to work pretty hard. How much easier is it to just pay attention to other things?

The two big draws of college football, for fans of most teams, are success and tradition. Every team chases the former, and quickly fires the coach that can't achieve it. The latter seems to be disregarded entirely, though. I'm sure a lot of college presidents are weighing the options of conference realignment through a lens similar to the one Nate Silver used a few weeks ago – how many fans in certain markets can you add by picking this team over that one. It assumes that the fans each team brings along are a fixed quantity, assets to be weighed. But people are destined to be fans of a college team; they're drawn to it, whether it be by memories of their own time at college, or the appeal of seeing a particular game, season or even uniform at an important point of their life. It could even be just moving to a new place, or marrying into a certain family, where you just adopt the interests of the people around you. 

But you can drift away just as easily. Is Texas A&M football the same without a Thanksgiving game against Texas every year? Will the South's Oldest Rivalry be the same to UNC and UVa fans if expansion makes it the South's Oldest Sporadically Played Game? The diehards, the ones reading the blogs and following along with every expansion rumor, they'll still remain. But the guy who grew up outside a Charlottesville but was a UNC fan because of one big win, one year? Is he going to care as much if the Heels don't see UVa but some of the time? Are a couple of fans going to see N.C. State versus Syracuse on the schedule and think there's a lot of projects he's been needing to do around the house? After all, the Wolfpack and the Orangemen are going to compete for a major bowl this season. He can always catch them in a couple of years.

People have very specific associations with their favorite teams. They can wax and wane, depending on successes, surroundings, or just whatever else is going on their lives. These aren't fair-weather fans; that's the term for the guys who actively avoid a team unless their at the top of the game. This is different; this is just life. You can't a shame a stadium into being full, you can only try the best you can to be a football team people want to see. Don't blame the fans.