In case you missed it, Saturday’s game between Stanford and Washington was a great one. Stanford outgained the Huskies by over 200 yards, but four Cardinal turnovers, including a fumble near the end of the first half that was returned for a touchdown, kept the game close. Every time it looked like Stanford was poised to take the lead, the Huskies came up with a big play. A 13-13 halftime score held up until midway through the fourth quarter when Washington’s failed fake punt led to the decisive Stanford score.
If you tuned in on television, you may have grumbled about the lack of scoring, but you were probably otherwise entertained. This was a classic college football game between two old school rivals – another great Saturday in the books.
The TV broadcast, however, likely hid a troubling reality: the stadium experience didn’t feel like college football at all, it felt like the minor leagues of the NFL. I’m sure Fox Sports 1 showed shots of screaming fans, chest-painted students, and dressed-up band members. They probably avoided shots of empty seats, corporate giveaways, or constant in-game advertisements.
When I visit games, I often focus on the positives. There are a lot of writers out there discussing the demise of college football – talking about how money and greed are transforming the sport. These writers have their place. You see the change everywhere – conference realignment, the addition of Thursday and Friday night games, the increased cost of tickets that are pricing long-time fans out. In part, I decided to go on my trip this fall because I feared the speed at which the game was changing. I was afraid that if I waited, I might miss the opportunity to see the raw spirit of the game before marketing departments seeking a profit turned tradition into a commodity. But my goal is not to unearth a scandal or lament about the golden ages of yesteryear. I’m trying to document a snapshot in time – what college football is like in 2014. Most of the time, it’s not hard to look past the corporate side of the game.
At some point in the first quarter, however, the business aspect became impossible to ignore. Every stoppage of play the booming voice of the PA announcer was describing some product I should be buying or event I should be attending. Advertisements ran throughout the game on two electronic displays that wrapped around the stadium. On key plays, I had to struggle to keep my attention on the field as ads for Boeing, McDonalds, Lexus, and others flashed on the screens. During one play, there were still camera crews filming some announcement on the ten-yard line when the play started. They ran off the field, hoping beyond hope that there wasn’t a turnover that caused play to shift their direction.
As I watched the Microsoft dance cam during one timeout, I started to make a list of the things that make college football different from the NFL. The list included visible factors like the band, the camaraderie of the crowd, and the adherence to age-old traditions. Those tangible factors are really just symbols of deeper, more meaningful differences: a sense that the game is a window into deeper pride for the school, a feeling of timelessness – that the alums and fans who came before you celebrated the game in a similar way, and an air of innocence that the goal of the game is above the quest for money.
The Washington experience featured little of the items on my list. The band was relegated to playing a few short songs every other timeout only after the advertisements had been announced. While the fans got loud at the right times – the stadium has overhangs flanking the field that help trap the sound, there was no coordination in their efforts, no camaraderie in their experience. The alums I met didn’t know the fight song. Even the stadium layout, which separates fans into distinct groups – upper and lower decks, student section, luxury boxes – added to the sense of individualism.
Don’t get me wrong. I love watching the NFL. In college, I had to enlist a friend to force me to the library on Sunday afternoons so that I wouldn’t spend the entire day on the couch. But the NFL is different. When I watch the NFL, I expect to be entertained. I can sit back, put my feet up and watch the best players in the world. I’m a viewer, not a participant. When the game is over, I switch to the next game. I spend half my time watching the stat tracker on the bottom of the screen to check in on my fantasy team.
College football offers something more – it offers the chance to be a part of something. If only for twelve Saturdays in the fall, we have the opportunity to step into a tradition bigger than ourselves. The power of the shared experience binds people together. I still get chills thinking about the first time I heard 112,000 people sing “The Victors” at Michigan Stadium. Without the camaraderie and passion for the traditions that surround the game, college football becomes a less athletic version of the NFL.
I expected to find a tense atmosphere on Saturday. This was the opening game of the Pac-12 season and the first real test for the Huskies. When I planned the trip a few weeks ago, the cheapest tickets were going for $50. By kickoff, people were selling tickets for whatever they could get – trying to fill the hundreds of empty seats that dotted the stadium. Walking around the grounds beforehand, I saw plenty of Husky fans, but I also saw a lot of Seattle Seahawks apparel. This wasn’t the highlight of the year. With the Seahawks on bye, it was just the next best thing.
With seven minutes remaining in the second quarter, a line began forming to enter a tailgating area within the stadium grounds. When Shaq Thompson returned a fumble recovery for a touchdown in the waning moments of the half, thousands of fans had already left their seats. At halftime, the only people who stayed to watch the band perform were the students who risked losing their seats if they left.
When the game ended, there wasn’t the sense of dismay that I found at South Carolina or the depression that I’ve felt at Michigan. There wasn’t the humility of Iowa fans or the ability to put things in perspective of the people at St. John’s. There was nothing. Sure, a few people were muttering about the play calling and the sorry state of the offense. But by in large, people just got up and left. No anger, no joy in the experience, no thoughts of next week. The game was three hours of entertainment. It wasn’t going to ruin any weekends or change any lives.
On the plane back to Nebraska (where I left my car), a sad thought game to me. Had I just watched the future of college football?
Surely Washington didn’t used to be like this. Older alums spoke of Rose Bowls and great games past. The barbershop next to campus had faded photos of packed stadiums and raucous cheering sections. They were relics of a forgotten time – reminders that Washington football had once really mattered. Not just in terms of national relevancy, but in the hearts of the students and fans.
Maybe it was the years of losing. Last year was Washington’s first nine-win season since 2000. The Huskies haven’t won six conference games since 2001, and have endured seasons of two, one, and zero wins in the last decade.
Maybe it’s the rise of the Seahawks. Campus is four miles from downtown. Two-thirds of students come from the state of Washington. In the 90s the Seahawks were a perennial cellar-dweller. Now, they are the defending Super Bowl champions and are famous for attracting the most intense fans in the league. While young kids used to grow up watching Rose Bowls, they now grow up watching the NFL playoffs.
Maybe it’s the improved quality of the TV broadcasts and the fact that you can now watch nearly every Washington game from the comfort of your living room. That’s certainly what marketing directors around the country will tell you.
I can’t help thinking that maybe it’s more than that. I can’t help thinking that the minor league sports feel is a result of all those ads, all the piped in music that drowns out the band, all the dance cams that fill the silence during TV timeouts. The Washington marketing department is not trying to hold onto the glory days, they’re trying to monetize them. When I left the stadium, I felt used. I didn’t feel like a spectator, I felt like a customer. I was a statistic used to sell the product that is Washington football.
Two years ago, Washington completed a renovation project on Husky Stadium. The price tag: $280 million. Within that cost were much needed repairs to the building’s structure, but there were other changes: the addition of luxury boxes, a massive jumbotron, and lights for night games. When asked about the stadium, then coach Steve Sarkisian responded, “The stadium is great. The new Jumbotron and the lights and the wrapping and everything that is going to be with it. What is going to make the place specials is the way we play and the product that we put on the field and our guys understand that.”
It’s hard to imagine Bear Bryant or Knute Rockne describing their football program as “a product.” And while the team’s play on the field could help bring the fans back – could help make Washington football relevant again, ultimately it is the people – the fans, alumni, and students – who will make the stadium special. Without them, without their quirky cheers and adherence to tradition, without their willingness to be moved, Washington will always feel like the minor leagues.