This is the last time I write about attendance until the next time I write about attendance. You have my word on that.
This is the... fourth time I've written about the topic this fall? Fifth time? There are no more home games this year, which means we have our final attendance numbers, so let's take one more look at attendance. And maybe put a bow on all these articles.
If you want a refresher, these are probably the two articles to read. In July I wrote about Eyeballs And Butts (television eyeballs vs. butts in seats). And before the Iowa game last month I wrote about how the stadium wasn't selling out but the fans who never left were energized beyond belief. I guess you could also read my We The People article where I talked about how the school was failing (and, to their credit, immediately initiated fixes for) the fans who had supported them through thin and thin the last 15 years.
Today I want to go back to the numbers. I was on the radio with Scott Beatty and Loren Tate yesterday (every Tuesday at 4:25 on WDWS) and the question of attendance came up. Attendance for Purdue was only 45,000 (more than 10,000 less than last week), and Scott asked Loren and I if it was the weather forecast, or the MSU loss, or maybe something else? I voted "something else." It's not a very comfortable "something else", but it's what I believe. Let's talk about it.
First off, the numbers. Let me just say that I am very, very glad Bret Bielema turned this program around this season. Because after the first three games, I was pretty sure the World War II thing was going to happen. A snippet from my Eyeballs & Butts article on that topic:
Here's the Illinois attendance:
I'd like to take a moment here and shout-out the last 370 people who bought tickets for the Rutgers game after we beat Penn State (I don't think anyone bought tickets the week of the Northwestern game, although you should have). Yes, we lost to Rutgers, but those final 370 tickets sold meant that we finished at an average of 35,347 for the year. And that was very important because the floor we were trying to avoid was the 1962 average attendance of 35,295. Had our 35,347 fallen by 53 fans per game and ended up at 35,294, I would have had to say it out loud: the 2021 season would have been our lowest average attendance in Memorial Stadium since 1945.
That's the absolute truth, by the way. Since World War II, here are the three lowest-attended Illini football seasons:
(The fans in 1945 had a tiny little excuse as to why they didn't show up. Hint: the season started a few weeks after V-J Day.)
The average attendance after the first three (warm weather) games this season? 36,210. I was super concerned that once the cold weather hit, we'd drop below an average of 35,295 for the year and I'd have to say it out loud: "worst attendance since World War II".
Thankfully, we beat Wisconsin and things trended in a good direction. 44,910 for Iowa, 45,683 for Minnesota, 56,092 for Michigan State, and 45,574 for Purdue. Add it all up and that's 301,339 fans for the 2022 season, an average of 43,048 per game. Add these numbers to the list above and the jump is real:
But still, when you look at the attendance numbers ten years ago, we're drawing less for this 7-3 football team than we did for a 2-10 team in 2012. Average attendance for Tim Beckman's first season: 45,564.
Or don't even make it about Beckman. From 2003 to 2006, under both Turner and Zook, we went 1-11, 3-8, 2-9, 2-10. And in during that 2-10 season, the fourth year in a stretch where we went 8-38, we had a higher average attendance (43,445) than this season (43,048). Think about that. Ticket sales for a 2-10 season with the three previous seasons being 1-11, 3-8, and 2-9 were greater than ticket sales for a (currently) 7-3 season with the three previous seasons being 6-7, 2-6, and 5-7.
Everyone has a theory on "why". I'm going to tell you some of those theories, and then I'm going to tell you my theory.
Some believe the attendance is only 43,000 during this winning season because of the ticket prices. Lower the prices and the fans will return. Sure, maybe, and I would sell tickets for $2 until the stadium sold out (of note: I also don't have to pay the bills), but I don't think that's the main reason. Other fans on other campuses are paying just as much (and some of those schools are 3-7, not 7-3). If Purdue fans are willing to pay that much, why aren't Illinois fans?
Some will say that it's about having a base of season ticket holders first, and I totally agree. Add 10,000 more season ticket holders this offseason and next year will be much easier to stretch into sellouts. But that doesn't explain how 6-4 Kansas, coming off 13 consecutive bowl-less seasons with season ticket sales less than ours, has out-drawn 7-3 Illinois (coming off two consecutive bowl-less seasons) this season. Kansas attendance average this fall: 44,041. And that's with three sellouts. If their stadium held more than 47,233, they'd be out-drawing us by even more.
Some will point to all of our failed rebuilds and say that it will take a lot more than 7-3 to get butts back in the seats. I get it (although Kansas outdrawing us this season kinda hurts that argument). But I went deep on this topic in the article I linked above, using Iowa State as the example. Nearly identical (read: really bad) football programs from 1995 to 2015 (Iowa State wins from 1995 to 2015: 93; Illinois wins from 1995 through 2015: 94) and yet in 2015, 3-9 Iowa State, coming off a 2-10 season, draws 56,519 and 5-7 Illinois, coming off a bowl game, draws 41,342.
Some will mention how fans have changed and television screens are big and that this is a college football problem, not an Illinois problem. That's partially true as well, but again, the numbers for Illinois have been alarming. Big Ten football attendance did fall 2.06% the last five years, but Illinois was responsible for more than half of that drop. The Big Ten lost 19,124 fans-per-game from 2016 to 2021 (average number of tickets sold at all games on 14 campuses), and those shook out to 10,297 fewer tickets sold per game at Illinois and 8,827 fewer tickets sold per game at the other 13 campuses combined.
At some point, I just want everyone giving me their theories ("attention spans are short because everyone is addicted to screens" or "everyone is addicted to screens so we have to fix the wifi") to pause for a second and look at the whole thing. People will tell me it's a losing program thing, so I present the Iowa State data, and then people respond with "well there's nothing to do in Iowa and our sports money in Illinois goes to the Bears and the Cubs". At some point, when we have sub-reasons for our reasons, don't you think we should maybe pause and say "I think there's a very real problem here that's specific to our fanbase"?
I'll now give you my theory. I mean, I've already been saying it to you for 10 years, so you already know what it is, but I want to keep hammering it over and over. Right or wrong, good or bad, here's how I see it.
Let's start with what I said on the radio spot yesterday. This is a rough recording of it, but it will do the job. Here was the question asked by Scott Beatty followed by Loren Tate's answer followed by my answer:
As I've said before, this is a topic with exit ramps. I'll say that people watch on TV instead of attend the games, and everyone will think of every article they've read over the last 15 years about how fans stay home now and watch the game on TV, and the point is immediately dismissed as "this is a national issue, not an Illinois issue." No. There's nuance here. There are specific Illinois issues and they're never discussed because the moment we get anywhere close to "eyeballs on TV's instead of butts in seats", ZZZZIPPP everyone takes the off-ramp and we're done talking. I'm still over here talking about how it's exponentially worse at Illinois and no one is listening.
So let me walk you though this topic the last five months for me. I wrote Eyeballs and Butts. The point behind the title: Eyeballs (watching on TV) and Butts (in the seats). The new Big Ten deal (and the USC/UCLA thing) is all about the Eyeballs. And yes, that will increase our shared revenue. But we need to fix the Butts.
A few weeks after that, Josh Whitman answered questions at a press conference before Bret Bielema's Monday press conference. My questions were about this specific topic. Let me see if I can find a video of it.
Doesn't look like the DIA put out a video of that portion, but Illini Inquirer has a video. I'll embed it here. My question starts at 20:29 and the whole thing (including my follow-up and his second answer) lasts about five minutes:
I agree with what he said, especially the "create FOMO" part. And, to be honest, that following Saturday, when I took photos of all the 30-minute lines to get in, those two answers were on my mind. He's making the right statements, but his staff is not following through and now the fans who have continued to support the program through 22 losing seasons in 27 years can't even get to their seats when there are 25,000 unsold tickets. That was all in the We The People article.
(You just did it again. You heard "22 losing seasons in 27 years" and you took the offramp. "There's the entire problem, Robert." Well then how do you explain Kansas fans rushing back?)
To his credit, Josh Whitman took ownership of that issue, wrote a letter to fans, and then personally greeted as many fans as possible before the Virginia game two weeks later. He was standing at the Grange Grove entry himself to ensure that entry operations were running smoothly. Excellent response. Great leadership.
Let's move forward. After the win at Wisconsin in early October, there was all of this buzz on social media. Will the game sell out? Kansas just sold out two games after their 5-0 start, will Illinois sell out after starting 4-1?
I was skeptical (obviously, given my "I don't think the fans will immediately return after wins" stance). And that was such a strange week. To explain it I'm going to have to label things.
When I interact with fans -- and I maintain that no single person right now has more one-on-one interactions with Illini fans than me -- there are two clear categories. We'll call them Team Eyeballs and Team Butts. And because I chose those two names I need to explain that there are lots of people on Team Butts who don't go to games. I'm not attempting to draw a line between "these fans go to games and these fans don't". Everyone makes their own decision on attending games, and I don't fault anyone who can't afford the (pretty damn high) ticket prices or who have kid's activities on Saturdays or who live in Montana. This is not "get your butt in the seats or you're part of the problem." It's about supporting the programs in a variety of ways, but we'll get to that in a bit.
I'm mostly trying to shine a spotlight on Team Eyeballs and how they've dominated our fanbase (volume-wise) for 15 years. It's who I was writing about when I wrote that It's About Us article the day before the Iowa game. As Illinois football and basketball got worse and worse through the 2010's, Team Eyeballs got louder and louder. I know this better than anyone because the moment I would write anything with even a glimmer of hope for the future it would get hammered and hammered with anger. Their "until we win consistently, we will support nothing and demand everything" campaign was relentless. And they radicalized their followers with one message: not one cent until everything is fixed.
It was a lie.
Everything is mostly fixed now, and they're still not giving one cent. They're not going to games. They were never going to games. They're not donating to collectives or attempting to support the coaches and the players (NIL) in any way. They're comfortable in their recliner, and they're amazed at the voice they were able to develop just by tapping on a device, and now that the rent is due, they're pulling the "I know my rights and you can't kick me out" routine and squatting.
They want to see Illinois win - we all want to see Illinois win - but they're not interested in doing their part. And that's the crux of this entire thing. I'm going to put the entire next sentence in italics to make sure you understand that it's wildly important:
The thing that nearly every fanbase understands (even Kansas), but that the Illinois fanbase no longer understands after this 15 year hate campaign, is that fan support pushes the program forward.
The messaging from Team Eyeballs (which began in the late 2000's and increased in volume all the way up through 2020) was that your support was making things worse. If you're supporting the school in any way, you're contributing to the problem. Until you pulled your money and stopped going to games, nothing was going to change. The school administrators were laughing all the way to the bank and you needed to pull your support to wake them up.
It was a lie. It was a lie. It was a lie.
Changes were made in the mid-2010's and they had nothing to do with "ticket sales are low". In fact, that's right when TV money began pouring in. Changes were made because of the Tim Beckman investigation and the eventual departure of Beckman and Mike Thomas. Josh Whitman was hired, coaches were hired, a new direction was established, and now there's a 7-3 football team while the basketball team is ranked #19. It's not 100% repaired, but the car is very reliable now. Before it wouldn't even start.
But I want a Ferrari. I don't want to just settle here. We've repaired what's broken, but now let's trade it in for a better model. To do that, we'll need the full force of the fanbase. And, from the Team Butts members I've talked to, they're all on board.
Has Team Eyeballs has started donating? Are they buying tickets now? Hell no. Their campaign was never about "once they fix it we'll turn the faucet back on". They never even paid their water bill. And the worst part: they convinced a large part of the fanbase that attendance wasn't important. In fact, attending games is a net negative. Kudos to them for the strong messaging but... they were lying to you.
Truth is, struggling college athletic departments - and let's be honest, Illinois was an absolute disaster from 2008 to 2018 - aren't really "hit in the pocketbook" by the lack of support. They're mostly only hit in the win column. Yes, with your professional teams, it can work like that. Washington Commanders fans almost have the owner out. Cincinnati Reds fans went after Bob Castellini's pocketbook this year. Rams fans... well, Rams fans probably went too far boycotting games because the owner then had a case to move the team to Los Angeles. But the point is that "not one more cent" campaigns can have an effect on professional sports where everything is for-profit.
For college sports, it doesn't really work like that. When there's a lot of support, the windfall generally goes to making the programs even better (facilities, assistant coach salaries, etc), even if the AD is making some poor coaching hires. The pressure from all the support is what drives the hiring and firing, not the lack of support. It's an overflowing war chest, not an empty stadium, that's most likely to usher the coach or AD out the door. The more money, the more buyouts.
And now there's a even direct route to the players where NIL deals can influence recruiting. The number one thing any Illini fan can do at this very moment is go buy a t-shirt from a player or go support one of the collectives. You can now literally give the players money for their products, and the more money these players receive, the more other players will want to join them in Champaign. The teams with the most support are going to win this race.
Yet over the last decade, this idea that supporting the teams meant that "you're part of the problem, not the solution" has taken hold in our fanbase. Even now there will be some people who hear my "support the programs no matter what" plea and get angry. "What, Robert, I'm supposed to just blindly support the school and the programs even if they're making horrific decisions?" Yes. The rest of the conference understands this (well, not Northwestern, but that's because they don't have a fanbase), but we struggle with it.
And I believe that this line of thinking has directly influenced ticket decisions. There's been a governor placed on our enthusiasm. We're the safest football fanbase on earth. Kansas fans are selling out stadiums and screaming "I don't care if I get hurt again this is so much fun" while our fanbase hesitates and then hesitates some more. It's sad. And it makes me angry because I watched these guys on their couches (and they're all guys - I've never met a woman fooled by Team Eyeballs) lie to you on social media for a decade.
I know you feel that hesitation. I feel it. I was in the stands for every home game this year (first time since 2011) and I sensed it. The 15,000-or-so of us who have been attending every single game for the last 15 years, we were hugging each other in the concourses. The other people around us? The hesitation was palpable. And I blame the people who shamed them for their support and told them they were part of the problem.
I do have to hand it to them, though. Their campaign was wildly effective. It's a very unique siren song for a fan suffering through losing seasons. "Come join me on the couch! Scream 'WRONG' at every coach and administrator. If the team wins, you're happy. If the team loses, you were right." When we went from the 2014 Heart Of Dallas Bowl to the 2019 Redbox Bowl without another bowl game (or an NCAA Tournament appearance), their messaging was hard to resist. Shorting your team can be so tempting. (But it's still one great big lie.)
My hope, as I reach the end of my attendance rants for the 2022 season, is that this year is the beginning of the end for their messaging. They had their fun, but now we know they were never going to make good on their "win and I'll return but until then..." statements. Actually, I don't know why I'm speaking about them. I need to speak directly to them.
You guys had your fun, but it ends now. We have a real deal coaching staff on the sidelines now, and your campaign is hurting our ability to retain them. If we lose this coach because he realizes that he'll never have the support he needs to build a consistent Big Ten winner, I'm blaming you. Season ticket sales this offseason are so incredibly crucial.
Look, I'm fine if you never want to go to the games or write a check. But you've convinced way too many people over the last decade that closed checkbooks and empty seats will lead to wins. Just the opposite is true. You've been lying to people, and I need everyone to know that.
So please go back to professional sports and then just casually watch Illini games when we're good. Professional sports are probably a much better fit for you.
I mean, hey - the Bears are 3-7. Go pull your ticket money from them.