As always, there were some unusual takes, some varying perspectives offered at SEC Media Days in Hoover last week but at least no coach declared war on technology.
Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern is a fine football coach, a winner at a program that hasn’t always won in the past. He is also a Luddite, at least in terms of seeking to stop the march of the iPhones and return us, if not to the Pony Express (the mail-delivering variety, not the backfield that got SMU football the NCAA death penalty 35 years ago), then at least to the days when every home had a dial-up phone and Ernestine the operator could listen in on the party line. That’s because, Fitzgerald contends, the great drain on college football interest, and therefore attendance, is the telephone.
“I think phones, I think technology has been the decline in attendance,” Fitzgerald said in Chicago last Friday. He further grumbled that fans would “rather have 12 TVs set up in their TV cave than go to a game and experience the pageantry and tailgating.”
Here are a few thoughts about that.
First, the reaction in Tuscaloosa is inevitably going to be “What lack of interest?” In the hottest of hotbeds — not just here but in Athens, Columbus, Norman, Baton Rouge and so forth — there is plenty of interest. For some people, half of the reason that they even have a telephone is to get the latest update on whether Nick Saban went nuclear at his press conference or whether a five-star recruit committed. Yes, the phone is also handy for calling Mom but priorities are priorities.
Second, this is absolutely nothing new. If anything, it’s the exact opposite of new. Somewhere in ancient Egypt, one of the pharaohs probably complained that no one would watch the traditional camel sacrifice when they could go for a chariot ride instead. When Gutenberg invented the printing press, suddenly everyone started reading instead of going to bear-baiting. And what’s up with this crazy rock ‘n’ roll anyway?
Things change. No one knows this fact better than a newspaper columnist. But you have to find a way to keep pace with technology, which advances not in the gradual way of the old days but at laser speed. Sixty years ago, there was basically no such thing as televised football. Fifty years ago, you could watch Alabama once or twice a season on my grandparents’ Curtis Mathes color set, which was a screen the size of a briefcase housed in a cabinet as big as your average boxcar. Now, you can watch Utah State at Hawaii on a handheld with a high-def picture and if the Aggies build a big lead, you can press a button and play Minecraft instead. The technology, relatively speaking, is new, but the different attention span and entertainment opportunities from generation to generation remain the same.
Also, while the telephone isn’t “cheap,” it’s a fixed cost in most people’s lives. Football is a luxury item. I wonder if Pat Fitzgerald understands what it costs for a family of four to tailgate and enjoy the pageantry of purchasing a ticket.
Yes, attendance is dwindling in some places. Yes, there is a real danger that college football is going to become an afterthought, especially if you are not in the South or the Midwest. Yes, Greg Sankey needs to stay on top of this issue. So does Greg Byrne. But no conference commissioner or athletics director is gong to get people to turn off their phones for a day at the ballgame. The challenge is to enhance the experience in the future, not freeze it in a past that no longer exists.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205.722.0225.