Get into the Game

The most wonderful time of the football season is upon us; are Millennials watching?


Con artists. Forgers. The Mafia. Wild West outlaws. Greed. Murder. Racial inequality.

You know . . . the true meaning of the holiday season. At least, that’s what Hollywood thinks we want for Christmas.

Christmas Day has a long history as the movie industry’s release date of choice for some unlikely subject matter. When I think of Christmas, I think of Jolly Saint Nick, not “Grumpy Old Men,” released Christmas Day 1993. I think of Jack Frost nipping at your nose, not David Frost nipping at Richard Nixon (“Frost/Nixon,” 2008). Jingle and Jangle from “The Year Without a Santa Claus,” not “Django Unchained” from Quentin Tarantino (2012).

So, I guess no one should be surprised by the unlikeliest of launches scheduled for this Dec. 25th: “Concussion,” the Will Smith vehicle in which he portrays the doctor whose research on brain injuries rocked the National Football League. Nothing makes the yuletide gay quite like chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

It’s a dark subject – for the most wonderful time of the year, or any other – although a vital one. Concussions represent the existential challenge of America’s most popular sport, and ensuring player safety at all levels of the game is fundamental to football’s future.

Full disclosure: Last fall, Triumph Books released “Under Pressure: How Playing Football Almost Cost Me Everything and Why I’d Do it All Again,” a book I wrote with former NFL quarterback Ray Lucas in which we detail the sacrifices professional football players make and the suffering they endure long after their careers are over. As an author and a sports fan and a parent of a son who has reached tackle football age, I am an advocate for concussion awareness (if not necessarily movie plots about it – though anyone wanting to buy the movie rights to my book should feel free to contact me). But I read something recently that made me consider that perhaps concussions might not be the biggest threat to our national passion.

Surprisingly, the thread that might unravel it all is disinterest. Specifically, there’s a growing disinclination toward major college football among Millennials.

It doesn’t seem to be the game itself that Millennials are failing to fall for. It’s the in-stadium experience. A study conducted by the Wall Street Journal in August, 2014 found that attendance at college football’s highest level had declined 7.1% between 2009 and 2013. The traditional powers were not immune; attendance was down during that five-year freefall at Ohio State (2.4%), Tennessee (2.9%), Michigan (11%), Michigan State (11.8%) and Florida (22.4%).

These figures represented enough of a wakeup call that the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics issued a report advising its members how to engage the Millennial would-be fan. The NACDA Report acknowledged that “67% of Millennials claim to attend sporting events less often or never.” As NASCAR CEO Brian France noted, “Everybody’s ability to manage and figure out the millennial fan and how that continues to unfold this year and over the long term is the most important issue in sports business.”

Put more bluntly, the NACDA Report concedes the objective is to “capture their attention, loyalty and disposable income.”

The Report goes on to propose some valid big-picture strategies, from delivering more “unique online and offline experiences” to providing “more digital integration into live events.” Though even that last one might not be the magic bullet ADs and sports marketers always have suspected. An article in the WSJ this past summer suggested that connectivity isn’t the answer. Connecting is.

Millennials, as Alicia Jessop wrote in the Huffington Post back in September, are characterized by “their desire to be tied to a community.” It’s not the game that will bring college-aged fans back to the student sections that are shedding students like calving glaciers in the Arctic. It’s being part of the scene at the game that matters more.

The sport of football is undergoing some essential self-reflection, and the hot button issue of concussions will catalyze that conversation to crest again after the holidays. But the business of football – of big-time sports, particularly on campus – is due for its share of soul-searching.

The game may be losing young players over parental worries about concussions. But gameday is losing young fans to something even trickier to resolve: apathy.

It will be interesting to see whether college football’s powers-that-be can pull off the holiday movie magic featured in another Christmas Day release, this one from 2008 – can they pull off a Brad Pitt and make their audience grow younger?


David Seigerman has two new books out this fall,
Take Your Eye Off The Ball 2.0 (Triumph Books) and
Quarterback: The Toughest Job in Pro Sports (Triumph Books),
the first ebook in the Real Football Network’s Go Deeper series.
Follow him at @dseigs18.

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