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Explaining—and solving—the tardy Wisconsin student section

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It’s time for some answers.

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes our common discourse gets way beyond issues/solutions and into an angerfest. We are seeing this a lot in Wisconsin football when it comes to Alex Hornibrook—contrast that with Jon’s article that covers the Badgers’ QB in a level-headed manner.

A similar problem around Wisconsin football has been emerging for quite some time in our discourse, particularly on local sports talk radio: the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s football student section’s timeliness problems. When I hear folks talk about this issue, I hear three common points brought up:

  • I pay a lot for my tickets and I show up on time.
  • These kids are ungrateful, entitled, lazy punks (get off my lawn and into your seats!)
  • You aren’t going to change students.

... and then what follows is a lot of anger and yelling. Sometimes, miraculously, the conversation continues to talk about solutions, which are usually to punish students by taking away tickets and raising prices. Simple solutions are for simple problems, and our student section problem is a lot more complicated than the presenting issue.

At first glance, these conclusions make a lot of sense because they are based on the presenting issue. Students are late and late people are lazy, therefore students are lazy. Now, is that true? To some extent yes, but laziness is a really subjective term that requires more analysis.

Let’s take a look at the students’ context that leads to tardiness and some concrete (and pro bono!) recommendations for our buddies over in the Camp Randall administrative offices. Oh, and buckle up. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it certainly is not the soul of policy analysis.

Background info: Student section procedures

It’s probably helpful for us to all be on the same page regarding how the student section ticket process goes. If you are aware of the process, please skip ahead!

Usually, there are two dates in June when tickets go on sale. One date is for undergraduate degree-seeking students, and the other is for graduate degree-seeking students (if you’re taking classes for fun or auditing, you aren’t eligible). The tickets go on sale rather early in the morning and usually sell out a little later that day.

In August and September, students pick up vouchers for their tickets, not the tickets themselves. Students then take their vouchers to Camp Randall on game day with their buddies and redeem them for tickets for a section without a seat assignment. Then, patrons are ushered single-file to their seats. If they leave the single-file line, it will be needlessly difficult to reconnect with their friends.

(Editor’s note: This paragraph was updated and another paragraph was deleted to better reflect current procedures. The previous version mentioned students receiving tickets with both row and seat assignments, which has not been true for a few seasons.)

Here’s a link to the detailed UW-Madison student season ticket policies for football.

Alright, let’s get into the issues at hand!

The problem appears worse than it is

That said, appearance is often more important than reality.

I have been going to Badger football games regularly for almost 20 years with my father. Our seats have a great view of the aluminum jungle left vacant by late-arriving students. Typically, it seems that midway through the first half of a game, the student section is 50–75 percent filled based on the visuals. They’re usually 85–95 percent filled by mid-third quarter.

There’s something striking about the visual here—students packed in like animals in the lower rows while the sun (or lack thereof) reflects off the silvery seats on top. Viewers’ eyes are drawn to the contrast.

Consider this: what if the students weren’t packed in? What if they didn’t enter starting at the first row? They would look a lot more like the rest of the stadium. For typical games, when the student section is 50 percent full, the seats around me are about 80 percent full and sometimes less. In fact, there are four seats to our right that are permanently vacant for 75 percent of games. These seats aren’t available to the public; someone has season tickets in a drawer and chooses not to go. The 20 percent of empty general seats are almost all covered by those red cushions. They are don’t attract the eye due to the lack of contrast between occupied and unoccupied seats.

That all said, the fact that the problem appears bad makes it bad. Folks who complain angrily about the student section don’t really care that the students show up late. They care that it looks bad. They care that the atmosphere they pay major bucks for is diminished. They care that it cheapens their identity as Badgers. They care that Wisconsin won’t be able to replace Hornibrook with that hot new quarterback on an official visit.

Okay, okay, so why do they show up late?

Now that we have our background information set, let’s dive into some reasons why the future business and political leaders of our country cannot seem to find their way to a simple football game in a timely manner.

Reason No. 1: Students have an incentive to show up late

First of all, the experience in the student section prior to the second half is neutral at best and worse if you show up early. If you show up around the start of the game, there are huge lines and you are ushered to your seat single-file. You’re packed into your section like cattle. Good luck going to the restroom and having to squeeze yourself back into your spot—the space you leave behind will be swallowed up by the blob of flesh known as your social group and fellow students.

So when students arrive at their desired time, it takes them significantly longer than their general-seating counterparts to make it to their spots. There’s a great video by Vox explaining why some airplane methods are worse at efficiently ushering patrons to their seats.

Guess what? The student section method (seating from bottom to top) is the worst way to get people to seats, and the strategy general-seating uses is one of the better methods. Just watch the student section fill up and measure how long it takes for a student to get from the first time you see them to the seat. Compare it to how long it took you to walk down 10 rows to your seat. They are artificially creating unnecessary traffic.

So what happens when you get to your seat with five minutes to go in the first quarter? You are rewarded and the behavior is reinforced. You get a seat that’s about 30 rows up with the best view of the field.

What are some other incentives to show up late, you ask? One is that you have to enter the gate to exchange your voucher at the exact same time as your peers. If 75 percent of a group wants to show up on time, the other 25 percent of the group will make the entire group late. Is it really worth leaving your group behind to catch the opening kickoff?

Another important incentive to show up late is that there is little to do at the game if you show up early. Obviously, students can’t drink at the stadium but can at home, and that is not changing anytime soon. The problem is that the 30 minutes before kickoff offer absolutely nothing to engage students to replace their pregame rituals of sleeping, playing hopscotch, or drinking. The pregame at UW football games is filled with tradition, but those traditions tend to not connect with college students. Tradition without culture is meaningless. Why do you think that students sit for the band and the adults stand? One group has been taught to value that portion of the game while the other group hasn’t ... yet.

Also, you also have to stand the whole game. Your feet hurt at the end if you are there for the whole game. This is a real, honest talking point among students. Instead of being mocked for sitting down halfway through the game, students would rather show up late so they don’t have to stand as long. Is this a good reason? Probably not, but it is real.

Reason No. 2: Students aren’t football fans

I don’t hold it against any student who doesn’t love football, but it’s a problem when your student section is not entirely composed of the biggest Wisconsin football fans in the student body. The times I have sat (read: stood) in the student section have been really frustrating for this reason. If I were to guess, about a quarter to a half of students at the game are not particularly engaged with the strategy of the game, while that same proportion of disengagement in general seating is less than 25 percent, probably closer to 10 percent. These students pay little attention to the details of the game and cheer or boo following the other students who are more invested.

(Editor’s note: This paragraph was updated to better reflect the author’s intention.)

The biggest reason for this is that 40 percent of the undergraduate student body is comprised of out-of-state students when it was only 17 percent back in 1980. I contend without empirical evidence that the in-state students are more connected with the football program and are more likely to be serious Badger football fans. Wisconsin football means a lot more to a kid from Sun Prairie or Baraboo than a kid from Sacramento or Brooklyn.

Frankly, prices for Wisconsin football student tickets are too low for the demand. This means you have students who aren’t big football fans spending $188 for season tickets (or their parents spending $188). The season tickets sell out way too fast in order to ensure that your most passionate fans purchase the tickets. Note that Ohio State’s prices for student season tickets are $252, but also keep in mind that it’s not super useful to benchmark prices but rather the methods used to achieve the correct price (of which I am unaware).

An even bigger factor is the sheer number of student season tickets available. According to uwbadgers.com, 14,000 tickets were released (out of about 45,000 students). That’s a whopping 31 percent of students attending football games. Certainly they won’t be as big of football fans as the 66,000 general ticket holders, only 1 percent of the population of Wisconsin and a mere 13 percent of the population of Dane County.

If the proportion of students who attend football games is the same as the ratio of general ticket holders to Dane County residents (that 13 percent), you are much more likely to have a better engaged student section.

In the end, can you really blame someone for showing up late to an event they paid for when they don’t care at all about the first half of the event?

Reason No. 3: Alcohol

Of course. Do I really need to write anything here? Take it away, Bing:

I bet you didn’t know that Family Guy stole that!

Other miscellaneous factors that hurt attendance

  • Camp Randall is on-campus, which makes it easier to just show up for Jump Around and immediately leave. If you need to travel off campus on a student shuttle, you’re more likely to invest time there and proactively plan your arrival.
  • A small yet significant challenge is the increased academic quality of students and increased rigor of their coursework. I know of a lot of trustworthy students who choose to only attend a portion of the game because they are so overwhelmed by schoolwork. When you don’t care about the strategy and analysis of a full football game and are more worried about your future or med school, it makes a lot of sense to only attend a part of a game.
  • Another small yet significant problem is the financial stress students are under. Students often have the choice of attending a game and falling behind on rent or taking an extra shift at work. This makes the market for secondhand student tickets tough. Often, student tickets sell for less than their purchase price (the demand has been met and there is a surplus of tickets for sale). I know this seems to contradict what I said before, but students act very differently mid-semester vs. pre-semester.
  • Students are saturated with a lot of quality sports options at UW. Football is no longer the be-all, end-all like it currently is at many other schools—especially SEC schools.
  • Students tickets sales are not rolling—no preference for upper-classmen. It should be tougher for freshmen to attend, making it more special when scarce.

What won’t work

Simply punishing students by taking away tickets is not going to improve their timeliness. While you will have a smaller section that students can leave empty, you can be sure that students will be really upset by this change and the whole thing can backfire. And, if you take away tickets, are you really serving out justice and fixing the underlying problem? I contend no—you’ll just have less opportunities for your biggest fans to get tickets. The proportion of apathetic fans will remain the same.

A simple increase in prices also will not work without some other policy changes, which I will detail below a bit more. This suggestion is on the right track but could also lead to a higher proportion of affluent out-of-state students purchasing tickets. On the other hand, it could deter an apathetic fan, but if you’re affluent, do you really care about the extra $100 your parents just dropped on your tickets?

Another failed approach is anything reactive or clearly linked to reward students who show up early or punish those who don’t. We saw this with the “ES-FU” strategy when the administration offered to give away tickets if the student section avoided vulgarity. It failed because you never gave students an organic alternative.

The last failed approach is to rail on the student section. It doesn’t change anything other than probably giving folks a chance to let out their frustration at the younger generation.

Recommendations

My recommendations are a bit involved, but the two biggest goals are to actively engage students from one hour before the game through the fifth quarter and also to increase the proportion of student season-ticket holders who are engaged fans. I don’t think any single policy on its own will make the difference, but collectively they should help turn the culture. There are a lot of other interventions you could do, but these are a decent starting point in my opinion.

No. 1: Create multiple methods of in-person ticket purchase

If you force at least half of your student section to stand in line somewhere like they have to for the iPhone, you’re guaranteed to create an additional sense of value. You can have these spread out across campus on a day for freshmen. Perhaps at SOAR (freshman orientation) there is a chance to buy 50 tickets each day in the morning, but you gotta get up at 5 a.m., and you have to stand in line until 7 a.m. to get it. Perhaps upperclassmen have to go to the spring game to get tickets. Or they have an event at Camp Randall where students need to show up early and wait in line on the field but they have vendors and concerts going. Get creative; make it fun!

What about left-over tickets? That’s when you sell them online for double the price. That’s right. Double the price. OK, or increase them 50 percent or something but make it significant. If a student really wants to get the tickets at their $188 price, there are plenty of options to get it in person. If there are still tickets left over, sell them to the general public.

At the very least, they should copy OSU’s policy of gradually releasing tickets by student standing. You want your student body to have feared at one point or another that they might not get tickets.

No. 2: Work hard to create multiple, can’t-miss rituals for students before the game and during the first half

If Jump Around was right before kickoff, you can guarantee students would all be there on time. It would be awesome, but it probably isn’t the right decision especially if they don’t fix their entry-method problem. Instead, they need more things like Jump Around.

For me, “Where the Streets Have No Name” is thrilling and creates goosebumps. I refuse to miss it.

But it isn’t something that creates engagement for the fans, much less students. Everybody is dead-silent except for five seconds of cheering for their favorite highlights and the “You better get season tickets right now” quote by Barry. There’s nothing to do or see that they can’t see elsewhere. Think about the can’t-miss rituals at the beginning of other college football games: the rock thing at Clemson; dotting the ‘I’ at OSU (which is stupid and tacky—who cares that you know how to spell your name?); tapping the “Go Blue” banner at Michigan; “Enter Sandman” at Virginia Tech; and so on. All of these have something tactile, physical, and/or engaging for fans. “Where the Streets Have No Name: can be watched on YouTube with similar effect as watching it in the stands.

Student-friendly engagement needs to start at least 30 minutes before the game. Perhaps you have a live student band (or hip-hop group or something) in front of the student section with music piped throughout the stadium and they play from 60 minutes before kickoff until the marching band starts. You could have competitions in the spring to earn the right to play at Camp Randall, perhaps at the same time you are offering your first round of ticket sales. Perhaps there are events near Camp Randall primarily marketed towards students that start two hours before the game. It will take a while, but if you invest time into your students in a student-centered way, they will engage.

No. 3: Change the way students enter the stadium

This isn’t that hard. Benchmark this and use best practices. Don’t treat students like animals. Make more entry points and introduce randomness.

No. 4: Over-sell the student section

Introduce a little risk that if you show up super late you won’t have a seat. Instead, have a small overflow area that you’ll probably never need to use. This could be as little as 100 spots. Or just don’t oversell and say you did.

No. 5: Students and administrators co-create solutions

Policies listed above will only work if students see themselves in those policies and practices. There are a lot of talented people at UW to develop programming to support students’ engagement through game day. It’s their job to direct their strategies in a way that is cooperative with the students we wish showed up a little earlier.

No. 6: Paint the benches red

If you can’t tell where the student body ends and the empty benches begin, they won’t know that you’re only 42 percent full!


What other policies can UW implement that I didn’t mention? Can you improve them? I am really interested to hear what you all think.