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Revisiting the Attendance Issue in 2021

Andrew Nelles / Tennessean.com, Nashville Tennessean via Imagn Content Services, LLC

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Football season is just days away for Vanderbilt. In a year that brings a new coach in Clark Lea and a fresh attitude for Vanderbilt Athletics as a whole, many Commodore fans are entering this season with an open mind and cautious optimism. For me, however, a multi-generational issue has resurfaced alongside this renewed excitement in 2021. This problem produces deep insecurity in the lives of fans and is one that we haven’t had to fully address in two years: Vanderbilt fans don’t show up to games.

It’s no secret. Fan attendance at Vanderbilt Sporting events has always been a significant pain point of the program. Compared to its SEC counterparts, Commodore Nation simply cannot pack a stadium for a typical football or men’s basketball game. People even made jokes this past football season, with capacity restrictions in place due to COVID-19, that little would feel different to the players, who had grown used to playing with little to no fans in the stadium.

And, yes, we also can’t ignore the countless comments made during your average SEC fan base takeover weekend, when the east half of the Dudley Field will be packed with opposing fans directly above the mural that ironically reads "This is Commodore Country." As an undergraduate student, some of my friends on the Vandy football team said that they much preferred playing in away atmospheres to home ones, where they could at least feed off of the energy that a full stadium brings.

The issue persists and has in recent years leaked into a lack of enthusiasm for the Men’s Basketball team, but has it always been this way? Rewind to the flash in a pan that was the James Franklin era, and there was a time where fans not only came to games, but even outnumbered their SEC counterparts. Head over to Memorial Gym in 2012, and ESPN’s College Gameday came to town for a home game, where undergrads packed the student section hours before tipoff.
There have been examples of fan support in more recent years. Occasionally, the basketball team will get some fans in the gym for a big SEC contest. When I was a senior in 2017, student tickets for the football home game against Alabama sold out in five minutes. We all know how that game ended, but you get the point. The overall trend in the past 10 years or so, however, has been dramatically downward.

In this article, I’ll point to the factors contributing to this downward trend, how much the program can control, and what hope there is for the future. Note that the primary focus here will be the Football and Men’s basketball teams, given they are usually the big ticket items and that our beloved Vandyboys essentially act as an independent entity relative to the rest of Vanderbilt Athletics.

Team Performance

Obviously, everything points here first and foremost. No casual fan wants to spend their day or money going to watch a team that consistently loses. And I say casual fan because that particular subset of people will make a difference for having people in seats. I’d venture to say that in total, there are maybe 10,000 loyal Vanderbilt fans in the Nashville area who would go to support the team regardless of performance - and that is generous. For your average alumni or Nashville native, there simply won’t be an incentive to come watch a team that you already didn’t care too much about if they just keep on losing.

Recent examples would point towards the success of Vandy’s teams translating into fans coming to games. Say what you want about him, but Kevin Stallings had just three losing seasons in 17 years as the Basketball Coach at the program. During that era, fans would come to games at memorial. My friends’ families in Nashville, few of which even went to Vanderbilt, would buy season tickets simply to come watch what used to be a winning team in a good atmosphere. Since then, the program has seen two different coaches and just one winning season of the past five years. Attendance has slid alongside the program, with coach Jerry Stackhouse entering his third season.

Take things over to Dudley Field, and the narrative doesn’t change. Any Vanderbilt idealist, myself included, will point to the Franklin era for examples of when tens of thousands of fans would come to watch the Dores play. The climax of this sugar rush that Franklin brought the program came at the 2013 BBVA compass bowl, when, by some act of God, 25,000 Vanderbilt fans made the trip to Birmingham to watch their 8-4 Commodores play in a C-List bowl game. Other years would point to this trend as well, as Bobby Johnson’s 5-0 start in 2008 or Derek Mason’s 3-0 start to the 2017 campaign each generated substantial buzz that put fans into seats.

For a school like Vanderbilt who does not have the bedrock of a rich culture or an extensive fanbase that other schools do, the first, and largest, piece of the puzzle is pretty simple: if you win, people will come.

Nashville’s Growth

This next factor is a tricky one, given that one would logically think that an exponentially growing city would bring more people and, as a result, more fans to games. In a town that is drawing in people from all over the country, why wouldn’t Nashville’s newest natives want to catch a few games at the city’s best option for NCAA sports? (With all due respect to our beloved neighbors at Lipscomb and Belmont).

The issue comes, however, when you take into consideration what comes along with a growing, bustling city: more options for entertainment. Not too long ago, going to see the Dores was one of few options you had for an outing in Nashville. The Titans and Predators coming did take some of the sports market share in the early 2000s, but Vanderbilt was able to coexist alongside the influx of professional teams to the city, given that it offered a different enough product, experience, and price point to the other options downtown.

What I’m getting at is everything else that has come to Nashville: The restaurants, more live events, and more options for a family to enjoy. At a certain point, your typical Nashville sports fan would much rather spend his or her Saturday at a bar or restaurant showing every single SEC game of the day than sit in the bleachers of Dudley Field in a 40% full stadium where Vanderbilt doesn’t get their first points until the 4th Quarter.

Dissect the Nashville point further, and you arrive at why the "Vanderbilt Takeovers" have become particularly severe in recent years. Let’s take your average UGA football fan this upcoming season. Typically, they may like to make the road trip for one away game to support the Dawgs in yet another runner up SEC campaign. Football aside, which of the following cities sounds the most appealing for a weekend trip?

Auburn, Alabama
Jacksonville, FL
Knoxville, TN

Or….. Nashville, TN, which was recently named one of the top 20 places in the World to travel to. Not to mention, there is a high chance that your team will win the game you’ve come to see. Now, you have an influx of tens of thousands of passionate SEC fans into Nashville, many of which are willing to pay upwards of $140 for a ticket to Dudley. Suddenly, you have priced out your casual Vanderbilt fan, whose ceiling to pay for a team they are lukewarm about may not have ever broken $40. The question always resurfaced each year for my family during the Kentucky basketball game at Memorial Gym: Do we go watch the game? Or sell our seats to UK fans to pay for next year’s season tickets?

So here lies the issue. Not only are your pool of fans tempted to take their time and money elsewhere than a Vanderbilt game on their Nashville Saturday as is, their decision becomes finalized when ticket prices are driven up by visitors who themselves are looking to make the most of their visit to Music City.

Fan Experience

The last two components of this larger trend are not quite as seismic as the former two in my mind, but still significant enough to mention. The differences in these two, however, are that while the former are due to historical problems and current trends of a city, the latter lie mostly within the control of Vanderbilt. To begin, the gameday experience for Vanderbilt fans has felt dated in recent years. For a program that has struggled, it’s naive to think that relying solely on the team’s performance to keep fans engaged will suffice when trying to attract people to games.

At sporting events, fans just expect more these days than they used to. They want comfort and entertainment, and Vanderbilt’s venues provide neither to fans in their current state. At both Memorial Gym and Dudley Field, apart from the game itself, the best a fan can ask for is to eat a stadium dog while listening to our depleted marching band play the Shop Boyz 2007 hit "Party Like a Rockstar" for the 8th time of the game. Other than Vandy’s fight song, I truly don’t think that our band has learned another song in over ten years.

Add onto this the fact that our stadiums, seats, and concourses all just need a facelift to take themselves into this century. With more historical venues like Memorial Gym, you certainly want to preserve the mystique that it offers, but this aura can still be maintained alongside some long overdue upgrades to make our stadiums feel newer and nicer.

I said this issue is very much in Vanderbilt’s control, and they seemed to have agreed in recent months by finalizing a $300 Million Campaign to holistically upgrade our Athletic facilities. One of the first enhancements? A fully revamped concessions offering at the Football Stadium. In my mind, you might as well reward our loyal fans with a Chick Fil A sandwich and a local craft beer if they’re going to come and support the Dores right now. Make that two or three craft beers when Georgia or Florida come to town.

Student Engagement

As a relatively recent graduate of Vanderbilt University and loyal fan, the last issue I’ll address is one that is near and dear to my heart and that constantly frustrated me during my time on West End: The vast majority of Vanderbilt students do not care about their teams.

The cause for this pain point that many point to is that as an elite academic institution, Vanderbilt students just don’t care as much about sports compared to their counterparts in the SEC. This argument carries some weight, but one can quickly look towards the Dukes, Stanfords, and Notre Dames of the world, all of which rank higher both in national academic ranking and in percent of students who could name at least one player for their team. I once tested this theory as a Senior, straw polling 100 undergrads at the student center to see how many could name our starting quarterback at the time, Kyle Shurmur. The results? Seven students. Seven out of one-hundred could name our starting quarterback.

As a part of orientation, the entire freshman class does complete the "Anchor Dash," an event in which the newest students all run through the tunnel at the first football home game of the year. In my mind, this tradition is a perfect way to introduce the new students to the Dores and how attending a game with some fellow students can, in fact, be a great way to see some live sports and spend time with one another.

Beyond this event, however, there are very little efforts to bring students to games. Occasionally, a free T-Shirt will be dangled as an incentive for students to show up to a game, but many will just show up to get their free shirt and leave after a quarter of action. Vandy’s teams are just not ever talked about as a part of Vanderbilt’s student culture, and there are few conscious efforts to bring students together for these games.

Remember the Alabama Game in 2017 when I mentioned that the entire student allotment of tickets sold out in five minutes? Around kickoff for that game when thousands of students started entering the stadium, there was not enough staff present to get even half of the students in their seats before kickoff. There was finally excitement for students to attend a game under their own free will, but the stadium had simply never planned the infrastructure at the student gate for the once-in-a-decade occurrence that students actually want to come. The game was 14-0 Tide before I even sat down. It’s already an uphill battle to get students to come to games, but for many that was their first and last football experience as an undergrad because it was such a logistical nightmare getting inside.

There isn’t a clear path forward here, but I think it is possible with some more involvement from the administration to engage the students and educate them on how going to games would be a fun and positive experience for them. Vanderbilt students love sports - common areas and dorms are packed on NFL Sundays for students to watch their favorite teams from home. Many students come to Nashville from different parts of the country where college sports just don’t reign supreme. Successful Vandy teams would help to win these students over, but so would any efforts to educate them on the beauty that is cheering on your fellow students on the field.

Reasons for Hope

I didn’t want to write this article entirely as a hit piece on the culture of Vanderbilt Sports. After all, I love the Dores as much as anybody. The reality is, I wouldn’t have fully spent the time opening this can of worms if I didn’t think there was substantial reason for hope on the near horizon.

For one, I truly believe that our football and men’s basketball programs are on a good trajectory for the years ahead. Coach Stackhouse returns the basketball team’s best scorer in a decade in Scotty Pippen Jr. alongside a solid recruiting class. On the gridiron, we have a new coach in Clark Lea who himself played for the Black and Gold twenty or so years ago and experienced many of the pain points I’ve mentioned above. Despite the uphill battles he knows he has in front of him, Coach Lea has referred to coaching Vanderbitl as his "dream job." If recent trends continue, more wins will translate into more fans and an enhanced culture for Vanderbilt.

Next, and probably most importantly, Vanderbilt’s administration is wholeheartedly behind the success of its sports teams and has committed vast financial resources in the near future to helping them. The combined 1-2 punch of new Vanderbilt leaders in Chancellor Daniel Diermeier and Athletic Director Candice Storey Lee have stressed the importance of a strong athletic program, both for the culture of Vanderbilt and the Nashville community. Successful athletics give a good student culture, a good student culture creates loyal alumni, and loyal alumni create millions in future donations for the University. The school’s leadership seems to have finally understood this phenomenon.

So we’ll see how the next few years pan out for Vanderbilt’s athletic program. I’ve always dreamed of a day where Vanderbilt fully embraces the identity of Nashville’s team. Where students camp outside for a ticket to the game the next day. Where the talk of the town is how the football team might have a chance against the visiting SEC powerhouse, or how Memorial was as deafening as Bridgestone Arena the night before. This all sounds wonderful, but the question will remain: is it even possible? Only time will tell. We’ll see what kind of crowd shows up for Clark Lea’s debut against ETSU.

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