As a student at Notre Dame, football games were as much a part of fall in South Bend as the changing leaves and the first snow. It was a given, a guarantee, that we would all put on “The Shirt” and faithfully show up at the stadium on Saturday. These days I turn on the TV each Saturday to watch not only my alma mater, but also the schools in the Big 12 and the SEC where I worked. The thing I have been seeing lately is an all too familiar site at many stadiums across the country - empty student seats in an otherwise packed stadium.
While some schools like Notre Dame have thankfully remained immune from the problem, it’s a hard image to stomach as someone who spent years working in the industry and feels passionately about college athletics. The site is both sad and discouraging. Sad because it appears as though students can’t be bothered, can’t be pulled away from tailgates or other weekend activities to support their football team. And, discouraging because as a fundraiser I sense what this may mean for the future…Where is the next generation of athletics donors?
When attending football games is no longer an integral part of the college culture at many schools, how who will grow into the 30, 40, and 50-somethings that give back each year? As with all nonprofit sectors, college athletics relies upon the support of donors of all types to sustain and survive. Athletic departments rely on everyone from the $100 dollar donor who feels lucky to take his seat in the end zone each Saturday to the suite holder who entertains clients, friends, and family in luxury each week. Now the future reliability of donors at any level is uncertain as more members of our younger generations no longer think of athletics as a part of their college experience.
In the athletics world, it’s easy to focus on the day to day – make it through the next game, allocate tickets for the next season, ensure requests are met for the bowl game. As a result, we aren’t able or don’t have the time to think about cultivating a new generation of loyal supporters to sustain us through the years. What are we doing now, from marketing to communications to ticketing to development, to truly engage students when they are on our campus as a captive audience so that football is second nature to them, so that showing up on Saturdays is a lifelong tradition, and so that we can count on the support of both their dollars and their passion long past their time on campus.