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August 1, 2013

HERTZEL COLUMN: Winning addresses viewing habits

MORGANTOWN — First off, as West Virginia University’s football camp opens today with a clean slate, the disappointments of a year ago a distant memory and, as always is the case with the rebirth of football season, there is extreme optimism.

People expect the football team to have a different look and feel, with the departure of superstars Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. With the running backs seemingly the strength and with a change in defensive coordinators and an influx of junior college talent, it’s expected that the worst defense in WVU history will make dramatic strides.

But those are only part of the changes in West Virginia football this season, for there will be changes in presentation brought about through the Big 12 itself in an effort to alter what has been becoming a serious problem in the college game.

“I think one of the things that will be a hallmark of this coming year is an attempt by our conference to really be innovative,” Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said in his “State of the Conference” address on media day. “We have a number of different things that we’re working on, some of them in response to elements of our business, and some of them just things that we think are interesting and that might eventually bear fruit down the road.”

One of the major changes will be bringing in-game taped and live highlights from other Big 12 games around the league into conference stadia.

The reason they feel this necessary?

“This is largely a response to declining attendance on a national basis,” Bowlsby said. “Our schools are 85 percent full. We’ve got many that are experiencing hard sellouts every game.”

As popular as college football is, there are real problems. Even here at West Virginia, where football is king, attendance has slid significantly.

In 2007 it reached a high average of 60,400. Last year it was down to 55,919.

That’s a 7.75 percent decline with attendance falling every year since then except 2011, when average attendance rose only 207 per game.

This is not out of line with what is going on across America.

“We feel like our attendance has remained relatively strong, but I think nationwide we’re seeing student numbers declining,” Bowlsby said. “We’re seeing season ticket numbers declining. College football has experienced declines in overall attendance over the last four or five years, and I think bringing highlights in will take into account and help one of the things that really is getting to be a challenge for us.”

In a way, college football has cost itself attendance by increasing its revenue through television.

“We put together all of these multimedia deals, but with that comes the interminable 2:30 and 2:45 television time-out, and during those time-outs in Big 12 stadiums this year, we will have highlights from other games. They will be mixed in with other things that are being done on campus,” Bowlsby noted.

Bowlsby believes this will be entertaining for fans at the stadia.

“I think it will be one item that will keep people from staying home in front of their televisions or watching on a PDA or in one way or another saving time and money and staying home. That is the trend,” he said.

Bowlsby says people’s viewing habits are changing, and that going to the stadium now has strong competition from staying at home or heading into your local bar and grill.

“We see people that have a 60-inch television and they can have their mobile device with full wi-fi on their lap, no lines at the restroom, no charge for concessions. They can have a cold beer when they want to, and they don’t have to spend six to eight hours traveling to and from the stadium,” Bowlsby said. “So it’s something that we’re very excited about, and we think that it will greatly enhance the in-stadium environment.”

Nothing, of course, replaces winning, however.

When West Virginia’s attendance was at its peak it was when Pat White and Steve Slaton and Owen Schmidt were running over and around their opponents, challenging for a national title and a Big East title.

No one at that time was complaining about lines at the concession stands or the rest rooms, about traveling from across the state to games and of any other inconvenience.

The fact of the matter if WVU wants to reverse the trend here, it needs to win more than the seven games it won last year, because even as exciting as the offense was that was not the major selling point.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.

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