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Western Wednesdays: Discussing the attendance problem at WMU

WMU struggles to get people to games and stay there. The WMU writers discuss this rather unfortunate fact.

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

"You actually go to the games?"

This is a question many Bronco faithful are far too familiar with. While WMU certainly isn't the worst around, its attendance track record is less than stellar, and it's well documented. This makes the WMU writers at Hustle Belt upset. The WMU writers at Hustle Belt decided to talk about it.

Let's talk about attendance

Justin Coffin: Alright. WMU, and the MAC as a whole, has what some would call "a bit of an attendance problem" when it comes to athletics. What's at the root of it? Why aren't people - students in particular - going to and staying at these games?

Ben Roush: I think the situation partly stems from college football on TV that students watch growing up before they get to college. Kids grow up watching B1G action every Saturday (because that's what gets on TV) and that becomes their standard for what college football "should be."

So when they get to Kalamazoo or Athens or Muncie, they still want to follow the large programs of the sport and that initial attraction to their new school isn't quite there, which holds for basketball as well. And you need some inertia of the die-hards in any sport to get the more common fans in the door for a stadium experience. It's not that the students don't have any pride in their MAC affiliation, they'll show up for the big games or rivalries, but there's never quite enough importance in the collective campus psyche placed on the "home" school.

Which, for the record, is crap because THAT'S WHERE THEY GO TO SCHOOL.

Brown and Gold: We're starting to see attendance numbers drop across the board though, and I think that has more to do with the relative availability to watch events at home via ESPN/WatchESPN. If you could sit home and watch versus paying money to go to the game, would you? No lines for the bathroom, no high prices for a hot dog or pop, no traffic to go's the world we live in. Sporting events, especially at the MAC level aren't considered "events" anymore, and that's what the schools really have to address.

And it can be done in a number of ways. Two big ones. (1) Improve the level of play by getting better and getting wins (quality ones) consistently and (2) add more entertainment. option 1 requires a good hire and good performance over a few years and option 2 requires increasingly more money the more entertainment/better entertainment brought in for experience purposes. Inevitably, option 1 requires a lot of money too, and most MAC schools don't have that sort of moolah.

It's a vicious cycle.

And as for students, they only care about one thing: grades.

I assume that's all they care about in college. Grades.

Oh, you're finished? Well then allow me to retort

Justin: Ben I agree you have to get TV exposure to people young, but there was a time that only a handful of teams got on TV, and therefore held a fandom monopoly of sorts. TV deals expanded and now Oregon is a powerhouse. Does the MAC TV deal show promise for a MAC school like Western looking to expand its brand?

And on the TV expansion note, Fitz you wrote about the viewing results from year one of the ESPN3 deal and that they were, well, not that great. Sure in person attendance is falling all across the board, but for the right TV money, these schools would play in an empty stadium would they not?

BnG: That's a slippery slope though. No fans = nobody to cheer your athletes. Athletes love fans and if there aren't any, then why play there when you have fans showing up down South? No good athletes, and the level of play falls, and then you don't get the TV money.

Justin: So then butts in seats are the proverbial egg to the TV chicken.

Western has trouble getting kids to games and staying in games. It also has trouble retaining fans after they've graduated. How much of this blame is just on the students not buying into it? I think there's an academic institutional component to this as well. I find many with a lack of pride in the fact that they've gone to Western as childhood friends choose to attend Michigan, MSU etc.

Ben: Oh boy, that just breaks my heart. Western is a great damn institution. But you're probably on to something there.

I think lack of student commitment is the problem not just at WMU, but across the MAC. The big fanbases just aren't there so it's tough to get pumped for every game. When teams are good or there are interesting players/coaches, numbers probably will spike, but it's so hard to maintain that.

Regarding the TV deals, the best thing about that is that the hardcore fans can keep up with the MAC even when they're not able to hit up every game. Like me!

Justin: I agree, and winning isn't a cure-all for attendance either (see NIU). My big question is where to assign the blame, if there's any to be assigned. Is this just an inherently fickle fan base, or is it a program issue? PJ Fleck seems to think the latter. One of his key initiatives in taking over at Western was to get people to the games. I sometimes fear that he could be fighting an uphill battle. Like Spongebob at Rock Bottom uphill.

Ben: "This is advanced darkness"

I think P.J.'s right that it can be fixed through program success eventually, but, like he's said, you have to pull a complete Boise State. And while that would establish a consistent fan base, current fans should take it upon themselves to be freaking hardcore

Justin: Complete Boise State would be nice. I'd love for WMU to get to that level of recognition. I want the Broncos to win like NIU, but NIU is like, the San Antonio Spurs of the MAC. Nothing too flashy, just annoyingly consistent. Pests, those Huskies.

But we can't just poke holes here. We have to propose a solution. The three of us collectively could come to something I think, so here's a small and completely unoriginal proposal: serve beer at Waldo

BnG: Beer is a nice start, but for me, it begins and ends with the product on the field. The lower tiers may not be able to keep high profile coaches forever, but if Boise State can keep Chris Peterson for eight years (featuring two Fiesta Bowl wins) and then turn his successor into a Fiesta Bowl winner, then the MAC surely should be able to as well. It all starts with the next guy though, and Petersen preceded and succeeded by butt loads of wins.

Justin: To keep Fleck like Boise did with Peterson, you'll have to keep paying him. I agree that what is important is the product on the field. Not just winning, but winning in style. Grinding out games on the ground 17-14 isn't going to get people to abandon watching B1G football on Saturdays.

Which, check. WMU isn't going to have a lot of those games against anyone.

Any last words?

Justin: My final thoughts are this. College football is important to people, and students at Western are no exception. Bronco football, however, is not important to students at Western as a whole. Bridging that gap won't be easy, and it shouldn't be. Schools take decades to build a brand with staying power, and WMU will be no different. Making it important to the fan base is equal parts academic pride, field product and game day experience. The student body receives a lot of flack for preferring to drink instead of attending the games, which, they probably do. That's not because WMU students prefer drinking as an activity more than its B1G counterparts, but the result of the game being played behind them isn't important. It's not important because ESPN isn't setting up College Game Day on MAC campuses. It's not important because there hasn't been enough Brown and Gold success on TV. I look at Boise State and I see this: Win when you're not supposed to, roll when you are, and whatever you do, do it interesting. The program has done its job to be interesting, and for the students and alumni? Would it kill you to buy in for a couple years at least? After all, you've already paid for it.

BnG: We saw it with hockey, and I really think it can happen with football.  Just win, and you'll put butts in seats.  Win consistently, and you become a hot commodity.  I was listening to David Drew on the radio the other day on my way to work, and he called the program "mediocre" still, and he's right.  WMU hasn't beaten Toledo, they haven't beaten NIU, and they haven't won the MAC West.  Once those things change, then you focus on the bigger things like conference titles and the ever elusive Group of Five bid into the playoffs.  I think Fleck can do that, but it'll take more than recruits over a couple years.  It takes consistent wins at hires, and consistent wins over some of the middle of the pack Power 5 schools.  Then you go full Boise State with the full on Fiesta Bowl and Top 25 victories.  It'll take time, but by buying in now, fans are saying, "we believe in the process, and we want this to work," which is all you can really do at any program.

Ben: Hockey's a sightly different situation but I'm still with you guys. Increasing culture and winning are a positive loop.

And we have to remember that for football, it's an unfair system. The best thing for us to do as #MACtion fans is to keep going to games. Keep yelling our hearts out, and try to get others to replicate the passion. Fight the good MAC fight, brothers and sisters. Fight on.