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LSU, Tailgating, and the Attendance Problem

If we’re wondering why there are empty seats inside the stadium, maybe start looking outside of the stadium.

College football has an in-stadium attendance problem nowadays. That’s an inarguable fact, and one that virtually every program in America is dealing with right now.

We all see the empty tracts in Tiger Stadium. Most of them don’t change for most of the season, save for maybe the biggest games, and even then we rarely see the standing-room-only sellouts we were used to even a few years ago.

So why is it happening? Is it smartphones? Nah. College football has been a sport built on the in-game experience for some 100 years. In the last 50 or so, television has slowly eaten into that — and that market share has officially reached critical mass. In the last 20 years or so, the fans of every major program have the option of watching every single game of their team live, in high definition, from the comfort of home. You can eat and drink what you want, sit next to whomever you want and have the comfort of your couch or designated lounging chair instead of a stadium seat.

A program’s only counter is the experience of being in the stadium, live and in person, which certainly has value, but one that will vary in countless situations. A level of variables that the market simply isn’t equipped to deal with.

That said, let’s talk about some of the unique variables built into LSU’s experience.

LSU football, at least off the field, is about tailgating. That’s the experience that the program sells in every broadcast through B-roll footage of outfits grilling or cooking the designated opponent.

“You can smell the bourbon on the field,” as they say.

But what’s happening to that tailgate experience? Well, I’ll tell you how mine has changed over the years.

Starting my freshman year of college, my parents, some extended family and some close friends had a group that shifted over towards the LSU student union. We held our “spot” through all of my four years on campus, and then later through a big chunk of my younger brother’s, from 2006 through 2010. But in the nine years since, the degree of difficulty has increased in a number of ways.

Construction and campus renovation reduced parking for the central part of campus — especially on the East side of campus near Highland Road. We adjusted by arriving earlier for big games.

Then, the university began to charge for parking on the interior portion of campus. The Student Union parking lot became a non-renewable parking pass lot, one that rarely fills for most games.

Then came the game-to-game passes. We ate the charges for street parking, but the distribution of those daily passes was, and remains, a monument in inefficiency. Passes cost $40 for conference games, $20 for non-conference — although the non-conference reduction is a recent phenomenon.

In the past few years, the campus Easy Streets initiative has eaten up more parking spots, while more interior lots have become reserved for non-renewed passes. At times, the parking available has shifted game-to-game without much notice beyond some cursory media announcements. Cirica 2012, one of my uncles, an alumnus and season-ticket holder since the 1960s, swore off coming after I was forced to park his car on Lakeshore Drive, nearly a mile away from our tailgate. He had arrived at 2 p.m. for a 6:30 p.m. kickoff.

Slowly, it’s pushed our family group farther out towards the southeast corner of campus. Eventually, the weekly passes became untenable, so we secured renewable passes for a lot. Now, those renewable passes are restricted to the far west side of campus. With parents in their late 60s, that represents an untenable walk to the stadium and another layer of ridiculous post-game traffic, up to and including another hour or two added to the drive home. A 6 p.m. kick ends well after 10 p.m. A 2:30 CBS kick still doesn’t wrap until well into the night. For some, there’s still a two- or three-hour drive home.

That’s a lot to ask, especially for a party that doesn’t have a guaranteed location before the game.

For my party, that may very well go away this upcoming season. As of press time we don’t have a set place to park, and the frustrations have led many to consider giving up their tickets. And that’s before the obligations of people like me that are a husband and a father to young children.

A big part of the reason that LSU’s in-game attendance is down, quite frankly, is that it’s just become incredibly hard to come to a home football game. For the last 20 or so years we’ve come to love tailgating. My parents, neither of which are LSU alums, have come to love the escalation of the tailgaing party, with food and TVs and music and all of the technology that comes with the deal. But the work that it takes just to get all of that ready to set up? That’s not fun. Having to haul ice chests and generators blocks. Having to get to campus earlier and earlier for the lesser games, nevermind the insanity of a major conference matchup.

It’s just hard. It’s a lot of work. Work that is becoming increasingly futile. It’s really difficult to tailgate for an LSU football game. Especially with a family. And it doesn’t feel like it’s going to become easier. Which will lead to more of us staying home and watching it on TV.

If LSU wants to reverse the trend of game attendance, making those games an easier trip might be a good place to start.

I’m not naive to the financial realities. The college football arms race isn’t deescalating anytime soon, and as long as there are people willing to pay the premium for parking, LSU has to find a way to mine that revenue. That said, here’s the current parking map for LSU gamedays:

The number of reserved parking pass lots (in gold) have increased every year, to the point that it covers virtually the entire campus interior. Do these lots fill up for every home game? Absolutely not. The exterior free lots (in purple) not only fill up extremely quickly, but mark a logistical nightmare for getting in and out. The per-game parking (in blue) is likewise a practical boondoggle. There are just two points of purchase on Dalrymple Drive and South Stadium. Neither checkpoint seems to communicate with the other as to the number of spaces available. Some games, the passes run out at 8 a.m. or sooner. Sometimes both points run out of tickets with spaces still available. On top of that, there’s no ability to either purchase tickets in advance (unless you want to buy an overnight pass and leave a vehicle), or extras to help manage friends or family that are arriving later, either due to traffic or just real life. Any sort of slowdown on I-10, and members of my group are often S.O.L. with regards to parking.

Regardless of the wisdom of trying so squeeze this extra revenue from fans, there surely has to be a more efficient way to manage it.

Tailgating culture is LSU football culture. It’s become as much a part of the program’s image as white jerseys and live Tigers. But it’s become a culture that’s continued to squeeze smaller family groups out. And when your 20-plus year tailgating traditions are already stepped on, it becomes that much easier to ponder staying away altogether. Tailgates already cost money in both equipment and food. Escalating the mere cost of appearance is becoming a bridge too far.

Maybe this seems like screaming into the void, but if LSU would like to think about long-term ways to boost attendance, they might want to consider these issues. Speaking as one of three siblings that are LSU alumni, taking over our parents’ season tickets is something we’ve been unsure on — the cost of the tickets and tradition fund is one thing, but the further investment in both money and time that comes with game attendance is the larger problem. And the time and convenience portion is the larger one, especially as the monetary portion keeps increasing.

And I don’t think I’m the only one that sees it.

If Scott Woodward and the new leadership in the athletic department truly want to work on the attendance problem, the rising issues with tailgating need to be looked at as well.