It was always about the superiority of sport to intellect – American universities were willing to spend millions of tax dollars and tuition dollars on coaches instead of academic programs because nothing sustained school spirit and generated alumni gifts like stadiums packed with excited students. And anyway all that sports money would eventually benefit the academic side of the university. A win-win situation.

Yet even the thickest heads in big-time university sports are beginning to notice that nothing in this model works. Even when schools give tickets away, fewer and fewer students attend games. Away games are often a total joke, with a few hundred tickets sold and even those simulacral — blocks of seats some corporation purchased for some reason, but no actual human being wants to use any of them, so a distinction is now drawn between live gate and… dead gate? Simulacral gate.

A bigger concern is empty seats. Some bowls’ live gates are barely half of their announced attendances.

Officials at lower-tier bowls “don’t even believe the (attendance) numbers they give you,” a BCS bowl executive told the American-Statesman. “They’re counting the tickets schools contractually are forced to buy. If they had to sell tickets, we’d probably have 15 bowl games. But that’s not financial reality. You’ve got TV money and sponsorships propping them up.”

Propping them up is one way to put it. Running them would be a better way, since the schools – beyond springing for the coaches and all – have vanishingly little to do with the whole thing, so that university football in America right now is essentially a bunch of tv programs featuring motion on a field in front of vast numbers of empty seats.

Thick heads are being scratched in athletics offices around the nation as to why no one’s showing up (the numbers are drastically down pretty much everywhere). They’ve kind of gone through their traditional excuses (distance, weather, losing seasons, blahblah) and the numbers keep plummeting, and that’s forcing them to scratch their heads yet more.

Let’s see if we can get somewhere with this.

When your culture is simulacral – when everybody relates to the world via images (online universities, tv-mediated sports events) – the whole concept of physical presence falls away. Why be anywhere? Desperate universities talk about “enhancing the stadium experience,” but beyond making sure everyone’s sloshed they haven’t been able to come up with much. They spend millions on huge – yes – screens – the notorious Adzillatrons – and don’t consider the possibility that when you screen the event at the event (interspersed with screaming relentless advertisements) you take away any sense of immediacy and encourage people to reason their way to future non-attendance. (“Hm. I’m paying three hundred dollars to watch the game on an Adzillatron screen. I can watch it at home on my own screen.”)

And it’s a problem that just keeps feeding itself. Consider the loyal season ticket holder who thinks he’s really lucky because he gets guaranteed seats to every game. He gets to the game and no one else is there – except for a bunch of yahoos who stay long enough to get drunk and then leave halfway through. Eventually he’s going to stop attending. No one likes to feel like a chump.

The solution will come from advanced robotics. The networks running university football, seeing that viewership is also down, will figure part of it is the empty stadium. The empty stadium says to the viewer at home that maybe he’s a chump too — maybe fewer and fewer actual people share his enthusiasm for the game. To counteract this, the networks will purchase tens of thousands of humanoids programmed to remain in their seats and get excited.

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4 Responses to “Where the simulacrum ends.”

  1. Mr Punch Says:

    All true, but (setting aside collateral damage to the academic enterprise) only up to a point, or two. First, as far as I know, the really successful football programs at big state universities in major conferences are selling plenty of tickets; what other programs are learning is that you can’t make up for lack of TV money by selling tickets. Second, something like this happened decades ago to minor league baseball, but the minors eventually came back.

    As to the universities themselves — well, whose “fault” is it that the students aren’t so interested in football? College football is a vestige of a past era in higher education, one that still hangs on primarily in the South, when college life was more social and less focused on academics and career than they are now.

  2. JND Says:

    Another twist: Baylor is building a SMALLER stadium in a better location with more amenities.

  3. Michael Tinkler Says:

    JND – that IS like what the minor leagues did! My hometown minor league baseball team built a new field down on the riverfront that seated several thousand fewer people….and it’s much more fun.

    Still, I like UD’s animatronic suggestion.

  4. Jack/OH Says:

    ” . . . [G]enerated alumni gifts . . .”. You donate $100 to Podunk State in 1952. By 2012, Podunk State has inhaled bazillions in TV revenues from its big-money teams. So why continue to donate? Or, if Podunk State is in the hole from building giant sports facilities that fail to bring in the the bazillions in TV revenues–why continue to donate and reward poor stewardship?

    Come to think of it, why should alumni donate at all? The service rendered them by their universities ended with their graduation or withdrawal. We don’t send $100 to BP or Ford saying, “Hey, thanks for that tank of gas that took me to my wedding in my Escort back in 1983. Y’know, I’ll never forget . . .”.

    (I’m emphatically not against alumni giving. I’m for asking reasonable questions about alumni giving.)

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