FOOTBALL: An empty rule
The sun shone brightly on the unseasonably warm fall afternoon. If it weren't for the leaves' changing colors, the day could have been plucked out of June, not October. On what might have been the last nice Saturday for months in Muncie, surely there would be plenty of fans in Scheumann Stadium to cheer on Ball State against Central Michigan. The Cardinals had a winning record and were in the hunt for a conference championship and a bowl game.
Yet, in the hours leading up to Ball State's game on Oct. 22, whenever the topic of conversation turned to attendance, everyone seemed to have a similar feeling. The atmosphere felt, well, flat. The traffic around the stadium was flowing, instead of stopped in gridlock, like it had been two weeks before, the last time Ball State played at home. Word came in from the tailgate lots that they were relatively empty. Soon, it became apparent the stands would be as well.
By the time the attendance was announced in the second half of Ball State's comeback victory, it was no surprise that it was a season-low 7,160. Almost 2,000 more people had watched Ball State's Homecoming game in 1959 when the school had just 6,000 students enrolled. Since then, Ball State's enrollment has tripled.
The low attendance surprised both coach Pete Lembo and athletic director Tom Collins. Collins thought the Cardinals surely could have at least matched their season average for attendance, which at the time was 12,042. The poor attendance miffed Lembo, who promised in his newsletter to boosters the next day to take a more active approach in marketing in the future.
"It is clear from the home attendance figures this season that the game day atmosphere and the marketing of the football program to students must also receive an infusion of new ideas," Lembo wrote. "We have thousands of alumni that live within 90 minutes of campus. While Muncie is not a metropolis and Ball State is not Alabama, there is no reason why we should not expect to draw 15,000 fans to a football game."
Yet, even if Ball State had matched its season average for Scheumann Stadium, it would have been disconcerting. Not only would that have left more than 53 percent of Scheumann Stadium empty, it would have left the NCAA unsatisfied.
Most of the talk about schools potentially facing NCAA sanctions centers on illegal recruiting or impermissible contact between players and boosters. But for small Football Bowl Subdivision schools like Ball State and other members of the Mid-American Conference, the NCAA bylaw requiring a minimum average attendance at home football games must also be closely monitored.
The rule requires every FBS school to average at least 15,000 fans per home game once in a two-year rolling period. For schools like Ohio State and Alabama, this rule means nothing. But for Ball State, it is a number that must be minded every year, lest the numbers slip too far below 15,000.
Little about NCAA bylaw 184.108.40.206 is clear. Its past is shrouded in mystery, its language full of the legalese that fills the pages of the NCAA rulebook. Not even every athletic director fully understands where the rule came from, and some question why it exists at all. Football is the only sport the NCAA sets a minimum attendance mark for and failing to meet the standard triggers some of the harshest penalties the organization has at its disposal.
Simply, the rule says that at least once in a two-year rolling period, each FBS member must have an average attendance of at least 15,000 at its home games. The first time a school comes up short of the minimum, it enters a 10-year probationary period. If the rule is violated again during the next 10 years, the school receives a one-year bowl ban. If its attendance is still beneath the threshold, the school is dropped to the Football Championship Subdivision, formerly known as Division I-AA.
With schools facing perhaps the harshest penalty since the NCAA gave the death penalty to Southern Methodist, forcing its 1987 season to be cancelled, it would seem to be in their best interest to understand the rule. But Kent State athletic director Joel Nielsen and Bowling Green athletic director Greg Christopher both admitted to unfamiliarity regarding the rule.
"I don't know where the number came from or how it was devised," Nielsen said. "I've had my head down just trying to sell tickets."
"It's a great question," Christopher said. "I've never given it a second thought."
NCAA spokesman Chris Radford said the attendance minimum has evolved over the years. It initially required all FBS schools, then known as Division I-A, to have a 30,000 seat stadium and average 17,000 fans once every two years. The stadium capacity aspect of the rule was dropped and the average attendance was lowered to 15,000 in 2002, though the rule didn't go into effect until 2005.
Though the NCAA has released "official" attendance numbers annually since 2005, it is impossible to know if any school has ever failed to meet the minimum attendance numbers in that time. The NCAA won't say if any school has come up short and refuses to provide the numbers it uses for its "official counting purposes."
It is clear, however, that the NCAA has never kicked a school out of the FBS. And it likely never will. The NCAA bylaws offer a convenient way for schools to get around the attendance minimum. Each school decides if it wants to use actual attendance or paid attendance to determine if it met the minimum. Schools are also allowed to count purchases of large blocks of tickets, as long as they are sold for at least one-third their face value.
The exception makes it possible for a school that thinks it will fall short on ticket sales to get boosters to buy large numbers of discounted tickets they have no intention of using just to meet the minimum. Collins said Ball State used this method last year to avoid sanctions. An anonymous donor paid about a quarter million dollars for about 35,000 tickets at $7 a piece (a third of Ball State's normally priced $21 tickets) to push Ball State's average attendance last year from 8,947 to 15,000.
Collins said Ball State is prepared to have a donor buy extra tickets again this year if it is necessary. It appears, however, that the school will barely cross the threshold thanks to the game at Lucas Oil Stadium against Indiana, where Ball State was nominally the home team.
"That again why it's key for some of these institutions to price your tickets the right way so you're not pricing yourself out from trying to do that," Collins said. "There's a little bit of magic in how you do that so you can hit your attendance number."
Eastern Michigan, another MAC school, gets even more creative than that. The school wrote a provision into its distribution contract with Pepsi requiring the company to buy $150,000 worth of tickets every year. Eastern Michigan's tickets are listed at $10, meaning Pepsi can buy about 45,000 tickets, the equivalent of three games of meeting the attendance standard.
A member of a rival athletic department also noted Eastern Michigan schedules the NCAA minimum of five home games every other year. That reduces the total number of tickets the school must sell in a year to 75,000, making Pepsi's guaranteed tickets go even further to reaching the minimum.
With such easy ways around the rule, the rule itself is called into question. But the schools that comprise the NCAA seem to be willing to look the other way as some of them exploit the loophole.
"This issue was discussed at length," Radford said. "Ultimately, the membership supported the current model."
Joel Nielsen thought he was taking over a model athletic department in the MAC in 2010 when he became the 11th athletic director in Kent State's history. Kent State was finishing an academic year in which it become the first school to sweep the Reese and Jacoby Trophies, given each year to the conference's top men's and women's athletic program.
"It is a privilege for me to have inherited such a tremendously talented group of people whose singular focus is on being the best at whatever they do," Nielsen said in a press release. "Today is a day for the entire university to be proud."
But beneath the surface of the athletic department, hidden by the region's best baseball program, nationally-ranked golf teams and the conference's premier men's basketball power, there was a tumor lurking. Kent State had a serious football attendance problem and it had to be corrected fast or else it would put the whole department in jeopardy.
According to the figures released by the NCAA, Kent State failed to meet the attendance minimum in 2007 and 2008, putting it in violation of the bylaws. Because the attendance numbers the NCAA releases aren't necessarily paid attendance (the way most schools on the borderline meet the minimum) and it doesn't release a list of schools in violation of the attendance rule, it is unknown what the NCAA did then.
But by the time Nielsen was taking over at Kent State in spring of 2010, the NCAA had decided to take action with Kent State. It sent a warning letter, explaining that if the school continued to fail to meet the attendance minimum it would begin to face the penalties outlined in its bylaws.
The focus of Nielsen's first year on the job immediately became improving attendance at Dix Stadium at all costs.
"Shortly after I accepted the position, the university was informed it failed to meet the attendance requirements," Nielsen said. "I was immediately tasked with addressing that."
Nielsen said he knew that football attendance was an issue he wanted to address before he came to Kent and that attendance was discussed in his job interview. To assist with the problem, Nielsen hired Thomas Kleinlein as his executive associate athletic director and put him in charge of football.
Together, Kleinlein and Nielsen developed what would be known as the 90Ksu plan. Its goal was to sell 90,000 tickets to Kent State football, the minimum number that would meet the NCAA standard.
"We're embracing the NCAA number and seeing how far we can run with it," Nielsen said when the plan was announced.
While Nielsen aimed to expand Kent State's season ticket base and sell more single-game tickets, he knew that alone wouldn't be enough to reach 90,000.
"We also asked our better fans, donors and alums for outright cash gifts so we could purchase tickets for bigger groups," Nielsen said.
The NCAA bylaws allow a ticket to be counted as long as it is sold for at least one-third its face value. So by asking for donations of $10,000 or $15,000, Kent State could buy large blocks of discounted tickets and distribute them to local schools or athletic teams or other groups for free.
Ultimately, 90K was a success. Kent State averaged 16,152 fans at its six home games, its best attendance since the NCAA minimum went into effect in 2005. Nielsen has kept the plan in place this year, though with less-promising results. Kent State averaged 11,587 fans this season.
But Nielsen hasn't forgotten last year's success and the impact it had on Kent State.
"It was kind of galvanizing," Nielsen said. "The problem was addressed not only as department but as campus and community."
Swaths of empty seats can often be found throughout the MAC, sometimes forcing creative shots by television crews to keep as many of the empty seats out of the spotlight as possible.
The attendance report released annually by the NCAA isn't so kind. In 2009 and 2010, the last two years for which official numbers are available, the attendance minimum was missed a combined 19 times by schools nationwide. Nine times, or 47 percent, it was a MAC school failing to meet the mark. Ball State and Bowling Green were the only MAC schools to miss both years.
An average of 3.8 MAC members has failed to meet the minimum each year since 2005. This year was better, as only two schools reported attendance numbers that fall short of the threshold.
MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher acknowledged some of the conference's members have trouble getting fans to their games, but said the problems most often plagues losing teams.
"Where a team has struggled, attendance usually follows that," Steinbrecher said. "Where we have compelling games, more often than not you find good attendance."
Of the 23 MAC teams that failed to meet the standard from 2005-2010, four have gone to bowl games, including Ball State in 2007, and two others were bowl eligible.
Steinbrecher said, as commissioner, the way he can best help the schools improve attendance is to make sure the conference members are communicating what has and hasn't worked at their schools.
But Steinbrecher is also responsible for overseeing the conference's television contracts with ESPN and SportsTime Ohio. The MAC's contract with ESPN is intertwined with some of the conference's attendance issues, and balancing the two is a difficult task.
The ESPN deal, which runs through the 2016-17 school year, guarantees the MAC at least 11 nationally televised games a year. It doesn't guarantee they will be on Saturdays. In the press release announcing the deal, ESPN senior vice president Burke Magnus even complimented the MAC's willingness to engage in "creative scheduling."
The nationally televised games typically fall during the week, often in November. Last month, the MAC played 13 midweek games, all of which drew fewer than 18,000 fans, including de facto championship games for both divisions.
Yet, the national exposure is enticing for the conference's coaches. It allows them to recruit in areas of the country far from the Midwest, where a high school student may otherwise have never heard of Ball State or Eastern Michigan.
"I think what kills this league from an attendance standpoint is when you play those ESPN Tuesday and Wednesday night games," Bowling Green coach Dave Clawson said. "You get unbelievable exposure for your program on a national level, but it doesn't help your actual in-game attendance. For our fan base, a lot of them come from Cleveland, they come from Cincinnati, they come from Columbus, they come from Detroit. When you have a 7 p.m. kickoff on a Tuesday night, it's hard for them to get there. We have classes going on at that time; it's hard for our students to come there. We love it, we would never give up that exposure from ESPN because it lets people from California and Florida and Texas see the Falcons on TV, but those games kill our average attendance numbers."
The Friday after Thanksgiving is even worse than Tuesday or Wednesday nights in November for the MAC's attendance numbers. Last year, there were five games played that day, all on television. Only one drew more than 9,000 fans and the day's average attendance was a paltry 7,189. The numbers were better this year, as two games topped 16,000 in attendance and the day's average was about 13,000 fans.
Steinbrecher said playing on Thanksgiving Friday is unavoidable. The MAC Championship game is played the following Friday, and the conference wants to give both teams seven days to prepare. And even if those games were pushed back a day, Stenbrecher isn't sure attendance would be any better.
"It's just a hard date regardless," he said. "Students are not on campus, and there are a couple really large national rivalry games going on."
In a conference with nine schools in either Ohio or Michigan, perhaps playing on Black Friday is better than playing on the same day as the Ohio State-Michigan game.
There are as many theories about how to improve attendance at Ball State football games as there are empty seats in Scheumann Stadium. But nearly everyone expects attendance will cease to be an issue if Ball State can win a few more games a year.
Ball State's best attended game was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving in 2008. The Cardinals entered the game 11-0 and ranked No. 15 in the country. A record crowd of 23,861, including more than 12,000 students, watched Ball State defeat Western Michigan 45-22, clinching the MAC West and a perfect regular season.
"I remember watching on ESPN," said Christopher, the Bowling Green athletic director. "It didn't matter what night of the week that was, it was a tremendous atmosphere."
But since that night, the storybook ending to a magical regular season, Scheumann Stadium has hosted more games with fewer than 6,000 people inside than games with more than 15,000.
The Cardinals have won just a third of their games since that night, but it raises the question: Can Ball State reasonably be expected to average 15,000 fans per home game?
Steinbrecher said yes. He said he believes the minimum set by the NCAA is a fair number, within the reach of all 13 of the MAC's schools.
"If you look at the size of our schools, the student bodies, the fan bases, yeah, we should be able to do that," he said.
Collins wouldn't say if the number is fair or not. He doesn't think there needs to be a minimum.
"I guess my whole point is, I think it's all about the scholarships," Collins said. "If you're giving out 85 opportunities and you're in a league and you have access to bowl games ... I just don't see where the attendance number is something magical."
James Johnson, a sports administration professor at Ball State, said he thinks 15,000 might be too low. Since the rule was written in 2002, college football attendance has gone up nationwide. He said the minimum could be raised to reflect that increase.
But the issue is not likely to be raised anytime soon. With the vast majority of FBS teams easily surpassing the attendance minimum, it isn't at the forefront of the agenda as the NCAA seeks to reign in out of control athletic departments. Radford, the NCAA spokesman, said the minimum hasn't come up since the rule was written.
"As far as I'm aware, NCAA membership has not expressed interest in changing the rule since then," he said.
So for now at least, Ball State and other schools struggling with attendance will keep searching for ways to get just 15,000 fans into their stadiums on game day. Or, failing that, searching for a donor who doesn't mind buying a few thousand tickets that will never be used.