UH playing chicken with its fans
COAL mine, meet canary.
OK, that analogy might be overstating things a little bit. (Sorry; it just sounded cool.) Let's not get out of hand. In no way does the news that Hawaii football season-ticket renewals "have exceeded 16,000," as UH put it the other day, sound the death knell.
("Exceeded." I love that. "Exceeded." When you're announcing news that says your numbers are going down, down, down, throw "exceeded" in there. Some people [OK, me] are susceptible to the Jedi Mind Trick. Unfortunately, there are others out there with calculators.)
But this is something we should all sit up and take notice. This is an alarm bell. This is not an encouraging trend. This is not a good sign. This is not something to just wave away like nothing.
The canary hasn't croaked -- but he's clearing his throat.
Still, maybe the better metaphor is this: Chicken, meet egg.
A lot of the talk about the loss of attendance revolves around pay-per-view and how live TV is killing the gate. Well, that's true to some extent. But let's not forget, pay-per-view was created in the first place not because there was so much overflow interest it was needed to meet demand. No, it was because a lot of people weren't going to the games anyway -- so UH might as well try to find a way to at least get some money out of the fans who were already staying home.
You needed pay-per-view because attendance wasn't so hot. Then pay-per-view affected attendance (at least a little). Which meant you needed pay-per-view even more.
Which is why -- some say -- attendance is down, again, today.
It can be a cruel cycle, chicken-egg.
Same with the premium-seat licenses. Now, this was, albeit painful, a smart move by Hawaii athletic director Herman Frazier. UH needed to join the 1990s on this issue. Unfortunately, everywhere, fans have to come up with this extra cash. That's reality.
But when your stadium isn't full, it also means you're charging the people who do actually buy tickets more, to make up for the ones who don't. Which meant that fewer people bought those tickets. Which meant that premium money was even more important, to make up for that difference. And if you raise the price to balance the numbers, a few more can't pay.
And so on. And so on.
In an issue like this a lot of it is economics (gas is killing us -- nice move, gas-cap opponents). Maybe most of it. But not all of it. College sports are about passion, they're passed down through generations. College sports are about the almost-familial relationship between program and fans. College football is emotional investment. That's why it's the greatest game in the world.
I still think the loss of tradition and identity, a diss of history, come into play here, over the long run.
(It's not the main reason -- it might not even be a big reason. If the Rainbow were restored tomorrow would 50,000 people suddenly rush the ticket windows? Um, no. But I think this stuff does come into play as an underlying, cumulative, factor.)
People just don't feel the way they used to about UH football.
Last December I wrote that falling attendance -- and the general attitude in the air -- told us that people were not emotionally invested in UH football, even if all the money numbers added up. You'd think that was self-evident, but the response was overwhelming. It touched a chord like few columns have.
E-mail after e-mail said it: Unfortunately, it was true.
Today, with these renewal numbers, we see that it's still true. Even with the regular sports-radio callers telling us that UH is going to take it to Alabama, even with the homesick, stuck-on-the-mainland Internet posters saying this will be the greatest offense of all-time, a mere 16,000-something season-ticket renewals show us the melancholy, unfortunate truth.
It's complicated. There are probably as many reasons why as there are empty seats.
It's a different time.
When June Jones got his big-money deal in 2003 I wrote the man was worth every dime if he filled the stadium again: "This contract says UH not only has to be a big deal on the national scale, but at home, too. Time to make Hawaii football the hottest ticket in town again," I wrote.
"With a contract like this, he has to kick-start attendance. Even if he's doing it with both hands tied behind his back ..."
(Because with pay-per-view, traffic, no tailgating, ho-hum opponents, obnoxious drunks, he would be doing it with both hands behind his back.)
Nobody said any of this is easy.
It's a different time.
Today we sigh about 16,000, and hope that Frazier's new computer ticket system comes back with a miracle (out of nowhere, thousands of brand-new season-ticket buyers to save the day).
Today we argue about what started this sad downward spiral, which came first, chicken or egg.
Today, at the end of this column, we are back to the original analogy: A canary, coughing. It's a warning. You can't let this keep going. UH has exceeded the number of empty seats this proud program should have to take.