Col­lege game’s cul­ture gap

Alabama, Clem­son clash in Bay Area for na­tional ti­tle

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - USA TODAY SPORTS - Brent Schroten­boer

Foot­ball fans from two of the red­dest states will in­vade one of the bluest ar­eas of the na­tion on Mon­day.

Clem­son and Alabama are play­ing for the na­tional cham­pi­onship at Levi’s Sta­dium in Santa Clara, Cal­i­for­nia, 45 miles south­east of San Fran­cisco. But it might seem like a for­eign coun­try for some of their trav­el­ing fans.

“I don’t care if we play in North Ko­rea,” an anony­mous fan wrote on an in­ter­net mes­sage board ded­i­cated to Clem­son Univer­sity in South Car­olina. “I’m go­ing to the game and I’m thrilled. Yes I may see home­less and Nancy Pelosi (the Con­gress­woman from San Fran­cisco). I don’t care.”

The col­lege foot­ball cul­tural gap seems to have got­ten more pro­nounced as the po­lit­i­cal di­vide’s deep­ened, and the cham­pi­onship game pro­vides an es­pe­cially stark ex­am­ple of the dis­tance in be­tween, lit­er­ally and oth­er­wise.

Al­though the game is tech­ni­cally a sell­out, prices on the sec­ondary ticket mar­ket are the low­est since the Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off for­mat started in 201415, ac­cord­ing to SeatGeek. And while some fans say noth­ing could keep them away, oth­ers have cited dis­tance and cost as rea­sons they will not at­tend.

“I have been made aware that, be­cause of the dis­tance to the two schools, some fans will not be able to make it out to Santa Clara for the game,” Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor Bill Han­cock told USA TO­DAY. “One of our goals when the CFP was cre­ated was to move the cham­pi­onship game around the coun­try, so peo­ple in dif­fer­ent ar­eas could ex­pe­ri­ence top-level cham­pi­onship col­lege foot­ball. And that will come to pass — new fans will be ex­posed to this great sport.”

View­er­ship, at­ten­dance and on-field re­sults show the sport is still dom­i­nated by much more po­lit­i­cally red ar­eas.

Only one of the top 30 teams in av­er­age at­ten­dance this sea­son came from west of Kansas — Wash­ing­ton, which ranked 19th. The top 29 most in­tense tele­vi­sion mar­kets for view­ing reg­u­larsea­son games on ESPN and ABC came from two fa­natic re­gions:

❚ The South, which in­cludes Texas, Ok­la­homa and Florida un­der the U.S. Cen­sus Bureau def­i­ni­tion. Birm­ing­ham, Alabama, ranked first again with 6.7 per­cent of its TV house­holds watch­ing on av­er­age, ac­cord­ing to Nielsen data.

❚ The Mid­west, plus nearby Pitts­burgh, dot­ted the top 25, led by sev­eral mar­kets in Ohio.

Seat­tle was the top Western mar­ket for ESPN, rank­ing 30th with an av­er­age of 1.9 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to ESPN’s rank­ings of the 56 big­gest mar­kets.

This re­flects the suc­cess of their schools. Teams from the South also have won 12 of the past 13 na­tional cham­pi­onships, with Ohio State win­ning the other. Other cul­tural fac­tors play a role, too.

“The fer­vor for foot­ball and how it sorts out is part of a larger cul­tural set of be­liefs that are re­flected in po­lit­i­cal at­ti­tudes, in re­li­gious view­points and just the way in which peo­ple grow up and view their par­tic­u­lar part of the world,” said Ellen Stau­rowksy, a pro­fes­sor of sport man­age­ment at Drexel Univer­sity. “It’s a 21st- cen­tury form of en­ter­tain­ment but some­thing that has deep roots in ru­ral Amer­ica.”

His­tor­i­cally ru­ral and agri­cul­tural parts of the Mid­west and South have tilted con­ser­va­tive po­lit­i­cally and have helped build fan bases over gen­er­a­tions where no pro teams com­peted for their at­ten­tion. Ne­braska, Alabama, Clem­son and Ok­la­homa are among the few teams last year that drew more than 50,000 for spring in­trasquad scrim­mages. By con­trast, just months af­ter an epic Rose Bowl vic­tory in 2017, for­mer na­tional pow­er­house South­ern Cal­i­for­nia had about 14,000 at­tend its spring scrim­mage in Los An­ge­les.

“One el­e­ment that gets over­looked in the red states vs. blue states foot­ball ques­tion is at­ti­tudes on par­ent­ing,” said Mur­ray Sper­ber, a pro­fes­sor who has taught at In­di­ana and Cal­i­for­nia and has writ­ten books on col­lege sports. “There have been stud­ies on this, and some show that (Pres­i­dent) Trump vot­ers value obe­di­ence very highly, of­ten high­est, in their chil­dren. Whereas (Demo­crat) Hil­lary (Clin­ton) vot­ers of­ten wanted their chil­dren to be­come in­de­pen­dent, cre­ative, etc. Ap­ply this to foot­ball par­ents and fans, throw in the mil­i­tary tra­di­tion in foot­ball and the con­tro­versy over con­cus­sions, and you get some ex­pla­na­tion why foot­ball thrives in red states and de­clines in blue ones.”

The con­ti­nen­tal di­vide also stretches to Colorado, where new head coach Mel Tucker ar­rived in the West-based Pac-12 Con­fer­ence last month af­ter serv­ing as de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor at Ge­or­gia. Tucker quickly learned he wasn’t in the South­east­ern Con­fer­ence any­more, where five of its pub­lic school head coaches last year made more in guar­an­teed pay than the top pub­lic school coach in the Pac-12: Wash­ing­ton’s Chris Petersen at $4.4 mil­lion. Coach­ing pay re­flects cus­tomer de­mand, which is re­gion­ally lop­sided.

“And it’s go­ing to stay that way,” said Jackie Sher­rill, the for­mer head coach at Texas A&M, Mis­sis­sippi State, Wash­ing­ton State and Pitt.

Sher­rill, who played at Alabama in the 1960s, told USA TO­DAY it starts in the South with col­lege foot­ball be­ing em­pha­sized at an early age, es­pe­cially in small towns.

Even­tu­ally, that de­vel­ops into de­mand. In the Pac-12, many fans blame league com­mis­sioner Larry Scott for fall­ing be­hind.

“By any met­ric, the Pac-12 is at a dis­ad­van­tage com­pared to the SEC and Big Ten be­cause the de­mand for col­lege foot­ball on the West Coast in gen­eral, and par­tic­u­larly in its ma­jor mar­kets, is not as high,” said Jeff Nel­son, pres­i­dent of Nav­i­gate, a re­search firm in Chicago that ad­vises brands and or­ga­ni­za­tions in sports and en­ter­tain­ment. “There are more ca­sual fans and not enough avid fans.”

In the North­east, the six New Eng­land states don’t even have a team in the Power Five con­fer­ences ex­cept Bos­ton Col­lege, whose suc­cess has been lim­ited to mid­dle-tier bowls at best the past 30 years.

The Mid­west-based Big Ten Con­fer­ence tried to tap into New York, the big­gest me­dia mar­ket, when it added Rut­gers in New Jer­sey as a mem­ber in 2014. But the Scar­let Knights have had four con­sec­u­tive los­ing sea­sons since 2015, in­clud­ing 1-11 in 2018. And New York isn’t ex­actly a col­lege foot­ball town.

This leaves the South and Mid­west as the sport’s supreme money hub. The SEC tele­vi­sion net­work has about 59 mil­lion sub­scribers and is get­ting an av­er­age of about 78 cents per sub­scriber in fees, ac­cord­ing to Ka­gan, S&P Global Mar­ket In­tel­li­gence. Ka­gan es­ti­mates the Pac-12 Net­work has about 19 mil­lion sub­scribers and is com­mand­ing an av­er­age fee of about 11 cents.

Com­bined with other me­dia rev­enue, this helps the SEC and Big Ten lead the Power Five con­fer­ences in rev­enue­shar­ing with pay­outs to mem­ber schools that ex­ceed $40 mil­lion and $50 mil­lion each. The Pac-12 might not hit $38 mil­lion per school un­til 2023, ac­cord­ing to pro­jec­tions.

How­ever, Mon­day’s game will be played deep in the heart of the Pac-12, where 73 per­cent of vot­ers in Santa Clara County chose Clin­ton in her bid for pres­i­dent in 2016.

Next year the fi­nal is in New Or­leans. The West is “never go­ing to be on equal play­ing ground” with the South, Sher­rill said. “That comes back to cul­ture.”

Con­tribut­ing: A.J. Perez

“The de­mand for col­lege foot­ball on the West Coast in gen­eral ... is not as high. There are ... not enough avid fans.” Jeff Nel­son

Pres­i­dent of Nav­i­gate, a re­search firm that ad­vises brands and or­ga­ni­za­tions in sports and en­ter­tain­ment


The Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off cham­pi­onship game will bring plenty of fans from the red South to the blue Bay Area.

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