Friday, December 4, 2009

A 19-Year-Old Grudge Comes To An End

Back in 1990, TigerBlog split his fall covering Princeton football and Trenton State College football in his newspaper days. TSC played most of its games on Friday nights, while Princeton played on Saturdays.

That year, for Princeton fans who don't quite remember, was the 3-7 season that came after the 1989 Ivy League title and the five-year run that followed that included three eight-win seasons and two more league championships.

TSC in 1990, though, was another story. The Lions (coached by one of TB's all-time favorites, Eric Hamilton) dominated that year, with a defense that pitched five straight shutouts to end the regular season. TSC then advanced to the Division III playoffs, were it knocked off highly regarded Ithaca on the road in the first round to reach the quarterfinals.

As an aside, TigerBlog cannot remember too many more home crowds that were more stunned than the fans at Ithaca that day. TB also remembers how cold it got in the pressbox when he and Dana O'Neil (now of, then of the Trentonian) were left to write their stories without heat or lights.

Anyway, Trenton State had to play its quarterfinal game against a team that was transitioning to Division I-AA, a team that had been preparing for the move with its last few recruiting classes and which had no business playing in Division III in 1990.

That team? Hofstra, which crushed Trenton State.

TigerBlog has always liked the people at Hofstra, especially longtime SID Jim Sheehan, who was with the football team in 1990 and is still there today. TigerBlog makes it a policy to root for lacrosse coaches named "Tierney," so he likes Hofstra (when the Pride isn't playing Princeton). It's a nice campus (though getting there is a nightmare, since it can take anywhere from a little over an over to about five hours depending on traffic), and TB has always been treated well there through the years. Shuart Stadium is a great facility.

But he never got over the fact that Trenton State's best football team ever was denied a shot at a Division III title because of a Division I-AA team, and he never rooted for Hofstra in football again.

All of this came soaring back to TB's mind yesterday, when he heard the news that Hofstra had dropped football. It was basically an economic decision, and the Pride became the second CAA school in two weeks to drop the sport after Northeastern did so as well. Ironically, four of the remaining eight teams in the Division I-AA playoffs are from the league.

TigerBlog was listening to WFAN yesterday afternoon, when a great deal of air time was devoted to discussing the situation. What struck TigerBlog the most was a call from a current Hofstra student, who pinned the blame on the school's inability to promote the sport.

TB couldn't help but laugh when he heard the student say that often times, students have no way of knowing whether or not games are home or away and therefore don't know if there is a game to go to that weekend. The WFAN host rightfully shot this down, asking how much time per day that the student spend online.

Hofstra, for its part, recently revamped its website to launch TB also knows that Hofstra does a great effort in marketing, but it's also obvious that Hofstra suffers from some of the same problems that Princeton does in athletic marketing.

For starters, there is really no way of judging how successful marketing efforts are. TigerBlog has asked this question a million times in meeting and here: Do people not come to games because they don't know about them or because they know but don't want to or can't come? Beyond that, what's an acceptable attendance level for football, basketball, hockey? How do you know if you're successful in attracting every single person who wants to be there, even if that number might not seem really high?

Hofstra's home attendance averaged a little more than 4,000 per game, while Princeton's was nearly double that (8,178). This was in a year when Princeton went 4-6, including a 1-5 start, and played five home games that included one Thursday night and three on rainy Saturdays. For TB's money, that's a pretty good job of getting the word out.

Still, there is the issue of the student and his claims on WFAN. TB is pretty sure there are similar students at Princeton who would say the same thing, that Princeton does nothing to market to its students.

Clearly, though, football at Princeton or in the Ivy League is not a cash cow. There is great competition from movies, birthday parties, youth sports and other activities, not to mention the fact that there are a million games on TV each week.

The image many fans nationally have a college football is of sold-out stadiums with 60,000 or 70,000 or more fans packed in, but the reality is that there are many schools like Princeton and Hofstra that have programs that have been around for decades that play to much smaller fan bases.

The big question is whether or not Princeton or another Ivy League school would ever drop the sport. On the one hand, TigerBlog says no, because football is so tied in with history and tradition, annual giving, general alumni support and other important institutional functions. Football was the foundation of the Ivy League, and it's as cemented on the eight campuses as anything else, it would appear.

New economic realities, though, have had a huge impact already and may continue to do so. It's hard to say what direction anything in higher education is going to go in, especially athletics.

Still, TigerBlog can't imagine Princeton and the Ivy League without football.

As for Hofstra, it's a tough situation for the coaches and players, and TB wishes them all well. Why not? Hofstra no longer has a team, so TigerBlog can let his 19-year-old grudge go.


Anonymous said...

Two things:
1.) I just graduated from Princeton and was heavily involved with the Band for all 4 years, meaning I went to nearly every home basketball, hockey, and lacrosse game, as well as 37 of 40 home & away football games during my time. From my vantage point, I think the Athletics Department does a great job marketing to townies and other non-students, but not so well to undergraduates.

This year I noticed a great step forward with new e-mails that get sent out weekly to, what I presume is, the entire student body. I always thought that the A.D. should get the marketing student-assistants to post event schedules on light-posts and bulletin boards around campus every week, because that's honestly how most students hear about things even today (apart from word-of-mouth). It would be inexpensive and might result in high yield, so it might be worth a shot.

2.) I've heard and read rumors around the internet that Div I-AA aka FCS might get dropped in the next decade or two because of decreased interest and declining ticket sales. If enough schools (like Northeastern and Hofstra) start to drop football or drop to DII, I imagine this would actually happen. What would the League do then? Thirty years after being forced out of Div I-A by the NCAA, maybe two of the League's members still teeter on the border of qualifying for FBS status (based on mean attendance of 15,000), while some others sit at the bottom of FBS play. Would the NCAA force the League down yet another level? Would the League quit affiliating with the NCAA in football and just continue self-scheduled play on its own, for tradition's sake? Without participation in the FCS tournament, that's practically what they do now anyway. It's just something that has come to mind for me recently, and this post seemed like a good opportunity to bring the issues up.

Anonymous said...

Princeton football is clearly the most expensive sport in the Athletic Department, with the largest squad, most coaches on payroll, most expensive equipment, and a facility that is essentially used five times a year. And the largest budget expenditure.

In addition, football receives approximately thirty admissions slots per year.

While I doubt I will ever live to see the day that Princeton seriously considers dropping football, any reasonable management consultant would immediately suggest such a cost saving move.

By the way, if Princeton's attendance for five games averaged 8000, that means the overall attendance all season was 40,000-- or roughly the woefully underutilized capacity of the stadium. Hmmm?