It didn't take a genius to realize that there was strong potential that Gillette Stadium wasn't going to draw all that well this past weekend for the NCAA lacrosse championships. In fact, I'm a first-rate knucklehead and even I knew that Foxborough, Massachusetts, was going to need Chamber of Commerce weather combined with magical unicorn races to fill seats from Saturday through Monday. And only one of those things kind of came in.
79,959 people came through Camp Kraft this weekend, marking the lowest Championship Weekend crowd since 2002 when Rutgers hosted the event. The downward attendance trend is becoming stark:
- 2007: Total attendance -- 123,225 (M&T Bank Stadium)
- 2008: Total attendance -- 121,511 (Gillette Stadium)
- 2009: Total attendance -- 102,601 (Gillette Stadium)
- 2010: Total attendance -- 102,219 (M&T Bank Stadium)
- 2011: Total attendance -- 98,786 (M&T Bank Stadium)
- 2012: Total attendance -- 79,959 (Gillette Stadium)
John Jiloty of Inside Lacrosse put on his trench coat and a fedora with a slip of paper with the word "PRESS" slipped into the band and started asking some questions about why everyone is mumbling "To hell with it!" and staying home over Memorial Day Weekend. The folks he talked to -- big wigs with, I guess, cigars in their mouths -- are putting all kinds of options on the table to try and figure out the declining number of butts in seats:
“People are starting to make a lot of decisions that are affecting this event,” Buttafuoco said. “We need to collectively evaluate how we can get the event back on track to where we all want it to be, and identify where we can make those improvements and make a commitment to do it.”
Among the potential changes that Jarnecke said have been discussed, the most dramatic may be moving the Final Four a week later into June and playing the Quarterfinals on Memorial Day weekend. He said the idea of stretching out the weekend so the NCAA DI Final is a week later than the Semifinals hasn’t been addressed; in the early-June championship weekend scenario, he predicted it would be the same format as the current event.
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Rising ticket prices have come up a lot from fans when asked about lower Final Four attendance, and the economic downturn that has come since those crowd records were set in 2007 hasn’t made things easier. Championship Monday tickets started at $35 face value this year, with three-day packages starting at $70; that all-session price was double what it was in 2006 in Philadelphia (and there was even a group ticket deal for $25). Jarnecke said they released single-game tickets earlier this year in an effort to boost lagging ticket sales.
“We’re going to look at that hard in the coming months to better understand the thresholds that people are willing to pay for a ticket,” Jarnecke said. “I don’t think we’re horribly off; I just believe there’s an opportunity to further segment the market and attract different folks.”
Other factors at play this year were the lack of any DI team within 300 miles of Foxboro (Jarnecke said their research shows that a three-hour drive is about the limit for the majority of fans), the absence of traditional big draws like Syracuse and Johns Hopkins and the location outside the traditional mid-Atlantic hotbeds.
There isn't a silver bullet that solves this attendance trend and it's nice to see that the folks in charge of the event realize that in their desire to consider every possible option available. (Except the non-Memorial Day Weekend one. That one is crazy pants.) I think, though, that there is one issue lurking in the background that event organizers may have a serious problem attempting to address.
The problem is this: People are lazy.
You could put Championship Weekend in someone's backyard, offer free admission (you know, admission to the property that the "host" already owns and pays taxes on), and there's probably an even chance that the person will stay inside on the couch and just watch the thing on television. There's always going to be an excuse from folks that don't have a burning incentive to attend the Final Four to stay home: The weather is too hot/too rainy/frogs are falling from the sky; there's too much traffic and it's too far of a drive; everything is too expensive; the host location is boring; I have to clean the toilet and/or pretend to buy a new barbecue set at Home Depot; ad infinitum.
I mean, some of these excuses are legitimate, but the fact remains that people have become lazy and require decadent convenience. Dropping Championship Weekend in Baltimore for eternity doesn't necessarily fix the problem. Moving Championship Weekend to another date doesn't necessarily fix the problem. Ensuring that blue bloods make it to the final weekend of the season doesn't necessarily fix the problem.
And this is because the problem isn't totally with the event itself but, rather, partially with the folks that should be attracted to the event. The heart of the game isn't tied to location or teams or anything else; it's tied to those that love lacrosse. If the NCAA can find a way to make people realize that this is their game and marquee event, the external factors become easier to address. It's an ownership of the event problem; fingers are being pointed externally when they should -- at least in part -- be pointed inward.