2016-09-30 16:43:09
To Put More Students in the Seats, Colleges Cue the D.J.

16:43, September 30 347 0

When Clemson played Notre Dame during a downpour last season, the weather dampened the Death Valley turf but not the crowd’s spirits. Part of the thanks for that went to Clemson football’s house D.J.

As the Tigers pulled out a 24-22 victory in a matchup of unbeatens, it was D.J. Sha (pronounced Shay) who provided the soundtrack. His image was broadcast on the stadium’s giant video screen, and his music kept the students from fleeing for the exits as the Tigers opened a two-touchdown lead early in the second half.

“It pretty much became a rain party with D.J. Sha and our student body,” Mike Money, an assistant athletic director at Clemson, recalled.

Clemson, now ranked fifth, will probably require little effort to sell out Saturday night’s matchup against No. 3 Louisville. But hiring D.J. Sha was nonetheless part of a concerted effort by Clemson officials to play more to the crowd — specifically to the younger segment of it.

More than ever, college football programs are finding it difficult to draw and retain the young fans who grow up to be lifelong season-ticket holders. In many athletic departments, the reasons can practically be cited as catechism: high-definition televisions, DVRs, diffuse fan bases and higher ticket and parking costs.

In response, programs are going well beyond recorded drumbeats and free T-shirts to serve the customers who represent the future of their fan base. North Carolina, like Clemson, brings in a house D.J. The University of Texas invited local restaurants, like Mighty Fine and Amy’s Ice Creams, to expand its concession offerings. Arizona carved out prime seating for students, shifting them to the 40-yard line.

“What we’ve tried to do,” said Greg Byrne, Arizona’s athletic director, “is create a game day experience that will make people say, ‘All right, televisions are big and all that, but it’s more fun being at the game.’ ”

Overall attendance in top-tier college football has been in slow decline for a number of years, with average crowds declining by nearly 2,000 fans a home game from 2006 to 2015, according to N.C.A.A. data.

The problem is particularly acute among young fans, including students. A report published last year by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics said that two-thirds of those born between 1978 and 1995 — 21- to 38-year-olds — go to sports events less often or never. The Wall Street Journal has found a decline in student attendance greater than 7 percent in recent years.

“They’re not going,” Emily Golembiewski, who consults with colleges, said of young people. “It helps if the team is winning,” she added, “but it doesn’t change the meter enough.”

Athletic department officials worry that the 19-year-olds sketched in studies — who are subscribed to Netflix, hooked to Snapchat and, like ducks, averse to going out in groups of fewer than 20 — herald a dismal future for ticket sales and in-game enthusiasm.

“The student population becomes your new general-public season-ticket holder,” James Francis, a senior associate athletic director at Arizona, said. “You want to address that trend early on because you’re going to deal with that same mind-set and issue as they graduate.”

That could explain why athletic departments, realizing that ticket sales reliably make up about a quarter of overall revenue, perceive young fans as critical bellwethers. “The students make or break the energy in the stadium,” Rick Steinbacher, a senior associate athletic director at North Carolina, said.

There is also a competitive angle: The more packed the stadium and the more engaged the crowd, the more difficult it may be for the opposing team to convert a third-and-9 in the fourth quarter. But preserving that edge takes planning; at Arizona, for instance, Francis organized iPad giveaways that could only be collected if the winner stayed for the whole game.

At Arizona State, student attendance at home football games has nearly doubled since 2010, to around 9,000. William Kennedy, an associate athletic director, credited partnerships between officials and student leaders and the codifying of certain traditions, like calling the student section the 942 Crew, complete with its own Twitter feed. (No. 942 refers to the student section in the basketball arena, famed for its so-called Curtain of Distraction, which aims to destroy the focus of opposing free throw shooters.)

At Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium at Arkansas, there are four large student skyboxes that can be rented out — at rates well below market price — by groups like fraternities or interest organizations.

“It’s a guarantee that we’re going to get another 1,000 students in the building who might make a game day decision to leave the pregame tailgate or pregame party,” Chris Freet, a senior associate athletic director at Arkansas, said.

Noting that the idea arose out of a conversation he had with a student government president, Freet added: “It’s a good example of what the research tells you to do in engaging with them. They want a voice.”

Ah, yes, the research. This college-age group — at some point it becomes impossible not to use the word “millennials” — is among the most studied in recorded history. While there is evidence that most of them just want a good game, the report by the association of athletic directors also called for attention to “digital integration,” “personalized storytelling,” “music and entertainment” and “locally relevant value.”

The upshot is that, at many prominent programs, there are more student-run social media accounts, group seating arrangements, pregame concerts and opportunities to meet the coach on the field than ever before. Arizona’s Byrne touted contests in which the prize was walking off the bus with the team or running onto the field with the players.

At Clemson, which Money said routinely filled its student section with about 12,000 fans, D.J. Sha’s presence emerged more organically. D.J. Sha, whose real name is Donsha Butler, grew up in Ninety Six, S.C., and first came to the program’s attention via recruiting events. From there, Tigers Coach Dabo Swinney began inviting him to spin tracks for players before games. Starting this year, D.J. Sha’s position during games is in a booth built for him among fans near the western end zone.

“Anybody can D.J.,” he said. “The biggest thing is being able to read your crowd, being able to communicate with your crowd.”

Having a professional seems to be working. While D.J. Sha reverts to more typical songs during games — Usher, Run-D.M.C., current hits — he uses pregame warm-ups to showcase rising Atlanta hip-hop artists and performers like Lil Uzi Vert and Kodak Black. “It’s just real hype,” Joey Williams, Clemson’s undergraduate student body president, said.

Williams noted other perks at work in keeping students in the stands at Clemson, like consolidated upper-deck sections at Death Valley (the colloquial term for Memorial Stadium) and the successful fight to keep student tickets free.

But Golembiewski, the college consultant, said the best practices for appealing to a younger demographic evolve from common sense.

“The myth about millennials — that they’re really entitled and demanding, bratty customers — actually would not be my position,” she said. “I think they’re very savvy customers because they’ve been marketed to their entire life. ”