Over the past few weeks and months as we have transitioned and officially joined the SEC, I have been doing quite a bit of thinking about what the conference switch means for Mizzou athletics, particularly our football program.
In interest of full disclosure, a year or so ago, I should be honest in saying I was skeptical of the move to the SEC. At heart, growing up in Kansas City, I had grown to love the Big 12, and yes, despite all the hand wringing by some about being glad we are gone, I'll probably still follow the Big 12 almost as much as I do the SEC, simply because I'm so familiar with the teams and there is so much local coverage.
I also should note my skepticism was not due to "fear of change" or not desiring to compete with the best, but largely due to wondering if, in the long term, Mizzou was prepared to, as a fan base and a program overall, to do all the things necessary to really be the kind of program, particularly in football, that competed in the middle to upper tiers of the SEC. The centerpiece of my concerns was exactly how long it would be before the newness of the SEC wore off...and we would then be stuck in a situation we perhaps don't know how to escape -- and by escape, I don't mean the conference, but the circumstance -- average crowds (by SEC standards), lower level bowl games, high coaching expectations.
Over time, as the football season approached, even with my doubts, I embraced the SEC move as it is and was indeed exciting and had wonderful opportunities associated with it. Yet, now just three conference games into the SEC, my fears have come to the surface again as I've already observed what I feared the most, and I worry it could only get worse from here. I'll explain below the fold...
I believe our move to the SEC, however justified, is being done at a time in the sports landscape that is the most risky. Attendance is dropping across the board in most sports, entertainment options are as varied as ever before, nearly every game can be seen in your living room in HD, the economy is in the crapper, and in many parts of the sporting world, ticket prices are actually starting to hit their lid and come down.
Yet, here at Mizzou, as we knew would happen, ticket prices went up. Our standards for high attendance are higher than ever -- and will grow even more when our stadium expands to 81,000. We're now in a conference that demands excellence or you'll get eaten alive. It's fair to say that an 8-4 team in the Big 12 is 6-6 in the SEC, simply because of the schedule upgrade.
Certainly, early on, the novelty in the SEC will bring big crowds. But, my fear lies in the very strong reality that in 3-4 years, or even sooner -- perhaps as soon as this season -- that novelty will wear off. Like it or not, the fact is Mizzou fans do not have a long history of filling the stadium for anyone but the most premium of our opponents.
Yes, we draw solid crowds -- I consider 55 to 65K very solid -- but solid won't cut it anymore in the SEC, not when we're going to expand to 81K. 5K empty seats or hill spots looks a lot better than 15K empty seats. Yet, before we even played our first game, our university put us on the fast track to 81K.
Now, three games into the SEC, when we're 3-2 overall and have lost to two top ten teams, we're already having a crowd 5,000 below capacity. Yes, it was cold - yes, it was still a nice crowd for a 40-something degree game against Vanderbilt.
But, that's my point -- if a little cold weather (it wasn't that bad, actually) and adversity causes 5K empty seats -- what else will?
What if we go 5-7 this year, and even just improve to 6-6 or 7-5 next year?
Yes, Alabama will always draw a sell out. But, we play them once every 12 years at home.
Yes, LSU will draw a sell out. But, we play them once every 12 years too.
Perhaps Florida will -- but we play them every other year.
Beyond that, while the Georgia's, South Carolina's and Tennnesee's and probably Arkansas will consisently draw solid crowds, will losing to them consistently really draw any more fans than we drew tonight?
And, beyond those five to six teams, do we really think Ole Miss, Miss State, Texas A&M , Vandy, Kentucky and even Auburn really pack them in? Or what about non conference games against Toledo? I doubt it..not unless we are winning.. Those teams aren't any more exciting to the average Mizzou fan than Texas Tech, Iowa State, Oklahoma state, and Baylor. If anything, the latter teams are more interesting. And, if all we beat are those teams -- and continue to lose to the Georgias, South Carolinas, Floridas and LSU's -- as we very well could -- then will the crowds really ever come in enough force to draw 81K?
Which brings me to the second part of my "fear" -- are we really prepared to "win" in the SEC to the degree required to win in the SEC? I think 7-5 and 8-4 seasons are great in the SEC -- but will the fan base at large? Will "casual fans" -- the ones required to pack in a stadium of 81,000 seats -- keep returning for 7-5 seasons, that involve 3-5 records in the SEC?
Maybe some will. But, will the family next to us that bought four season tickets -- a $2000 commitment in donations and another $1500 in tickets -- come back? Or will they cut their seats from 4 to 2?
Hard to tell. In the era of $75 tickets and $500 per seat donations, you have to win...or the new large ticket item becomes the first one to get chopped.
To ensure they do, we must win -- by win I mean, within a 3-4 seasons, get to 9+ win seasons. Obviously, we know 5-7 and 6-6 won't cut it, but what about 7-5 and 8-4? Even when Pinkel retires and we get a new coach, will that coach take us to 9 or 10? It's a hard thing to win at that level. Only in the last few years have we done it consistently, and just last year we were 7-5. Now we're spiraling towards 5-7. Next year, even with a healthy team, could be 6-6 or so.
My greatest fear is that none of these things materialize -- that the following things occur:
1. That the SEC newness wears off -- and games against all but the top 3 or 4 elite teams draw crowds in the 60-65 range, over time.
2. That once the stadium expands, vast areas will be empty. 15-20K seats in an 81K seat stadium empty.
3. That the need/desire to fill those seats will result in a very high standard for winning, which could result in a coaching carousel after Pinkel leaves, particularly in an era of parity in college football, where it's hard to find those gem coaches who can take you from where we are now to where I feel we need to be.
Now, don't let this fear fool you -- I think we can and will compete in the SEC. I think this is a great fit for us, given the overall landscape of conferences. This isn't Big 12 sour grapes -- in the end, we needed to leave.
However, I wonder if perhaps expanding the stadium to 81,000 and the glide up in prices on everything from ticket prices and donation requirements to parking and concessions (all up)...is perhaps a little bit short sighted. Perhaps a more prudent policy would be to "wait and see" instead of "if you build it they will come" or "they love the Tigers so much they will pay the higher price to compete."
Many of us will. Those on RMN will, we're the diehards. I've not missed one football game since 1997 and I go to 95% of the basketball games too, and I live 2 1/2 hours away.
But, it takes more than RMNers to fill the stadium. It takes a mix of casual fans, new fans, fans who make Mizzou a part of their lives - - where they know by instinct that Saturdays in the fall are occupied.
Given the history of our fan base and the likelihood I see for "SEC-level success" (beyond 7-5/8-4), I'm not so sure. and I fear we're headed down a road where in 2017 or so, we'll still be 6-6, 7-5, but drawing crowds of 60,000 in a stadium meant for 81,000 -- wondering how exactly we're going to turn things around.