JR Ball: Welcome to Dearth Valley

While universities elsewhere around the country are desperately seeking ways to get more actual tuition-and-fee-paying students to enroll for classes in their hallowed academic halls, folks at LSU are convening an advisory panel to ponder an equally vexing problem: Why attendance is declining at Tiger Stadium?

Indeed, Louisiana’s flagship is also wrestling with the whole “we want more diverse students” conundrum, but the brain trust appears satisfied with some double-secret holistic plan that 1) few outside the stately oaks understand and 2) those inside the inspiring halls of Pleasant are loath to adequately explain.

But enough of this trivial, brainiac stuff. Let’s turn our attention to what really matters at our tail-wags-the-dog institution of higher football.

Horrifically, the number of purple-and-gold zealots willing to fork over a kidney and a few thousand shekels to watch the Tigers play live and in person is on the decline. LSU is not alone, it’s a dilemma playing out inside college football stadiums across Saturday’s America.

That’s never a good thing for a program that knows no financial boundaries when it comes to Taj Mahal facilities and the pursuit of 5-star athletes. Amplifying the misery, in the zeal to squeeze more green from those living purple and loving gold, Tiger Stadium was supersized a few years ago, enabling a congregation of some 102,000 to wedge themselves into the place where it never rains.

Unfortunately for the cash-devouring LSU athletic department, the number of fans willing to tithe last season fell to an average of 98,506 per game—and that’s optimistically misleading. For most games the actual attendance was tens of thousands less.

No one says chasing national championships is cheap, but, these days, LSU isn’t contending for titles, much less winning them.

Wanting to tackle this problem with the ferocity of LSU’s defense attacking Miami’s hapless quarterback in the made-for-TV mauling in Jerry World, Athletic Director Joe Alleva is forming a 25-person council of passionate LSU fans to solve the mystery of why Death Valley is becoming Dearth Valley?

“It’s a big issue, and we are taking a holistic approach to improving in every area,” says Robert Munson, senior associate athletic director, in a press release.

Someone, apparently, managed to rescue a dictionary from the flood waters inside Middleton Library and declared “holistic” to be LSU’s word of the day.

The plan is for these die-hards-turned-wonks to gather four half-days a year over a two-year period and figure out how to put more fannies into Tiger Stadium’s uncomfortable seats. Unless, of course, you’re in the big boy sections and suites, then the seats get mighty cozy.

Nonetheless, let me save the athletic department the time and expense of what amounts to something Baton Rouge does better than anyone else in the free world—studying stuff.

Let’s start with the reality that thanks to CBS, ABC, Fox Sports and ESPN’s infinite networks, including the SEC channel, pretty much every college football game that matters—and a bunch more that don’t—are televised in all their high-def, 5.1.2 surround sound glory. No doubt that’s not as spine-tingling or pulse-quivering as actually being in Tiger Stadium, but it’s pretty damn close.

Especially when staying at homes means I don’t have to…

  • fight game-day traffic onto campus that’s 10 times more horrific than your typical Baton Rouge gridlock…
  • arrive eight hours before kickoff…
  • pay for over-priced, artery-clogging artificial products that semi-resembles food (again, unless in the suites or Tiger Den)…
  • strap a pair of flasks to my calves…
  • constantly yo-yo from seat to feet as the same two apologizing fans spend the entire game shuffling back-and-forth from their mid-row seats to wherever it is they go, traversing the way-too-narrow aisle and spilling their drinks along the way…
  • listen in astonishment—and embarrassment—as a chorus of Louisiana public-school educated good ol’ boys, and a few girls, supporting LSU demonstrate their ability to deploy the f-bomb as a noun, a pronoun, a verb, an adjective and an adverb.

One can’t overstate the nightmare that is traveling onto campus. This has always been a problem for LSU, with its campus nestled along the Mississippi River, but it’s only gotten worse since the TAF expanded the stadium’s capacity without addressing the decades-old infrastructure problem. (Maybe Bob Brodhead was right in the mid-1980s when he dared to commit the mortal sin of proposing an off-campus stadium with better interstate access.)

Then there’s the inverse relationship between the escalating all-in cost of attending games—mandatory donations, tickets, parking and the requisite tailgating accoutrements—and the declining quality of LSU’s home schedule. Variable ticket pricing or not, you can’t pay me enough to watch the Tigers devour what amounts to four homecoming opponents a year.

We all get scheduling is a pain—and bless Verge Ausberry for trying to address the problem—but who doesn’t have better things to do than watch a game that’s over by halftime?

Again, thanks to the cavalcade of televised games and the four-team playoff, college football has gone national. There are non-LSU games that matter every Saturday. Why go to Tiger Stadium to watch a blowout—or get angry because LSU isn’t destroying some unworthy opponent—when there are better, and more important, games happening in stadiums elsewhere? Far more entertaining is monitoring the LSU game on ESPN 15 while largely focusing on what amounts to an elimination game in the chase for the national title.

Seriously, what was more entertaining this past Saturday: being frustrated in Tiger Stadium watching LSU sleepwalk its way past an outclassed Southeastern, or chilling—and grilling—at home as Clemson and Texas A&M duked it out on the big screen in one of those instant classics? I got plenty agitated just tracking the LSU game on ESPN2.

Speaking of TV, do LSU officials really think it’s fun to sit anywhere in the east-side stands for a 2:30 p.m. kickoff? Let’s have Alleva spend a brutally hot and humid afternoon staring into a blazing sun and see if he thinks that’s money well-spent.

And here’s one for the kids and the more narcissistic among us: How does LSU expect folks to post all those selfies when the internet service suc, er, is not good.

Anyone who’s been to Tiger Stadium for a game that matters understands that when she’s at her best there’s no better place to be in America. And I challenge anyone to find anything more thrilling than when those Tiger band trumpets spin your way and unleash their adrenaline-pumping pregame call to arms. Baaa ba baaa ba!

Few things are as magically wonderful as a Saturday night in Death Valley, especially when the stakes are at their highest. The noise and passion reverberates around the concrete canyon, seemingly defying physics as the roar is thrust downward, magically hovering just a few feet above that hallowed turf.

Yes, LSU football is an unshakable religion for some, but for a growing number it’s simply entertainment. If you want fans in the stands, give them an easy-access reason to show up—other than it’s LSU.

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