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This article appeared in the Summer 2011 issue of Champion magazine.
By Greg Johnson
Thousands of fans tailgating before a football game on a sunny, crisp Saturday afternoon isn’t unusual in the fall. But it was until recently in the spring.
Alabama fans are willing to pack Bryant-Denny Stadium at just about any time of the year, including for the spring game.
While the scores of the intra-squad games don’t count – except to the players who are trying to impress their respective coaching staffs to earn more playing time in the regular season – the fans show up in droves.
What used to be no more than a community day at the ol’ stadium is now a revenue opportunity, a television bonanza and a way for marketing experts to placate football-starved fans between bowl games and season openers.
Some schools offer free admission to their spring games, while others charge a nominal fee (usually around $10-$15). That’s far below a regular-season ticket at the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision level, but multiply it by 50,000 paying customers, plus parking and concessions, and it can help balance the athletics budget.
NCAA spring football practices started innocently enough. They were officially implemented in 1951 to put some structure to the growing trend of schools looking to gain an edge on fall ball. Initially, teams were allowed 20 practices in 30 days. The next year, the window was expanded to 36 days.
Dennie Poppe, NCAA vice president for Division I football and baseball, was a football student-athlete in 1967-69 at Missouri. He remembers the physical nature of spring workouts at that time.
Alabama tops the 2011 spring football attendance records released by the schools. The list is not comprehensive but shows the wide range in size of spring football games.
Florida State 53,818
Mississippi State 36,357
South Carolina 29,451
Ole Miss 28,000
Notre Dame 27,863
North Carolina 15,500
Texas A&M 16,500
Oklahoma State 16,000
North Carolina State 13,139
Texas Tech 12,400
Iowa State 4,000
Source: CNBC, www.goducks.com
“Those were long, grueling practices,” said Poppe, who was an all-Big Eight Conference safety his senior season. “That was the time you made your mark on the team and realized whether you were going into fall practice as a starter.”
But few fans and reporters paid much attention.
“We played in our stadium, but the only people there were parents and your buddies from the fraternity,” Poppe said. “Now you see spring games drawing anywhere from 60,000 to 90,000 people.
“I think that’s great because football is a sport that brings the alumni and the institutions together. People rally around the team, and they come back to campus and remember times from their college days.”
As the years went on, rules were made to beef up safety, including a 1988 restriction of 15 contact days in the allowable 20 practices. A few years later, the NCAA membership grew increasingly concerned about the number of injuries in spring ball. Some, though, thought that was overstated, since many “injuries” in the spring wouldn’t have put players on the bench in the fall.
“The argument was that you treated the injuries differently in the spring than in the fall,” said Chuck Neinas, who was the Big Eight Conference commissioner from 1971 to 1980. “The coaches said that if a guy was going to be a senior and had an ankle injury, they would hold him out for a week, because they already knew how he could contribute to the team. If the same injury happened in the fall, the player would have kept playing.”
As spring football progressed, so did the creativity – and consternation – surrounding it. Neinas said some people wanted to use the spring game as a scrimmage against a nonconference team, while others wanted it eliminated altogether.
“But the coaches fought against that,” said Neinas, who these days runs his own sports consulting business. “The best quote I remember from that time came from (former West Virginia coach) Don Nehlen. He said people must recognize that the spring is the time we teach players how to play football, and in the fall we prepare them for who we will play.”
In 1990, the NCAA membership adopted 15 days of practice with only 10 contact days in a 21-day window. The following year, the window increased to 22 days for the 15 practices, but the 20-hour-per-week restriction was added.
In 1992, the current window of 29 days was implemented. Various tweaks have occurred since, such as what players are allowed to wear on noncontact days. In 2002, it was clarified that on days when the players only watched film, it would not be counted toward the 15 allowable spring practices.
But as college football gained popularity, more people became interested in whatever version they could find – even if the ping of baseball bats could be heard in the ballpark next door.
Nebraska is a great example of that growth.
The Huskers held their annual Red-White Game on April 16. Prayers for good weather were answered when temperatures climbed into the high 50s for a 1 p.m. kickoff on a bright, shiny day.
Fans in Lincoln know that when the Cornhuskers run onto the field in the spring, they’re chasing a roster spot in the fall.
The Husker faithful poured into Memorial Stadium until 66,784 seats were filled. Fans paid $10 to sit in the stands and $15 for club level.
The outdoor track and field facility was turned into “Husker Pavilion,” where fans could stand in line to receive autographs from former players, watch live interviews with Big Red greats such as Ndamukong Suh and visit corporate-sponsor tents for giveaways.
“The spring football game has become a production now,” said Butch Hug, the Nebraska associate athletics director for facilities and events. “It has become our eighth home game. We virtually do the same things we do on regular-season game days. We close streets, we do the parking the same way and we have all our vendors for concessions. This game helps our bottom line.”
It even featured pregame and halftime flyovers from military jets.
Children were also allowed onto the field at halftime to run around on the same turf as their Husker heroes.
Hug said he remembers the days when parking was first-come, first-served and people arrived just before kickoff. The spring game was an attraction at Nebraska, but it really grew in the 1990s when hall of fame coach Tom Osborne, now the school’s director of athletics, led the Huskers to national titles in 1994, 1995 and 1997.
Spring football has fortified the bond between teams and their communities. The spring game represents another chance for adoring fans to get close to their college heroes.
“We would have a little celebration after each of those championships,” said Hug, who is in his 29th year at Nebraska. “We had our big screens installed in the stadium in 1994, as well. That’s when the spring game started to explode.”
Nowadays, spring ball not only can determine the lineup for the subsequent season but also for future years. Spring games are a popular time for prospects to make unofficial visits.
“It’s a great tool for us,” said Jeff Jamrog, Nebraska assistant athletics director for football. “Prospects see an almost packed house. They may go to other spring games, and there are some top-notch programs that may only get 10,000-15,000 for a spring game.”
Jamrog, who played defensive end at Nebraska from 1983 to 1987, knows firsthand about the passionate Husker fan base.
“We used to get decent crowds back in the 1980s,” he said. “But what I remember most was the competition. That was the time you had to play well to get separation at different positions. The fans get to see guys compete in an intense environment.”
Count Gayle Novotny as one of the Nebraska fans who love to attend the Red-White game. Novotny and his family are season-ticket holders, and they are used to making the 50-mile drive to Lincoln.
He said he spent about 90 minutes on the phone before he was able to secure tickets for the spring game.
“It is fun to see what we have coming up this year,” Novotny said. “It gives you something to look forward to. My first game here was in 1962 when I was 9, and I was hooked. It was Bob Devaney’s first year as head coach. We tailgate in the same lot with people who’ve come here for years. We get together and have a great time.”
The “production” atmosphere of spring ball at big-time schools has attracted TV, too.
This spring, ESPN broadcast games from Texas, LSU, Georgia, Arkansas, Alabama and Oregon. The sports network also expanded its coverage with several spring games on ESPN3.com. The games draw an average rating of about .3 or .4 – hardly earth-shattering but not bad for a Saturday afternoon in April.
In Texas’ 2009 Orange-White scrimmage, ESPN broadcasters Lowell Galindo (left) and Michael Robinson (center) talked with future All-American Jordan Shipley, who did not play in the exhibiton.
“We started showing these games in 2005,” said Kurt Dargis, ESPN’s director of college football programming. “College football has become a year-round sport. Fans have been going to these games in droves over the years. It seems to get more attention lately.”
ESPN also airs its College Football Live show throughout the year, playing to an audience hungry for interviews with coaches and recruiting analysis. The programming helps ESPN gauge interest in particular teams, too.
“There are a variety of factors as to which spring games we cover,” Dargis said. “It comes down to story lines, and schools who are willing to do it.”
Some coaches turned down ESPN’s offer early on. Sometimes, Dargis said, a team may be breaking in a new offense or perhaps has a quarterback battle going on and may be reluctant to have it all play out on a national stage.
“But you always have some folks who are eager to do it, and they sign up real quick,” Dargis said. Once that happens, others see it as an opportunity that can’t be ignored.
Since the spring games are informal, it allows ESPN to be creative with the broadcasts, too. The relaxed atmosphere allows for collaboration that wouldn’t occur during the regular season.
“We put microphones on head coaches and coordinators during the spring games,” Dargis said. “We do live interviews during the games. We’ve actually had a couple of head coaches up in the booth during a spring game. Some of them like to watch up there. At times, we have cameras on the field, which would never happen in the regular season.”
Dargis doesn’t see spring-game broadcasts fading to black anytime soon.
“This is something we will continue to do,” he said. “Schools and coaches see what we’ve done, and they’ve become more comfortable with it. They like the exposure they get from this. This is a natural way to serve our audience and give them a taste of football at a time of year when they really weren’t getting a lot of it otherwise. That’s why we started doing it and will continue to do it.”