Reflections "from the Hill:"
I'm in my 41st year of Tennessee football, so I guess I have seen almost everything. From Bobby Scott (my first quaterback), to Condredge Holloway, to lights in Neyland Stadium for the first time (I was outside looking in -- there were no tickets to be had), to the return of favorite son Johnny Majors, to that magnificent third Saturday in October 1982 when we finally beat Alabama in the shadows of the World's Fair, to the glorious Sugar Bowl in 1986 when we whipped Miami and should have been named National Champions (nobody in the country was a better team that night), to Andy Kelly, the greatest comeback quarterback I ever saw at Tennessee, to Shuler, to Manning, to the 1998 national championship, and so forth.
In good times and bad -- and we had some terrible times -- there was always one constant: Neyland Stadium was always filled. Whether the team was good or bad, we always approached capacity. When the north upper deck was filled in, we always had in excess of 100,000 fans on hand. I would often quip: "101,000? Small crowd today." But it was no joke. Even when we were going 5-6 in 2005, we were still filling the place up.
Alas, no more.
At last Saturday's Montana-Tennessee game, the PA announcer was clearly thrilled to announce an [optimistic] attendance figure of 94,600. He's thrilled; I'm sad. For the opening game of the season. And not on broadcast TV? And no rain in the forecast? How is it that the stadium was so (relatively) empty?
The simple answer: the unbridled greed of the University of Tennessee Athletic establishment.
What do I mean by this? How about increasing mandatory "donations" from $500 to $4,000 per season for pairs of seats between the 20 yard lines?
How about building a very nice -- and totally unnecessary -- brick facade outside the stadium, and shaking down the fans to pay for it?
How about the east side skyboxes, which you don't get unless you have the net worth of, say, Warren Buffett?
How about the also-expensive club seats which took away prime seating from long time season ticketholders, with no real recomepense?
How about the apparently really nice concessions area for the club seating that we peons aren't allowed into?
How about the commercialization of the stadium experience, to the point where the constantly running ribbon ads around the bottom of the upper deck are actually more brilliant and vibrant that the football game we are there to see?
How about the concessions which, while not great before, are now licensed out to some outfit which charges more and gives less?
How about charging more for tickets to the "good" games, like Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Florida, while charging less ("less" meaning $40) for games like FCS opponent Montana?
How about the total prohibition on smoking (no designated smoking areas on the concourses), which affects probably half the fans in the stadium, making their game experience that much more difficult,stressful, and unpleasant?
Finally, and worst of all, how about charging the students of the University an activities fee which covers tickets to University sports, and then charging them an additional fee for football tickets?
To paraphrase Martin Sheen's classic line from Wall Street, "I know what these guys are all about, greed. they don't give a damn about football or the fans. They're in it for the bucks and they don't take prisoners."
Look, I know I'm one of the disaffected. I used to go to games under any conditions or circumstances. For example, I went to the Duke game in 1988 with a raging flu (I talked myself into believing I was over it, and promptly relapsed for another week; maybe because we lost, 31-26; still bothers me). If I could physically get into the stadium, I went. I used to say that Neyland Stadium was my church, and I attended six times a year.
I showed loyalty to the University that was loyal to me. When we paid a $500 mandatory "donation," it was a pain, but it didn't break the bank. But when it became clear that U.T. was interested in me only to the extent it could soak me for as much as possible, the bloom came off the rose.
And this disaffection afflicts many, if not most, of the Volunteer faithful. Along with the advent of HD TV, there are a lot of die hard fans -- me included -- who would rather watch the game in high definition than fight for an ever-more-expensive parking spot, pay a ton of money for concessions (last week: 2 hot dogs, 2 soft drinks, total $20.00. And no chicken sandwich, dang it!), get jammed in a too-small seat, get inundated by mindless and incessant advertising come-ons, not be able to smoke (for those who do) for hours on end, and ultimately watch a mediocre football team promoted by a greedy and insensitive athletic department administration. I began my football game trip at 2:55 pm last Saturday. I got home at 11:15 pm. Almost 8 1/2 hours. That's a major investment in time and energy.
I went to two games last year. I will probably attend more this year, but more for my kids than for me. I feel most sorry for the children; when I "got it" about Tennessee football at age 10, the subsequent years were wonderful -- rooting for my team through thick and thin. I wanted my boys to have the same profound football experience. It's a shame that the marketing geniuses at the Athletic Department have turned the pure joy of college football in the "First Tennessee Instant Replay," and other banal moneymaking devices. That is what I fear my sons and future Tennessee fans have in store for themselves: watching a series of commercials with a little football thrown in every now and then.
Until the University gets back to emphasizing the football game experience and starts showing some love to the 99% of the stadium-goers who, like me, sit in regular seats and have to work for a living to pay for the experience, it's going to continue to lose its previously loyal fan base. The way WE look at it is that, if the University doesn't show us any loyalty, why should we show any loyalty by attending games?
I'm still a Tennessee football fan. I will be rooting for the team against Cincinnati tomorrow. I'll still live and die by their (our!) wins and losses. But as great fans, we deserve better from an Athletice Department that wouldn't have a program without us.
Anyway, that's why we don't fill up the stadium regularly any more.