Now, apparently, there is no actual Q score for universities. Trust me, I looked. But I can point to at least one survey that seems to sum it up pretty well. Take a look at these two New York Times articles about the big Maryland/Rutgers realignment. Both by Nate Silver, who you might remember is the political poll golden child right now. But, he was a sports guy first.
To summarize, in the first linked story, Silver estimates there are 624,944 Purdue (football) fans. That beats out only Northwestern, who has a significantly smaller student body to start with, and newcomer Maryland, which is a comparatively small state.* The second story uses the same data, but it’s presented a little differently.
*Even putrid Indiana was estimated to have 636,954 fans. Though those numbers may have been boosted by all those in and around Bloomington doing searches for Notre Dame.
Of course, that is focusing on football, and I think it would be pretty fair to say that Indiana is still a basketball state, even in the post-Manning era. I’m sure those numbers for Purdue and Indiana both would rise significantly for basketball. Still, Purdue certainly has it’s problems there.
I’ve seen it first hand, at both football and basketball games. The seats just aren't filled. In football, I think that can be directly attributed to the lack of real success on the field. Purdue isn't seen as a glamorous destination or a particularly strong program. And, sadly, Purdue has done exactly squat to dispel the notion that they are a middling team. Maybe hiring this guy from Kent State will be just what the doctor ordered, he did wonders with the Golden Flashes. But, until it translates to butts in the seats, it’s going to be hard to land the kind of recruits it takes to reach the days of Griese and Keyes. Or, hell, even of Brees and Orton.
Basketball also has a seat problem. Sure, attendance is going to be predictably down this year, with the Hummel-era finally coming to a close.* But that really just affects the fringes of Mackey. No, the bigger problem has to do with the big renovation of Mackey.
*I only pick Hummel out of that group because he hung around the longest. It’s an awfully sad story for Boilermaker fans that he couldn't stay healthy. His junior and (first) senior year teams are about as close to locks on a Final Four spot as I've seen until he went down.
Was Mackey a bit small and cramped? Yes. The new concourses are marvelous, and the new facade for the offices looks very nice. If things had stopped there, I’m not sure you would have heard a bad word out of me. But, it didn't stop there. If you aren't aware, a big part of the renovation was adding luxury seating. Since there was no way to add boxes to Mackey, Purdue accomplished this by taking out the bleachers from the “camera side” of the court and replacing them with black, padded stadium seats that run a couple grand a pop. Down a bit closer to the court are even bigger, gold cushioned seats that I think go for four grand a ticket and come with a spot for an iPad to watch the game on. Or maybe it actually comes with an iPad. I’m sure I’ll never personally know.
That sounds fine in theory, but I’m sure you can already see the problem in practice. With price tags that high, businesses are the ones buying these premium seats. And, businesses not actually being people, that means these seats routinely go unused. This leads to a quarter of the lower bowl being a big, black mass of empty seats for the players to perform in front of, while the good ol’ bleachers remain more or less filled. Now, I’m not really privy to Matt Painter’s recruiting strategy, nor have I been shown any literature that is sent to athletes to try to convince them that Purdue is the place for them. But I would be floored if all this money poured into the Mackey “improvements” was not mentioned. So when these high school kids come in for a game, I’m sure they first look at the empty arena and can easily picture the kind of atmosphere Mackey has typically provided. I was there first hand for much of these last few years. It was impressive, and translated well on TV.
But now, the game starts, and the big, open spaces rears its ugly head. It’s not a good look, and I think it’s going to be a huge hindrance to Boilermaker recruiting in the near future. Based on all the kids that have fled to Michigan schools (i.e. Gary Harris and Glen Robinson Jr.*), it’s likely already having an impact.
*Yes, that Glen Robinson Jr. Purdue couldn't get Big Dog’s kid to West Lafayette.
There’s also the inability to pull in the “casual” fan, which can almost fully be attributed to the lack of luck in March. If you are a Purdue fan, you probably have a pretty close connection to the school. For me, most of my mom’s family went there, my wife (and very long-time girlfriend before that) comes from a full-blooded Purdue family, and she of course followed in those footsteps. I worked there for a time. About the only Purdue fan I know that I can think of off the top of my head that didn’t have a personal connection to the school would be my dad, and he gained one after the fact when he was married to my mom.
Are there solutions to this? Sure. There are always solutions. Am I going to offer any up today? No, not really. Maybe soon. I used to say it just took winning when it counts, and I still believe that’s a big part of the equation. But it goes deeper than that. One thing that must change, and I just don’t know if it will, is a commitment to the school and the students instead of the almighty dollar.
This clearly is a bigger problem for college sports in general. I can think of no better example than the realignment alluded to at the beginning of this post. It was made no secret whatsoever why the move to add Maryland and especially Rutgers was made. The midwest is losing population, the east and the south are gaining population. Adding Rutgers meant adding New York City, the nation’s top TV market, to the Big Ten Network’s reach. Adding Maryland is reaching into the ACC’s market, which traditionally skews south. And, again, this is all about making more money by expanding the conference’s TV footprint.
When does it end? Sure, money has been a big player in college sports for about as long as there have been college sports. But has it really gotten so blatant? Has there ever been an era where college athletics were treated this businesslike? Above the table, even? Has it really gotten so bad that nobody could even pay lip service to the missions of the universities and their students during this latest round of expansion?
Look, maybe I come to this from a little bit different place, going to a small school. But I doubt it. The main mission for the school is to provide the best education possible. And a huge part of that education is personal growth. In fact, I would argue that is the biggest mission of a college education. You can get an education anywhere. This was explicitly told to me by many schools during my own college search, and I’m sure many people have heard the same line. Each school’s culture, though, is different. And that culture is going to shape your experiences and growth as a member of society. Athletics and entertainment offered by the school are a part of that experience, that growth as a person if you so choose to indulge. Why don’t we all take a step back from the dollar signs and remember that there is a larger mission here, a cultural element to each of these schools that maybe we shouldn't be tampering with this much.
Sometimes, the unintended consequences of our actions just far too big for us to understand at the time. Maybe here in a few years after this realignment bubble bursts, we can all look back on the creation of the Big Ten Network as the catalyst to all this and rue the day it hit the airwaves.