Based on the questions I was asked by fans leading up to the Dawg Walk, Sanford Stadium welcomed a lot of first-time visitors Saturday. It was a beautiful fall afternoon in Athens, and the Dawgs put on a show for the crowd. Fans repaid their heroes by sticking around to watch a contest that, frankly, was not contested by the overmatched visitors.
The traditional ‘cupcake Saturday” falling the week before most teams play their traditional rivals (often internecine battles) may be a dying part of the college football scene. As fans continue to weigh the cost of season ticket packages in the wake of the loss of previously enjoyed favorable income tax treatment, and the high quality of TV broadcasts (certain announcing teams excepted) allowing many fans to opt for a big-screen-in-the-den, scheduling has become far more critical.
Attendance is declining, the cost of attendance is rising – the only cure is to stage games with the electric atmosphere, the noise, the intensity and passion that is unique to big-time college football. TV has become very good at presenting sports, but that box cannot replace the visceral excitement and body-shaking noise of a viciously contested SEC football game – our tribe against them. It is a primal experience that resonates at a basic human level! UMass and Austin Peay excite no one in Red and Black, but a teeth-rattling tackle that stops an Auburn back for no gain on third and one is life-affirming.
Of course, cupcake games do serve one important purpose. They reduce the grind of the twelve game season. Given the 85 scholarship limit, I’m not sure that teams can, physically, successfully manage a schedule with 9 or ten league/power five games. Having two bye weeks would help by giving players some recuperation time during the season, and, of course, increasing available scholarships would spread to load of increased competition – but neither of those options seems remotely likely.
It is going to be interesting to see how the sport evolves to meet the demands of a changing fanbase possessing previously unimagined tools to consume college football. I remain convinced that the elemental nature of this game will allow the sport to continue to thrive as long as there is an Athens and there are Saturdays.