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Not Ready For Some Football

If you are wringing your hands over the difficulty you are having attracting students to your performances and events, you are not alone– university football programs are having difficulty, too.

An article on Inside Higher Education’s website reports some pretty significant drops in attendance by students at football games.

Student attendance at major college football games is declining across the country. By how much varies greatly at each institution, but a recent Wall Street Journal analysis of turnstile data at 50 public colleges with top football programs found that average student attendance is down more than 7 percent since 2009.

In 2013, the University of Georgia’s designated student section was nearly 40 percent empty. The University of California at Berkeley has sold about 1,000 fewer student season tickets this season than last year — a season that already saw a decline from the previous one. Since 2009, student attendance at the University of Florida has dropped 22 percent. Three-fourths of the University of Kansas’ student tickets went unused last season.

The article blames cold weather, lack of cellphone/wifi signals and alcohol in stadiums, along with the option to watch the game on a wide variety of media as reasons why attendance is dropping.

And by the way, none of these problems are new. A little over a year ago, Jon Silpayamanant wrote about the exact same attendance issues facing professional sports. Inside Higher Ed mentions that universities are using many of the same solutions the professional teams were adopting including more robust wi-fi, better access to food and beer, and more promotions and giveaways.

One of the concerns expressed about the lack of student attendance is the poor image it provides on television.

“Fundamentally, students are part of the show and that’s something that folks don’t always recognize,” Southall said. “If you watch a college sports telecast, where do the cameras go for in-crowd shots? The cameras are in the student section. If that section is not there, it’s like having a movie without enough extras to walk in the background of the shots. I always joke to my students, ‘You understand you’re paying to be extras. You’re just there for the show, so everyone else can keep consuming it.’ “

The long term concern is that disinterested students will become disinterested alumni who won’t support the athletic program and the university down the road.

As always when we talk about sports and the arts, there are a number of parallels here. One of the big one being the concern that the lack of interest/exposure as “kids” will translate into lack of investment as adults.

This article made me wonder about the real viability of Tweet Seats programs. If students aren’t motivated to attend a football game by the opportunity to be on television or, at the very least, being able to make “I am here participating” posts on social media sites, then are Tweet Seats programs really valuable as a way to attract and retain young audiences?

Given that many Tweet Seats program segregate social media users to their own section, the participants may feel even less engaged than students in a stadium surrounded by tens of thousands of others. (Though I suppose they could feel like they are part of an exclusive group if the environment is right.)

In the great battle of sports versus arts, among the advantages sports had were the ability to be a loud part of a large group at an event where the outcome was unknown. I found it somewhat worrisome that even with these advantages, sports were losing its audiences. What chance do the arts have then?

If you have been reading the results of audience research studies over the last decade or so, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the answer university athletic departments have arrived at is focusing on the audience’s experience, not on the “performance”.

“…according to a recent survey conducted by Ohio University’s Center for Sports Administration and stadium designer AECOM. The top three priorities for that spending — enhancing food and beverage options, premium seating, and connectivity — all focus on the experience of fans, rather than the players.”

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Who Really Values Diversity In The Arts?

Last month Springboard for the Arts tweeted that the attendance at the Guthrie Theatre’s attendance last year exceeded the Minnesota Vikings’ home game attendance, 425,932 to 421,668.

Springboard Executive Director Laura Zabel blogged about these numbers suggesting the 400k Guthrie audience members should manifest their love for the theater in the same way Vikings’ fans do–jerseys and facepaint.

One of my first thoughts, based on some of Zabel’s observations, was about whether tax dollars were better spent building a stadium which is only used 8 times a year by 400,000 people or a theatre which is used hundreds of nights a year by the same number.

But I quickly remembered the big to do about the lack of diversity in Guthrie’s current season. I wondered if the attendance numbers reflected any push back against that.

Based on a calendar year comparison, it hasn’t. At the end of 2011 their attendance was 421,982. That, however, was down from 2010 when their attendance was 435,877.

I don’t have any numbers comparing their seasons which run September – August. There could have been a precipitous drop off September – December 2012 that isn’t readily apparent. My suspicion, however, is that audiences by and large don’t care about diversity, or the lack thereof, as much as people in the arts sector do.

Diversity is an internal concern driven by economic and philosophic motivations rather than by external audience demands. Audiences do want works that speak to them so arts organizations pursue diversity in order to bolster attendance by expanding the appeal of their works.

Non-profit arts organizations are also widely motivated by their educational mission to expose their audiences to new ideas which is often manifested by who is chosen to perform and whose ideas are chosen to be presented.

While arts organizations have to be responsive to the tastes and interests of their audiences, the audiences take a pretty passive role when it comes to programming. They aren’t widely clamoring for their local arts organizations to bring in new faces and new ideas.

If they were, it would actually be easier to program a season because you would have an idea of what people wanted instead of having an empty theatre teach you what they didn’t.

The Guthrie’s artistic director, Joe Dowling noted that many of the shows in their current season were brought to him by the directors. That is how the programming decisions of most arts organizations are driven, artists and agents, rather than audiences approach decision makers with ideas.

In fact, one of the things artistic directors probably cringe most at is being approached by an audience member who says “I know this group…” I would have sworn it would never come to pass, but this season we are actually doing a show based on a usher coming up and essentially saying, “I am in this band…” It does happen, but often audience suggestions don’t reflect an understanding of the organization’s artistic and business models.

Just the same, that feedback can provide insight into the type of experience the audience member is looking for. Presenting Lady Gaga may be totally wrong for the Guthrie Theater, but a show where the audience can vicariously identify with the protagonist’s rise to celebrity might work great.

As you are all well aware, arts organizations are in the unenviable position of having to figure it all out. It is difficult to pursue any one agenda as wholeheartedly as you might wish. Program too conservatively and audiences will say the arts are arrogant and out of touch for telling them they ought to value antiquated works by Mozart and Shakespeare. Program too progressively and audiences will say the arts are arrogant for telling them they ought to value works challenging notions of gender, race and politics.

I don’t mean to champion a middle of the road approach. I could easily argue, as many people did regarding the Guthrie’s season, that I have far more diversity on my stage and in my audiences just by cultivating locally available artistic resources. I also know that may be harder to achieve in the next job I hold. A balance between leading and following has to be struck and recalibrated all the time.

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They Are Just Not That Into Us

I recently read an article that criticized the current thinking about an arts organization’s relationship with its audiences.

Except, that it wasn’t directed at arts organizations at all, but rather at general marketing concepts.

Yet it seemed to reflect upon the current conservations in the arts so closely, I was 2/3 of the way through before I realized it wasn’t really focused on arts organizations at all.

The article, 3 Ways You’re Wrong About What Your Customers Want, appeared on the website of Australian business magazine, BRW.

The first two myths they address is:


Actually, they don’t. Only 23 per cent of the consumers in our study said they have a relationship with a brand. In the typical consumer’s view of the world, relationships are reserved for friends, family and colleagues…

How should you market differently?

First, understand which of your consumers are in the 23 per cent and which are in the 77 per cent. Who wants a relationship and who doesn’t? Then, apply different expectations to those two groups and market differently to them…


No, they don’t. Shared values build relationships. A shared value is a belief that both the brand and consumer have about a brand’s higher purpose or broad philosophy…

Of the consumers in our study who said they have a brand relationship, 64 per cent cited shared values as the primary reason. That’s far and away the largest driver…

How should you market differently?

Many brands have a demonstrable higher purpose baked into their missions, whether it’s Patagonia’s commitment to the environment or Harley Davidson’s goal “to fulfill dreams through the experience of motorcycling.” These feel authentic to consumers, and so provide a credible basis for shared values and relationship-building. To build relationships, start by clearly communicating your brand’s philosophy or higher purpose.

The third myth is – THE MORE INTERACTION THE BETTER. and their suggestion is to stop bombarding your customers with emails.

Because so much of the conversation in the arts these days is oriented on engagement and relationship building, you can probably see why I initially thought it was about the arts. Actually, after reading the article and understanding its target audience, I started to wonder if maybe the ideas of engagement and relationship building might have migrated over from the for-profit business world and was embraced in an effort to “run things more like a business.”

I am not suggesting that arts organizations shouldn’t work on relationships with their community, only that in this context it might be wise to evaluate if every practice and assumption is appropriate for arts and cultural organizations.

I think most arts and cultural institutions realize not everyone is going to want to have a relationship with them. It is helpful to have an idea of what the percentages might actually be so we can better direct resources toward cultivating closer relationships with those who seek them.

One advantage arts and cultural organizations might have over businesses at large is that they are more likely to embody values with which people can identify and share. So there is a greater possibility for an arts organization to build a relationship with a customer.

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Be Here, With Me

Like many of you, my dear readers, I am of a split mind about the inclusion of social media in live performances. Overall, I think this is a good place to be. I have often written here that one should not jump on the hottest trend, but obviously one should not entirely dismiss it. A healthy mix of skepticism and self-education on the matter is valuable.

There was recently a post on the Drucker Exchange that pushed me toward the “against” column. I have talked about the benefits of tweet seats and such in other entries so I am not going to try to balance the “con” argument here.

In reference to employees using headphones and having social media chat window open at work, the Drucker Exchange piece cites former entertainment executive Anne Kreamer,

“The majority of these young workers said that they felt far more connected moment to moment with people outside their workplaces than with any co-workers,” she writes. The problem, according to Kreamer, is that they miss out on crucial exchanges, become less loyal to the company and one another, and innovate less. As studies on innovation show, physical proximity matters.

… For one thing, it’s the reason many people go to work at all. “Work is for most people the one bond outside of their own family—and often more important than the family,” Drucker observed in People and Performance. “The work place becomes their community, their social club, their escape from loneliness.”


More important, such contact influences productivity, and creating satisfying informal work arrangements among co-workers is especially important for good output. Research conducted by General Motors during the 1940s, for example found that “‘good fellowship’ or ‘good relations with fellow workers’ showed as the leading causes of job satisfaction,” Drucker recalled.

The Drucker Exchange piece echos a rhetorical corollary many arts people ask of those who feel the need to engage in social media exchanges during a live performance experience, “What is the reason you come to the performance at all?”

For many it may be that a friend or significant other encouraged them–but then they aren’t really dancing with the one that brought them, either. (Though granted, that person may also be connecting with outsiders as well.) Or maybe they are getting extra credit for a class or looking to advance their career.

The mention that employees who isolate themselves in this manner at work are less loyal to the company makes me think audience members who do the same probably aren’t developing a lot of loyalty to the arts organization. True, the act of actually writing about what they are seeing may actually forge a connection that passively watching the show wouldn’t, but there is no guarantee the person is relating their feelings about the show.

While arts organizations probably can’t have the same expectations about audiences they could during the days of high subscription rates, audience churn is a big problem. It costs a lot more to attract a new attendee than to maintain a relationship with frequent attendees. It seems ill-advised to encourage activities that don’t cultivate a connection and may even erode it.

Simply forbidding people to use mobile devices isn’t going to magically result in the scales falling from people’s eyes and have them realize how disconnected they were. The arts organization has to provide a reason to get engaged in the immediate experience as an alternative to connecting to friends who are elsewhere.

As much as we may want to believe it, the experience of the performance may be insufficient to get a person invested. For some people, texting, tweeting, etc may simply be filling the void of uncertainty about the experience with a safe activity.

The solution may not be any more complicated than encouraging front of house staff to actively ask people what brings them to the performance and find out what their expectations are. Or perhaps changing the layout of the lobby to facilitate people gathering and chatting in certain areas. Essentially replace the friends who are elsewhere with friendly faces right where they are.

This song went through my mind as I wrote this entry-

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