For what seemed like decades, Kentucky football fans would say it, almost in unison: “If they could only win six or seven games a year, I’d be happy.”

We’re finding out “happy” is a relative term.

Thanks to their 3-0 start, the Wildcats appear to be on their way to a third consecutive season of at least seven wins, but not everyone is “happy” in the Big Blue Nation.  Too many fans have been showing up at Kroger Field disguised as empty seats, for a real bouillabaisse of reasons – one of them involving John Glenn.

That’s right – the astronaut. More on him later.

Fans have been slowly melting away from college football games for several years now and it’s been completely predictable. Even powerhouse, consistently successful programs have felt the sting of empty seats, with photos of patchy stadium crowds scattered across social media platforms each Saturday.

The most obvious culprit is television.  The SEC, the Big 10, the ACC, they all have their own individual networks, which are delivering on the promise of providing telecasts of every home game. And considering the fact that members of those conferences rarely go on the road to play non-conference games, there’s a safe bet that each contest will be on live TV.

Then factor in the rest of the alphabet: ABC, NBC, CBS, ESPN, FOX – they’re all in the college football business. Even the “mid-major” conferences are providing telecasts, often streaming the games online.

Mark Stoops has produced back-to-back winning seasons at Kentucky, but fans have not been packing Kroger Field (Photo by Brandon Turner)

This, of course, means you don’t have to be there in person any more to watch your favorite team play.  And as tempting as the shared experience of tailgating and then watching good ol’ State U might be, the rising cost of tickets has become a real deterrence.

And then there’s parking.

AT UK, it’s disappearing, some of it swallowed up by on-campus expansion. And the price of passes has risen considerably, leaving a lot of potential customers behind. UK network analyst Jeff Piecoro, a former Wildcat receiver, says he used to get frequent phone calls from people asking about available tickets. Now, he says, it’s almost always about parking.

So finances have forced many fans to make a choice; more and more of them are choosing to stay home and put their feet up.  This is where John Glenn comes in (stay with me here).

Back in the day, even when a game was on live TV, watching the tube wasn’t all that popular of an option.  Technology has changed all that.  Your massive flat-screen, HD television can virtually put you so close to the action you can almost smell the sweat (here’s hoping smell-o-vision never takes hold).

The technology for flat-screen TVs actually dates back to a research lab in 1964.  General Electric made the first engineering proposal, based on work it was doing with radar monitoring. If only those guys knew what kind of door they had opened.

High Definition (HD) technology didn’t come along until the mid-90s but when you slammed those two formats together, it was the greatest thing since PB & J.  The first public HD TV broadcast happened on July 31, 1996, when Raleigh, N.C. station WRAL-TV began to broadcast through a digital transmitter.

But it wasn’t until Oct. 29, 1998, that an HD signal was transmitted coast-to-coast. That’s when the American Advanced Television Systems Committee broadcast live coverage of Glenn’s return to outer space aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery.

The Wildcats this season have played in front of good crowds, but not great crowds.
(Photo by Brandon Turner)

Nobody back then had any inkling, or reason to think about, how the technology would affect college football 20 years later.  But here we are, talking about the fans who just aren’t coming any more.

The comforts of home, ticket prices, spiraling cost of parking and concessions – it all adds up, not to mention the multi-million dollar stadiums and practice facilities that have caused budgets at D-1 institutions to swell to record levels. And don’t forget the ever-climbing salaries for coaches.

The athletic budget at UK now has topped $100 million. So, lowering ticket prices does not seem to be an option, beyond the occasional offering of specially-reduced rates.

So the question facing not only Mitch Barnhart, but athletics directors all across the country is, How do you win them back? How do you attract the fans who can be almost as easily entertained by staying home?

Putting a good product on the field is paramount, but that’s not the only answer. Kentucky has been competitive under Mark Stoops for the past four years, but empty seats have been piling up.

The Fan Day Experience has been improved, with updated choices at concession stands and stronger cell phone and wifi service. And still, the first two home games have yielded disappointing crowds, especially in the sections designated for students, who pay the cheapest ticket prices of all.

Rising ticket and concession prices, expensive parking, wall-to-wall coverage via superior TV technology – the potential for fan base drop-off has been building for years.  And you didn’t need to be John Glenn, peering down from outer space, to see it coming.


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