The Next Generation Student Fan: How Design Can Bring Them Into Your Venue and Make Them Stay

In late February, posted an article titled “Will Next Generation Fans Show Up” detailing the struggles many universities face in attracting student-fans to football and basketball games… and the emerging struggle to get students who do attend to stay for the entirety of a game. The problem is plaguing schools across every region and every conference and doesn’t appear to be dissipating anytime soon.

This is obvious reason for concern for administrators, athletic directors and stadium architects alike. With fan needs, expectations and interests evolving at a lightning-speed pace, many schools are struggling to pin-point just what they can do to entice students. The research shows that it isn’t just one complaint for student-fans, and more notably, that it isn’t even technology that is keeping them at home. From the research cited – primarily gathered at the University of Oklahoma and Michigan State – student-fans stay home because of the lack of tailgating experience or restrictions on that experience; the poor sight lines and distance from the action on the court or field; the overall lack of atmosphere in a student section; and the miniscule food and entertainment options.

We can’t lose sight of the fact that student sections define some of the most iconic arenas and stadiums in collegiate athletics. And student participation is what makes collegiate sport games as fun as they are to attend. Would Allen Fieldhouse be what it is without their student section? Would Cameron Indoor Stadium be half as engaging if it weren’t for the Cameron Crazies? Would Kyle Field at Texas A&M be known for its intimidating home field advantage if you didn’t have the sheer number of students that create the 12th Man? With this in mind, the question we’ve been asking is how can design start to facilitate an experience that doesn’t just cater to the donor or premium seat holder, but creates a true appetite that makes attending a game a must for students?

The recipe for creating a better experience for students is going to vary by venue, location and history. For a storied basketball or football program, it may be easier to do with small changes; while for a younger program that hasn’t seen consistent success on the field or court, different options will have to be examined. Some design ideas that I think can and one day, will, be seen as critical to building a student-fan base, include:

  • Location and sight lines of student sections
    Most commonly, we see student sections behind either basket in a collegiate arena. While this works for some schools – Maryland is a great example – we can also consider the positive implications of allowing the student section to encompass the first few rows surrounding three sides of the arena instead. If this does occur, you have to offset the seating bowl so when students stand, individuals in regular seating behind can still see. Not only does this enhance the atmosphere by spreading the energy of students throughout, but it also means that more students will be closer to the court. If there is one thing we know students want, it is to feel that they have a direct impact on the game.. As an alternative, by creating a steeper rake, you can substantially improve sightlines for student sections that are behind either basket resulting in a louder and more impactful student section.
  • Not over-designing for the market
    It is easy to be tempted in the design process to design for the fan base you want, versus the fan base you currently have. But one of the important items to consider in both renovations and new construction, is rightsizing the facility and how you can go about creating demand. This extends beyond just the number of seats, but also includes seating experiences. By creating a variety of seating neighborhoods and providing a more limited amount of inventory, you can create demand in your student section.
  • Exploring new experiences
    We’ve been discussing the impact of providing students, particularly in an arena, less traditional experiences. For example, is there a way to create concession stands and kiosks that are available only to students and are open to the action, something that is typically uncommon in collegiate basketball? In addition, a concept similar to a “members club,” often seen in soccer, could have merit in a collegiate arena and stadium. These clubs are usually open to the action, provide a pre and post-game gathering space for the most avid fans, and build loyalty among fans by offering them discounted concessions, seats close to the court or field and an experience that rewards them for attending and staying at the game.

According to research Populous partnered with USA Today Sports Weekly to conduct in the fall of 2013, fans are more likely to attend games if there is an incredible atmosphere. We have to keep in mind that catering to the students is often what is best for the overall atmosphere for any fan, of any age and  there can be a definitive, undeniable trickle-up effect schools experience by catering to students. All of a sudden, you’ve built a passionate and incredible experience for the students – and there will inevitably be a better and more energetic experience for the non-student fan.

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