In 2018, college football had its lowest average attendance in 22 years, and Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald thinks he knows why.
“These things (he holds up his cell phone); I think technology is the (reason for) decline in attendance #1,” Fitzgerald said last week at Big Ten Media Day. “Watching young people today live like this (ducks his head and stares at his phone) instead of like that (he lifts his head up).”
He added, “I think it’s a big cause. I think it’s the root cause.”
Fitzgerald went out to dinner with his wife recently and was aghast at what he saw at the next table.
“Stacy and I were out on a date last night and there were two couples, two groups of couples sitting next to us and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m old.” Not one of the four couples were talking to each other,” Fitzgerald said. “They were all on their phones and it just drove me up the wall. I literally wanted to be like a dad and [say], ‘Give me your phone and talk to each other. This is pathetic.’ It was really, really pathetic.”
Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald puts NCAA football's attendance problem and really society's eventual downfall in perspective:
— Rick Tarsitano (@RickTarsitano) July 20, 2019
Division I college football games averaged 41,856 fans per game last year, the lowest average figure since 1996. In 2017, the decline was actually bigger, with the largest dip in 34 years. Last year, major programs with the biggest drops were USC, Ohio State, South Carolina, Florida and Virginia Tech.
In 2018, the Pac-12 Conference posted its lowest average attendance in 37 years, and Northwestern’s conference, the Big Ten, had its lowest attendance since 1993.
Fitzgerald feels that even when some people go to live events these days, they are still obsessed with their cell phones.
“You watch a concert, and everyone is holding their phone up,” Fitzgerald said. “Listen, watch, take it in, create a memory! They don’t go back and watch the videos; they just want to post it on their social media, which is pathetic, because it creates a society of ‘look at me, isn’t my life great.” Even though when they go home, they are like, “I hate myself, I hate my life, everything is wrong.”
Fitzgerald feels some younger fans don’t enjoy the “pageantry” of the stadium experience like the older fans.
“I think the fans that grew up tailgating and going to the stadiums four hours before the games are getting a little older and I think the next and younger generation of fans are more reliant on technology,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald took some heat on the internet for his rant against cell phones.
“In one of the more ‘get off my lawn’ rants you’ll ever see, Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald somehow blamed smartphones for the decline in college football attendance,” wrote Sports Illustrated’s Jimmy Traina.
Even though Fitzgerald isn’t thrilled with the cell phone obsession he thinks is hurting attendance, he knows college football better evolve and come up with some new ideas to draw fans.
“There are definitely things to look at as a brand, college football, on how we can maybe create that type of environment and experience,” Fitzgerald said.