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Bearcats Must Make Fan Experience A Priority With Nippert Renovation

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Earlier this week an article from the Wall Street Journal made the rounds among college football internet circles. Premise was a question based on a recent development, why are officials from some of the most popular college football teams in the country trying to learn things from Major League Soccer?

Afterall, Major League Soccer slots in right after Hockey on the scale of american professional sports. That might be true, but there is alot that can be learned from looking at MLS for anyone in the sports business. While the TV ratings still aren't great, the perception of the league drags well behind the reality of the rapid improvement in quality of play. The difference between MLS today and, MLS at the height of the Beckham years is night and day.

The biggest difference of all has happened in the stands. The spectacle's that you see in Portland and Seattle are the most extreme example of the transformation of US soccer culture. But similar things are happening throughout the country. It's hardly an accident that attendance for MLS has risen so dramatically in recent years.

The main driver behind the growth has been a commitment from MLS officials to improve the fan experience. They didn't really have a choice in the matter. The environment of scarcity in which the league has existed in from the beginning means that franchise owners and league executives no choice but to think outside the box of conventional american pro sports.

The MLS didn't truly take off until stopped trying to ape the big four leagues and started to do things their own way. The proliferation of soccer specific stadiums is the most tangible example of that. When the league kicked off in 1996 everyone but San Jose played in a monolithic football stadium, most of NFL origin. When the 2014 season kicked off in March 15 of the 19 teams played in soccer specific stadiums.

The obvious economic effect of playing in a smaller venue is that it creates an artificial scarcity, and thus creates steady demand where once there was a more fluctuating demand. Its one thing to create demand, its another to create a satisfying experience for the fans, one that makes them want to keep coming back. That is where the MLS has thrived.

In general the MLS is a league that caters to their fans. At all levels the MLS has made it a priority to give the fans what they want, within reason. The league has one of the most open social media policies among american pro sports. The same thing could be said of the media in general, access is for the most part wide open.

But really it comes back to the in stadium experience. In general the league goes over and above the call of duty to cooperate and co exist with their supporters groups. At the same time they have managed to create a family friendly atmosphere for those with children. Those are usually two countervailing goals, but most MLS franchises have managed to create a balance between them in their stadiums. That is the crucial lesson that anyone running a sporting enterprise can take home.

Its something that a lot of college football programs aren't really doing at the moment. Student attendance, and attendance in general have been suffering a prolonged, if not particularly steep decline. Increasingly teams are competing with the big screen television at home. There are many parts of going to the game that are a hassle, fighting the crowds, waiting in long lines, obnoxiously overserved fans, parking. None of which exist at home (unless you invite the obnoxiously drunk person). For many people the experience of going to a game is negative enough to outweigh the positivity that comes from being in the building.

This is a point that can't be stressed enough when talking about the Renovation of Nippert Stadium (which is coming along nicely). There is a subset of Bearcat fans who will swear up and down that unless the capacity is greater than 40,000 seats the renovation is a waste of money. That is a simplistic way to look at it. Capacity was never the primary concern with the project. Number one was creating new revenue streams, and it has been very successful at doing just that. Number two was making ease of access better.

As fun as Old Nippert was, the simple fact of the matter is that the infrastructure was barely passable for 25,000 people, and anything over 30,000 people meant that you were in for a nightmare trying to simply walk from one side of the stadium to the other. Grabbing a quick beer or a brat between quarters without missing some game action was simply out of the question.

The renovations secondary aim is to improve the fan experience, Whit Babcock stated as much in announcing the project. The east side of the stadium wouldn't be touched at all if that wasn't a concern, but the east side is getting a substantial makeover as well (details forthcoming according to everyone at UC). The only question that remains is how far the administration chooses to go in implementing best practices to improve the fan experience, and that is something that we won't know until about this time next year.