Since then, Texas, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State, Penn State, and others have begun marketing their spring games much more heavily. Nebraska drew about 80,000 fans to their 2008 spring game, their first under new coach Bo Pelini. Florida drew 60,000 fans for their Orange and Blue game in 2008, which was televised live by ESPN, who even sent their College GameDay crew to Gainesville for a two-hour pre-game. Penn State and Ohio State both had over 70,000 fans at their 2008 scrimmages.
The trend has continued in 2009. Alabama drew 84,000 people to their A-Day last Saturday (after bringing in 78,000 in 2008), and the game was televised live by ESPN. The Michigan Wolverines under coach Rich Rodriguez are actively seeking to break Alabama's record, and their spring game this year drew about 50,000 fans .
The obvious question is why? Why do so many people want to watch what is essentially a practice? There are several reasons
College football is more popular than ever: In 2008, Tony Guadagnoli of ESPN SportsTravel suggested that the growth in popularity in spring games may be due in part to the overall growth in regular season attendance, which he said had increased every year since 1996. "I just think it's the overall popularity of college football," Karl Benson, Western Athletic Conference commissioner, told Guadagnoli. "TV ratings are up across the country."
It's a long time till August: This is the idea that the ravenous appetites of college football fans must be fed, and that there are plenty of people who cannot wait until the tail-end of summer to see at least a semblance of a real, live game -- especially in college football hotbeds like Lincoln, Columbus, Gainesville and Tuscaloosa. "Personally, I think it's a little nutty to have 90,000 people here for a scrimmage," ESPN's Chris Fowler told Matt Hooper of Birmingham Weekly in Tuscaloosa last Saturday. "But I love college football, and nobody want to wait four months till the start of the season, so I understand why people are caught up in it."
It helps with recruiting: Nick Saban attributed his 2008 recruiting class, ranked by some as the best in the country, at least in part to the enthusiasm shown by the huge throng that showed up for A-Day in 2007. No one else, including the Florida Gators and coach Urban Meyer, wants to take a chance on being left behind. Big crowds at spring games are increasingly seen as a tool to impress potential recruits, both for those on campus to see the game and those watching on TV.
All the fun of a real game, but none of the anxiety: Some fans seem to feel that attendance at a spring game gives them a lot of the juice of attending a regular season game with none of the anxiety (i.e., the threat that your team could actually lose to someone). "It's a scrimmage; it doesn't even count," linebacker Cory Reamer told Kelly Whiteside of USA Today. "I guess fans are really excited about it because either way, Alabama is going to win."
Some schools are adding special events to drive attendance. Alabama staged a flag football game featuring former players before their A-Day game last Saturday, although it's doubtful that the event had any impact on attendance. Michigan's 2009 spring game was scheduled to feature their marching band, cheerleaders and dance team, as well as locker room tours and other activities. In 2008, Florida, according to Guadagnoli, gave fans a player-autograph session, a "Fastest Gator on Campus" contest and unveiled a stadium sign commemorating quarterback Tim Tebow's 2007 Heisman Trophy.
Some schools are beginning to find ways to use their spring games as the centerpieces of spring festivals, of sorts. The University of Pittsburgh promoted their spring game and surrounding activities April 11 as the "Pitt Spring Football Festival," which was scheduled to feature live entertainment, games and other activities, including a football clinic for kids lead by current Ptt players. The University of Texas spring game at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin on April 5 was billed as the "Texas Football Spring Jamboree." According to a Texas football web site, "the Spring Fan Fest allows patrons of all ages to enjoy festivities in and around the stadium all afternoon."
TV executives are taking notice, of course. In addition to Alabama's A-Day game, several other spring games were televised regionally or nationally this year, including Georgia's and Miami's. And many schools now have their spring games broadcast in some form, on TV, radio or on the Web.
Also getting into the act are corporate sponsors. For example, Time Warner Cable was the major sponsor for the Texas spring game, and the A-day game in Tuscaloosa last week was officially billed as "The Golden Flake A-Day Game." For more on this, check out a nice round-up piece by Jack Carey and Andy Gardiner in USA Today.