No. 14 Ole Miss hosts No. 7 Kentucky on Saturday in Oxford. Both teams are undefeated. This is, to say the least, a big game.
The scant few area hotel rooms available are running $600 a night, you can forget about a Friday night reservation at City Grocery and the cops are already warning everyone about the traffic.
Vaught-Hemingway Stadium is sold out and the school is encouraging the 60,000-plus fans to wear coordinated colors to “Stripe the Vaught” in red or navy, depending on their section.
This is peak SEC football.
Yet Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin isn’t without fan concerns, even though he’s vowed to stop caring and just prepare his team.
It’s not that Oxford won’t be overrun with people. It’s that Kiffin doesn’t know when they’ll arrive inside the actual stadium, let alone how long they’ll stay.
The game is an attraction, but so is the Grove, the Square and the Library Sports Bar, among other options for anyone looking for a drink.
It’s fun, as it should be. But Kiffin isn’t afraid to call out his fans for maybe caring too much about the party not just at the expense of supporting the team, but to the actual detriment of the team.
“You come out before the game, or half time … and you run out the tunnel and it looks like a high school game playing in a college stadium,” Kiffin said this week of the weak attendance before the first and third quarter.
“You can’t let that affect you,” he continued. “There is psychology to that. There is a home-field advantage for a reason. When it goes the other way, you kind of have that feeling, ‘Are we still playing in a game here?’ The players have to fight that.”
This is not unique to Ole Miss. This is a college football thing.
Filling massive stadiums in often small college towns is an increasing challenge. Average attendance nationally has dropped for seven consecutive years. The 39,848 in 2021 was the lowest since 1981, per CBSSports.com
Even Alabama’s Nick Saban has routinely lectured his student section to stick around for the full game, not head out for refills at halftime. “You should stay and support the team,” he said.
Considering college football programs generally play just six or seven home games a year, it might seem bizarre for a sport that generates such passion to struggle with fan engagement. It’s real though.
Athletic departments have done what they can to combat it. If football isn’t enough — and the halftime marching bands only have so much pull these days — they’ve devised entire in-game entertainment scripts to keep fans engaged (and present).
WiFi capabilities have been expanded. DJs have been hired. Third quarter LED shows have been created. Some schools have signature sing-a-longs such as Florida (Tom Petty’s “I won’t back down”) and Michigan (The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside"). At Wisconsin, they literally jump around to “Jump around.”
The most effective move may be the growing number of schools (Ohio State, LSU, Oklahoma and others) that are now selling alcohol in the stadium. It presumably curbs fans who are loading up pregame with a final beer — or in search of another in the second half.
Some schools are redesigning (a la professional sports) the physical stadium to include more party decks and standing room areas. Tennessee, for example, promises its new “North end zone social deck” offers a “modernized gameday experience.” The days of just cramming seats into a big bowl are over.
Of course, Ole Miss has implemented all of the above as well. You can buy alcohol, there are multiple student party decks, a Blue Moon brewhouse, improved audio system for the DJ, LED lights, hype videos, more vendors and point-of-sale locations and so on and so on.
Maybe the real issue is the competitive nature (or lack thereof) of the sport. NFL fans like to party too, but they tend to stick around until the bitter end in large part because the games are almost always in doubt until the final minutes. Not so in college sports.
Ole Miss’ last two home games, where the crowd was lacking, included a 59-3 blowout of Central Arkansas and a victory over Tulsa that saw the Rebels lead 35-17 at halftime. Throw in the heat of Mississippi that time of year, and yeah, you can see why people wanted to get back under a tailgate tent.
After all, it’s one thing to return to the parking lots of MetLife Stadium. It’s entirely different to post up in the Grove, a picturesque 10 acres in the center of campus.
A big college football game isn’t just a big college football game. It’s a big college football weekend.
Which is why Lane Kiffin has all but given up trying to coach his fans and says he will instead just coach his team.
“I've tried social media, coming in here [to news conferences] for two years,” Kiffin said, shrugging at his failures. “We’ll worry about what we can control and that’s getting our players ready to play.”
It’s up to the fans to put down the cocktails and get to the actual game … you know, the point of the entire thing.
At least supposedly.