Urban Meyer remembers looking into the Florida sun and watching fans file into the upper deck in search of an empty seat at his first Gators spring football game. Almost 60,000 arrived to watch Florida host its 2005 spring game — about, oh, 60,000 or so more than Meyer usually saw at Bowling Green — and he scratched his head in confusion.
“I remember thinking, ‘What are you people doing? Go play golf or something,’” Meyer recalled last week.
I understand Meyer on this one. Of course, in both cases — watching spring football games and playing golf — I sometimes wonder why I’m even there. The newest phenomenon in college football is fall-like spring-game atmospheres. It’s like pitchers and catchers reporting in baseball, except 60,000 show up to watch.
ESPN “College GameDay” hosted its show from Gainesville for Florida’s spring game, where 61,000 attended to see mostly backups play in a game televised nationally by ESPN2.
At Nebraska, ticket brokers were getting $95 for $8 seats for the Cornhuskers’ spring game, and fans lined up outside of the stadium three hours before kickoff. Nebraska sold 22,700 tickets on the first day and welcomed a sellout crowd of 80,149 for the game.
Alabama, which silenced all arguments concerning which school has the most passionate fans when nearly 100,000 showed up for last year’s game, welcomed 78,200 two weeks ago.
Most of them left at halftime. And let’s be honest here: Spring games are pretty boring. The backups get most of the playing time. The games are televised, so coaches are paranoid about showcasing any unique offenses or defenses.
At South Carolina, for instance, Steve Spurrier let his defense use only three coverages and prohibited blitzing. Spring games are like that first Tecmo Bowl on Nintendo with four offensive plays (and for stunned teenage readers who just dropped their button-filled controllers, we thought that game was awesome).
“Spring games are awful. Well, maybe I shouldn’t use that word, but it’s not the best of the best playing each other because, a lot of times, you’re just trying to let young players find out what they can do,” Meyer said. “So if you came out to see a well-executed SEC football game in the spring, you’re not going to see that.”
But spring games are still strangely endearing, even from the press box. Here’s my theory on why spring games are suddenly outdrawing some NFL games: The Internet allows people to talk college football throughout the painfully long offseason. College football fans can follow recruiting, receive spring practice updates and even get reports on summer camps.
At some point during those agonizing eight months of talk without actual games, you’ve got to see some football, right? Just one taste on a spring day. And ESPN and other networks are more than happy to capitalize on that need. And since college football attendance continues to rise — it’s increased every year since 1996 — it only makes sense that spring football attendance grows as well.
“In the SEC, the fans are going to go any time you let them in the stadium,” Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson said.
Alabama changed the entire dynamic last spring. And this quote from Nick Saban on national signing day — when the Tide unveiled the nation’s top class — turned college coaches into promoters of their spring game.
“We had 92,000 at the spring game. That’s something I still hear people talk about all the time and something that was very impressive to all these young men who were there, heard about it or saw it,” Saban said that day. “Every fan out there should know it affected a lot of the players we were able to recruit.”
So the recruiting-savvy Meyer, who initially balked at ESPN’s request to televise the Gators’ game, turned his spring game into an event. He let students race his fastest players for a scholarship and catch a pass from Tim Tebow.
“Recruiting is such a major player, the bloodline of our program,” Meyer said. “If (recruits) are not going to be here, they’re going to be somewhere else.”
And not, as Meyer once suggested, playing golf.