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Cracking the code: NMSU looks at what does and doesn't attract students to university sporting events

Free T-shirts, more traditions, a winning team ? what exactly will it take to get more New Mexico State University students to attend the school's sporting events?


A student in the stands at Memorial Stadium waves an Aggie flag during a football game.
Aggie fans root for the home team during the 2009 NMSU football homecoming game at Memorial Stadium (photo by Darren Phillips)

That's one of the questions the Aggie Spirit Game Day Experience Task Force, created earlier this year by NMSU President Barbara Couture, is trying to answer. The latest step in the effort was a snapshot survey of two Aggie home football games this season conducted by a class of marketing students at the College of Business. So far this year, overall attendance at home games has averaged about 16,000, according to the NMSU Athletics Department. On Saturday, just more than 14,200 fans watched as the Aggies squeaked by Fresno State, 48-45, for the team's first win over the Bulldogs in school history.

Elise "Pookie" Sautter, head of the marketing department for the College of Business and a member of the task force, had students in one of her classes direct to an online survey fellow students on the main campus who had attended the University of Texas at El Paso and Ohio University home games. The survey tracked what the students liked and didn't like about their game-day experiences. The students' actual attendance at the games was verified through their student IDs.

"The thing the students like most about the game is the band. They love the Pride Band and how it contributes to the game day experience," Sautter said. "They like the video boards, they like being with their friends ? the whole social atmosphere."

Sautter cautioned that the survey was very small ? only 140 students were queried ? but added "it provides some exploratory data on student satisfaction with some of the recent changes that have been made."

Some of those changes include Sodexo replacing Aramark as the university's food services provider at the concessions, as well as a new tailgate tradition that began this year just outside of the north entrance of Aggie Memorial Stadium. Attendees can visit "Pistol Pete's Paddock" and get some pre-game food and entertainment.

Still, Sautter said, the overwhelming feeling expressed by many of those surveyed was that the game day experience needed to be more participative.

"In basketball now, (the Aggie fans) do the 'guns up' where everybody sticks their finger up in the air when the team is shooting free throws," she said. "(Football) needs to go into that line. When you think about it, NMSU doesn't have any real chants to engage the crowds."

Among the survey's findings:

? Of the two games spotlighted, not surprisingly the UTEP contest drew the most attendance from the respondents at almost 71 percent.

? Close to 68 percent of the students said supporting the team or team members drew them to the game, as opposed to 48 percent saying they tagged along with friends and family.

? The largest number of respondents, almost 44 percent, said they spent between one and three hours "at pre-game activities surrounding the stadium prior to kick-off." The next largest group of respondents, 21 percent, spent 30 minutes to an hour on pre-game festivities.

? Asked how long the students stayed at the games, 56 percent remained until the clock in the final quarter ran out.

Steve Macy, associate athletic director for marketing and promotions, said that although the most recent study was small, it does track with a much more comprehensive online survey conducted by the athletics department in March. For that report, 555 students, the vast majority of whom lived on campus, were asked why they didn't attend NMSU athletic events and what could be done to improve attendance. The survey skewed toward on-campus student residents because they were contacted via the housing email database, while off-campus students were recruited through flyers.

As the athletics department's survey showed ? and what is of main concern to the Aggie Spirit Game Day Experience Task Force ? is that students are not showing up to NMSU sports events in the vast numbers possible.

Only 29 percent of those asked in the March survey said they attended Aggie sporting events in their free time. Naturally, studying and hanging out with friends outmatched Aggie sporting events at 89 percent and 72 percent, respectively. Still, 41 percent of those asked preferred to go out to restaurants and 35 percent opted for seeing a movie in their spare time.

Overall, the survey found that 82 percent of the respondents said they had gone to at least one Aggie sporting event over the past year. As for which sporting events they attended, 71 percent said football games and 60 percent said basketball. Softball recorded the lowest attendance number at 14 percent. The survey also found that the older students get, the less likely they are to consider themselves fans.

The survey also asked why students don't attend games, with the majority at 44 percent saying they weren't interested. Thirty-four percent said they lacked the time and only 4 percent cited the teams' performances.

Of those who did attend Aggie basketball or football games, the largest number of respondents at 36 percent said they went to be entertained, primarily through a fun atmosphere and a competitive game.

"Most of all, we learned that they want to be engaged and entertained throughout the game," Macy said. "Regardless of what is transpiring on the field, ensuring that our students have fun activities in the stands is what can drive greater student satisfaction."

Satisfying students is important because the virtually untapped number of them that can fill seats is considerable. The survey found that 13 percent qualified as "super fans," 37 percent were "casual fans," and 32 percent were "potential fans." The casual and potential fans are the obvious ripe fruit.

So what will it take to get more Aggies students to root for the home team? Well aside from winning teams, "the students said pretty strongly (in the survey) that giving them free stuff was a really good way to entice them to come to games," Macy said.

Seventy-nine percent of the students surveyed said giveaways at some home games would very or somewhat likely entice them to attend matches. Eighty-three percent said free or discounted concession items at some games would very or somewhat likely lure them to games.

As for the giveaways, 84 percent of students said they wanted T-shirts, 63 percent opted for backpacks and 55 percent voted for hats. Only 30 percent said they wanted cowbells, which, alas, were the giveaway at the Ohio University game ? and the number of bells given out was limited at that.

"Right now, the way we're budgeted, we don't have the ability to do giveaways," Macy said.

However, both Sautter and Macy go back to their findings that making the games more exciting, especially in the stands, will go a long way toward attracting students. Sautter suggests holding an online media campaign where students, faculty and even the public can share ideas for chants or activities.

"I think there were some major improvements (this football season) and certainly the team getting better is going to help down the road," Sautter said. "I think the biggest problem is really trying to sustain some level of satisfaction and enhance crowd participation to keep people coming back."