To Leave, Or Not To Leave

Posted: November 3, 2012

Friendly City Files

Mickey Matthews is right. And he’s wrong.

It just depends on where you’re sitting.

On Saturday, we went to the JMU Homecoming football game. We don’t go to JMU games very often, but I do follow the team and I’ve noticed Mickey is sometimes annoyed by fan behavior.

“Really, it’s very discouraging to have everyone leave so early,” he said in this paper after the William and Mary game. “We can get mad at the kids, but I know, in talking to some of the people up in the stands, there were a lot of adults who left the game. I don’t know what we’ve got to do to keep people in the stands. We’re losing our home-field advantage, and it’s really hurting us…  and I don’t have an answer. That was a great game. It’s very discouraging.”

Mickey is right. Many people do leave early. And many aren’t in the stands when the game starts. That does diminish the atmosphere and excitement, both for players and for fans.

Our seats were at the very top of the stadium — a great place to watch the game and also enjoy an awesome view of the area, by the way —  and I watched students file into the stadium throughout much of the first quarter. By the  middle of the second quarter, the purple tide had reversed itself and began to flow back out.

I could also see a portion of the prime tailgating area beside Godwin Hall. Many paying fans drifted into the stadium well into the first quarter. (Some stayed in the parking lot the entire game.) By the end of the third quarter, the entire stadium had started to empty. Plenty remained …  but a significant number had left.

So, during the game, I found myself channeling my inner Mickey. “Why would you spend money on a ticket and not get here on time?” I asked my wife. “Why spend the money if you aren’t going to stay? Why do so many students bail?”

Good questions. Clearly I’m right.

And, just like Mickey, I’m also wrong.

As my wife — as she often does — wisely pointed out, it’s not the fans’ responsibility to arrive on time or stay until the very end. As with any business — and JMU football is, at least in this sense, very much a business — the issue comes down to the relative value of the investment.
Take students. They get in free. Since, in most cases, the student section doesn’t “sell out,” a student’s only investment is their time, and as with every investment, opportunity cost plays a significant role. (Very simply put, opportunity cost is what you could have done instead if you hadn’t made a certain choice.)

So, for a student, the primary consideration is, “Will I have more fun at the football game …  or will I have more fun somewhere else?”
For many students, “somewhere else” clearly wins, either in full or in part.

The same is true for paying fans. Buying a ticket is an investment in dollars. Watching a game is an investment in time. For some, tailgating longer must be more “valuable” than seeing the start of a game. For others, leaving early must be more valuable than staying to see how a game turns out.

So, for a paying fan, the primary consideration is, “Will I miss out on too much if I arrive late or leave early?” For many fans, “probably not” appears to be the answer.

Mickey wishing fans would stay in the stands is a little like a restaurant owner wishing more people would walk in the door. People only act a certain way if they want and they see value in doing so.

The goal, as with any business, is to figure out how to provide that value. I don’t have the answers, but I hope the folks at JMU do someday — because what’s good for JMU, sports or otherwise, is also good for  Harrisonburg.

Jeff Haden lives in Harrisonburg and is a bestselling ghostwriter and featured business columnist for Inc.com. He can be reached at www.blackbirdinc.com.