MAC Media Day: Commissioner talks cross-conference student attendance

DETROIT – Jon Steinbrecher, the Mid-American Conference's top official, weighed in Wednesday on the league's most foreboding issue during MAC Football Media Day at Ford Field: Student attendance at home games.

For Central Michigan University, the topic has been a point of constant debate in recent years.

"Quite frankly, we are in a different era (of college football)," Steinbrecher said. "We make the at-home experience so good. With what you can see on TV, sometimes it's warmer and dryer than what you can see sitting in the stands."

Steinbrecher pointed to advancements in infrastructure as one of the avenues member schools can use to drive attendance numbers back to the desired level.

"We need to look at what we can do with our facilities and such," he said. "Can we upgrade our facilities in such a way (that it benefits the conference)? It is a topic our folks are spending an enormous amount of time on. I don't think there is any one answer. The answer is going to be different at every institution."

At CMU, Athletics is slated to receive $18.5 million of general fund money toward its $25.5 million budget. That figure is up  nearly $1 million from last year’s $24.8 million budget for CMU Athletics.

Meanwhile, students accounted for no more than 30 percent of the total paid attendance in a single game during the 2013 season. Student attendance at CMU home games plummeted as the year went on.

Dave Heeke, CMU's athletic director, told Central Michigan Life in March that the department's top priority when it comes to attendance is meeting the NCAA Division I standard – averaging at least 15,000 in actual or paid attendance for all home football games on a two-year rolling basis.

"We can debate whether it’s an effective or appropriate rule mandated by the NCAA to be a Division I program, but it is one component that many institutions across the country have to wrestle with,” Heeke said. “Our feeling is, let’s make sure we don’t have to worry about that so our focus can be on trying to attract people to come to the game to build our fan base year-to-year, not just game-to-game or over one season.”

Adding to the stunted attendance at MAC games is the ongoing battle between the conference and national television companies regarding the broadcasting of weekday games. CMU has only one weekday game scheduled this fall – the season opener against Tennessee-Chattanooga at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 28 at Kelly/Shorts Stadium.

"We are evolving toward a point where every game will be available on some platform," Steinbrecher said. "We are three or four years away from everyone having smart TVs. That world is really changing. We are trying to take advantage, as a conference, of all the exposure vehicles that are available to us."

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