In an era when it’s increasingly difficult to get fans in the stadium, it apparently isn’t so hard to get them into new rituals.
Average attendance at the Football Bowl Subdivision level has dipped nearly 6 ½ percent over the last six years — from 46,632 in 2010 to 43,612 last season — and lagging student interest during the digital age is considered a factor. But in a sport that loves its history, the same technological advances that tempt fans to stay home also make it easier for programs start their own game-day traditions.
It has become apparent in Florida’s last two games, as the Gators have mixed practices old and new. As is customary, Gator fans sing “We Are The Boys From Old Florida” at the end of the third quarter. Now they follow that up by singing along as the public-address system plays “I Won’t Back Down” by Gainesville, Florida, native Tom Petty , who died Oct. 2.
The “We Are The Boys From Old Florida” singalong has been going on for decades. The decision to play Petty’s song right afterward arose following Petty’s death, but fans knew what was planned because Florida announced its intentions beforehand.
Just like that, a potential new tradition was born.
“To see that after ‘We Are The Boys,’ to hear that place (sing) in unison, it was special,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said. “Credit goes to the people who put it together, and more than that, the response of the fans. And, ultimately, ‘I won’t back down’ — it kind of hits home for me.”
The quick turnaround of Florida’s Petty project highlights the potential for social media to impact tradition making. For example, when a school wants to “stripe” its stadium in school colors, as West Virginia did last week before its game with Texas Tech, school officials merely remind fans on Twitter which color to wear based on where they’ll be sitting.
“I think it’s actually a little easier to start a tradition now in the digital age,” Houston athletic department spokesman David Bassity said. “You’re able to communicate and get information out ahead of time. I remember going back as a high-school student or in junior high with season tickets to Oklahoma, they tried popping out the ‘shock wave’ — a wave from the first row to the very top row, like a vertical wave. But no one really knew about it until you got to the game and it was kind of a half buy-in. Now you have your digital platforms and you can let people know what you want to do. It becomes your own organic word of mouth.”
Florida isn’t alone. A number of programs have successfully launched new rituals. They may not be as old as the Friday night yell practice at Texas A&M or the rolling of Toomer’s Corner at Auburn, but these practices have quickly become a part of their school’s football culture:
HAWKEYE WAVE: No new college football tradition has garnered quite as much attention this year as Iowa’s friendly greeting. After the first quarter of home games, fans wave to patients at the UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital that’s adjacent to Kinnick Stadium. Patients and relatives often are looking out the window and waving back.
HOUSTON’S ‘CAGE SWAY’: After the Cougars finish their pregame warmups, they gather in front of the student section , lock arms and sway back and forth while engaging in a call-and-response with the students, who also are locking arms and swaying. The practice started in 2015. “The song had been one some of our players had kind of created a while back and was more of an inside-the-locker-room type of deal,” Bassity said. “It became a matter of what if we do that with the student body before we go up to the locker room?”
TOUCHING THE STATUE: Ever since Arizona State unveiled a statute of former defensive back Pat Tillman outside the school’s student-athlete facility just before the season, the Sun Devils have made a point of touching the statue as they head to the field before every home game.
“If you are going to go out there and touch that statue, you get out on that field and you bring it like he did,” Arizona State coach Todd Graham said. “If we do that, great things are going to happen.”
HONORING BEAMER: When Justin Fuente took over for the retiring Frank Beamer as Virginia Tech’s coach last year, he chose to honor his predecessor by handing out Beamer’s retired No. 25 jersey to a special teams player of the week. Beamer’s Virginia Tech teams were known for their exceptional special-teams performances.
OPENING THE GATES AT WAKE: Wake Forest has a prominent alum or former Demon Deacons athlete open the BB&T Stadium gate and lead the team onto the field for every home game . Former Wake Forest stars Arnold Palmer, Tim Duncan and Chris Paul have already taken a turn.
“It came out of our marketing department,” Wake Forest athletic department spokesman Steve Shutt said. “We were looking for a way to recognize some of our alums and former athletes. When you a have a famous person come back to campus rather than just have them stand up in a stadium and (have a public address announcer) say, ‘Arnold Palmer’s here today,’ kind of put a little more meat to it.”
AP Sports Writers Mark Long in Gainesville, Florida, and John Marshall in Tempe, Arizona, contributed to this report.