Athletics Director Scott Stricklin has booked some non-conference, non-traditional games for Florida football – home and away.
When Scott Stricklin took over as Florida’s athletic director in 2016, he knew the best thing he could do would be to keep a well-oiled machine running the way Jeremy Foley had it humming.
But he also knew the economics of football had changed.
One of those areas concerned the Florida schedule. The days when Florida could add three chocolate eclairs to a schedule of eight SEC opponents and Florida State were fading into the sunset. Florida hadn’t played a non-conference opponent other than FSU on the road since 1991.
More importantly, I think we all realized that it was no longer enough that the Gators were playing a football game. It was as much about who they were playing and the directional schools and opponents where you had to look up the nicknames were not cutting it anymore.
“It’s all so market driven,” said Stricklin, flipping on his reading glasses to look at some of the numbers on his iPad. “When I started looking at the years when we needed teams, you start thinking, ‘What have we done in the past and do we keep doing it?’
“Back in the 1990s, you played whoever you wanted, didn’t have to pay $1.5 million to get them here and the fans were going to show up. The economics were not to give up a home game. But the dynamics have changed. The fans aren’t always showing up. Playing a game at home isn’t always driving the revenue.”
So Stricklin started looking for Power Five games in three different ways.
- He began calling other athletic directors he had a relationship with.
- He began cold calling some ADs.
- He talked to Dave Brown, the former ESPN schedule maker who is now a private consultant.
The combination of the three landed Florida a series of games that add two things to the fan experience: giving fans a reason to get excited about games in Gainesville and a reason to want to travel to away games.
The schedules through 2032 include home-and-homes with Utah, Miami, North Carolina St., California, Colorado, Arizona State, Texas and the big enchilada Notre Dame.
“That was a cold call,” Stricklin said. “That was pretty cool. I wish it was earlier (2031 there, 2032 here), but you get it on the books when you can. It’s interesting that they scheduled their game in November and we scheduled ours in September. Both trying to tailor it to our perceived strengths weather-wise.”
Now, you may be sitting at home drawing up what you see as the perfect Florida football schedule for your entertainment value. It’s not that simple.
“We probably got turned down more than we had people who were interested,” Stricklin said. “For a variety of reasons. You could usually tell if people wanted to make it work or if they didn’t want to take on the Gators and our stadium. A lot of teams want to play non-conference games they have a better chance of winning.”
Toughening up the schedules is not an unusual strategy around the country. While some will tell you that it is being done because of the anticipating of an expanded playoff system down the road, the truth is that getting fannies in the seats is becoming an issue for college football.
We all know that 2020 was an aberration with limited capacities because of the pandemic and we don’t know for sure what to expect this fall.
But even before COVID-19, college football was faced with declining attendance. During the 2019 season, the attendance was the lowest for FBS schools in 24 years. Some of the blame goes to students not being as engaged, HDTV screens getting better and the glut of games available on TV.
But athletic directors know that one of the things you can do about it is to give fans a reason to be there. Like seeing the gold helmets of Notre Dame run into the Swamp for the first time ever. You want to be there for that. You need to be there for that.
“We hadn’t had a lot of variety and I understand why,” Stricklin said. “It seemed like a great opportunity to create some variety. And the players want to play in those games, too. They don’t want to play against faceless, nameless schools.”
Economically, it makes sense because you are not paying a Group of Five team big bucks to show up. Florida, for example, is paying Florida Atlantic $1.5 million to be the opening day opponent this season. When the Gators face the Power Five schools they have scheduled, it’s a whole different story.
“It will be a wash,” Stricklin said. “There will be times when we exchange payments just to help someone with a budget in a year or travel, but it will even out.”
So far, the feedback has been positive, not only for fans who are excited about making the trip to stadiums in Austin, Texas, and Boulder, Colo., and Berkeley, Calif., but for the fans who live in those areas or within driving distance.
“You hear it all the time but the Gator Nation truly is everywhere,” Stricklin said. “When we go to Arizona State, when we go to the Bay Area, when we go to Colorado, there are a lot of Gators in that area.”
So, it might be a tough ticket. Just as it will be when some teams come to Gainesville for the first time.
And isn’t that the idea?
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