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Michigan State football: Improving fan experience at Spartan Stadium

How could the fan experience be better?

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Michigan State football
© Junfu Han/Detroit Free Press / USA TODAY NETWORK

The fan experience for Michigan State football fans at Spartan Stadium could use some improvements. What would they be?

Over the years, I’ve taken countless trips to East Lansing to attend Michigan State football games. I attended every home game when I was in school from 2011 to 2015. But as time has passed, my number of visits has dwindled. I now live out of state, so it’s a significant time commitment that I’m not always willing to sign up for.

Typical life conflicts prevented me from attending any games in 2019 and 2021. We all know what happened in 2020. But in 2022, I finally found the time to get back to Spartan Stadium for a couple of games.

I was excited to see what had changed after being away from campus for nearly four years. New buildings had gone up. The Breslin Center looked completely rejuvenated. Downtown East Lansing was almost unrecognizable. But after stepping foot inside the concourse at Spartan Stadium, I felt like I was stepping back in time. I expected to see some change in the game experience this past fall. Instead, it felt like every other Michigan State football game I’ve ever attended.

It left me asking a tough question: Is the fan experience at Michigan State outdated?

In speaking with friends, they agreed, to an extent, that some aspects of it certainly are. In the arms race that is college football in 2023, isn’t that a cause for concern? It’s never been easier, or more enjoyable to watch games at home. Shouldn’t Michigan State be doing everything it can to bring people to the stadium? Isn’t a full house on Saturday just as important as anything else to recruits? To current players? To the bottom line financially?

I feel like it is.

I also feel like there are some things that can be done to make that experience more enjoyable. Small things that could be the difference between attending in person or staying at home.

Here are some ideas for Alan Haller or anyone else in a position to make some changes. These first couple are on the house. For more, I may need to charge an hourly rate.

1. Alcohol sales

I’ll admit up front that I am not a local government expert. I’m fully aware that there may be some state or county laws preventing Michigan State from selling alcohol at Spartan Stadium. With that being said, it’s being sold at other venues within the conference. If it can happen there, I have to believe it can happen at Michigan State.

The main concern is that people will over-indulge and become irresponsible. I’d argue that is happening anyway outside the stadium in the tailgating lots. But if the argument is that alcohol sales within the stadium will make that problem worse, I have to disagree.

When there is a deadline, people will drink to it. They’ll drink more than they should, knowing it has to carry them through a four-hour football game. If alcohol is available within the stadium, I think that mentality goes away. The need to slam “one more” 10 minutes before kickoff won’t be as strong if fans know they can enjoy a beverage at their leisure during the game.

The other main concern is underage students getting ahold of alcohol illegally. Again, other schools have been able to figure this out without substantial problems. There has to be a road map. Keep the vendors away from the student section. Implement an ID station to provide wristbands to fans and students over 21. Limit sales to beer and wine only. There are solutions. At the end of the day, Michigan State would be trusting adults to act responsibly. A scary thought, no doubt.

But alcohol is present at nearly every turn in our day-to-day lives. I can sip on Pinot Grigio while I pick out produce at Whole Foods, but I can’t have a beer while I watch the Spartans play the Buckeyes. There are responsible ways to do it. As long as it’s not available within the stadium, some fans are going to find other places to watch the game. It’s time to trust adults until they prove otherwise.

2. Wi-Fi

In my return to Spartan Stadium this past fall, this was probably the addition I was most expecting to see. But, nope. I had to wait to “fly around the country” to get updates on the Alabama vs. Tennessee game. A picture with my brother from our seats wouldn’t be sent. I couldn’t contact the friends I rode with until we were well outside the stadium. It’s 2023. Wi-Fi is in cars, planes, and most sporting venues.

Like it or not, people are addicted to their phones. They want to take pictures and tell their friends they’re at the game. They want to see who else might be at the game. They want to check scores from other games. They want to check Twitter for thoughts and jokes about the game. This would be a huge benefit for the casual fan who is attending for the social aspect of being with friends.

The commercial breaks are longer than ever. Crowd shots, helmet shuffles, and sponsorship promotions are only entertaining for so long. Give fans a chance to check in on their outside lives. It will go a long way.

3. Concessions

How do I say this nicely? The food in Spartan Stadium is… not great? It’s something you’d expect at a high school game. I’m sure that’s fine for some fans. You’re going for entertainment, not for lunch. Others might not eat anything at the game after filling up on food at a tailgate.

At the same time, it’s a 3.5-hour game – usually in the middle of the day. People are going to get hungry. Why not make the food options somewhat exciting? I’m not calling for a massive spread with endless options. But there have to be some local restaurants or vendors that would be willing to work with MSU to offer alternatives to steamed hot dogs and boxed popcorn.

Early in the season, tailgating is all the rage because the weather is nice, and the season is filled with promise. Later on, it’s not as easy when it gets cold or when people feel like they’ve gotten their tailgating fill for the season. Currently, without a tailgate, you may be less inclined to go knowing you’ll arrive minutes before kickoff with a sub-standard hot dog or stale pretzel waiting for lunch.

If the options were expanded though, you could arrive an hour before the game, try something new, grab a beer, and still get that miniature tailgating experience that goes hand in hand with college football.

4. General admission upper deck

One of my favorite aspects about the outfield bleachers at Wrigley Field is that it’s general admission seating. It gives you the chance to watch the game from multiple vantage points. It also creates value for the consumer by allowing him or her to maximize their enjoyment by selecting their own seats.

Want to sit in row one? Get there early. Not as important to you? Arrive when you please. This will never happen in the lower bowl due to season ticket assignments and the student section. In the upper deck though, I think there is a real opportunity for experimentation.

I’ve seen so many MSU games where the upper deck is at half capacity. Would that still be the case if you knew you were buying a seat in rows 1-10 instead of row 30 for the same price? Maybe. Maybe not. The ability to move around within the upper deck and watch the game from different yard markers or sides of the field is an added bonus. If you have a large family or group of friends, this is another creative way to give those people an option to make sure they sit together.

This might not be a feasible solution for all home games. Premium games likely need to follow traditional assigned seating methods. Lesser games against non-conference or low-caliber Big Ten teams could make this an interesting wrinkle for fans looking for a nice bargain.

5. Concourse heaters

When it comes to playing football outdoors in late fall in mid-Michigan, I’d argue the No. 1 deterrent for fans when it comes to attending games is mother nature. Put simply, people don’t like sitting in the cold.

Outside of building a dome (which isn’t going to happen), there isn’t much Michigan State can do. But I do think they can at least try.

The concourse is naturally shielded from the wind, making it warmer than the seats in the stadium. There are a number of outdoor heater options that you see on restaurant patios or hotel awnings. Adding those to the concourse, combined with protection from the wind, could create a warmer environment for fans to congregate.

As noted, college football games are running longer than ever due to reviews and commercial breaks. It’s a long time to ask people to endure the Michigan cold. Attempting to create some sort of a reprieve for fans during halftime or commercial breaks might be just enough to keep people around.

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