Sports Take: Underwhelming football game day experience isn’t fans’ fault

Baylor students celebrate during Baylor football’s nonconference game against No. 12 Utah on Sept. 9 at McLane Stadium. Assoah Ndomo | Photographer

By Jackson Posey | Sports Writer

Baylor football has a fan engagement problem.

Some of it is the Texas heat, which can be brutal, especially early in the season. But other power conference schools in Texas fill out their stadiums — looking at you, Kyle Field. The Bears have only played one 11 a.m. game so far this season, so that can’t be a viable excuse.

Some of it is the smaller student body and alumni base, as Baylor’s enrollment is among the lowest in the Big 12. But even TCU, with smaller enrollment numbers, sold more tickets in a buy-game against Nicholls State than Baylor did against then-No. 12 Utah.

Some of it — perhaps most — is the team’s recent struggles. In a close game against the No. 12 team in the country, much of the stands looked empty. Outside the student section, most fans sat through the game.

There’s a larger issue at play than the team’s on-field performance. The Bears (1-2) are less than two years removed from their best season in program history, setting a wins record (12) while winning their first New Year’s Six bowl (2022 Sugar Bowl) since 1957. They finished the 2021 season with the highest postseason ranking (No. 5) of any Baylor team ever.

Recent struggles aside, Baylor has made bowl games in consecutive years for just the second time since former head coach Art Briles was fired. A 0-2 start, followed by an uninspiring win over FCS-member Long Island, is an understandable reason for apathy. But when several fans tried to encourage more grassroots engagement through a blackout, the athletics department tacitly expressed its displeasure with the move.

Baylor hasn’t sanctioned a blackout game since Briles was fired in 2016 amid a sexual assault scandal. In one of the most embarrassing days in the history of college sports, a segment of the fan base wore black T-shirts imprinted with “#CAB” (Coach Art Briles) in protest of his firing. It’s presumably the reason the university doesn’t want to support a blackout — and why football is one of the few teams on campus without black uniforms.

It’s also a really poor excuse.

The #CAB game was reprehensible and inexcusable, but that doesn’t mean Briles owns the color black. Teams around the country do blackouts, white-outs, orange-outs — you name it. Baylor tried a gold-out last season, and it flopped. Shutting down fan excitement about a football game to protect the brand is a peak example of the Streisand effect.

Allowing the failures of the Briles era to define the 2020s is exactly what this move is intended to avoid. And yet, it’s achieved quite the opposite, reminding fans all the more of the #CAB days. Allowing an entire base color palette to be defined by past errors is a huge mistake. Simply trying to avoid visual similarities to the past is far different than actually growing from it. This move represents only the former.

Ultimately, the blackout response is emblematic of a larger anti-hype culture surrounding Baylor football, as the old joke about Baptists not dancing rings especially true at McLane Stadium. The venue was built to rock, but many fans are content to just roll. While there’s nothing wrong with not selling alcohol inside the stadium, there has to be compensation elsewhere for the team to keep pace with the Big 12. That isn’t happening right now.

Baylor’s stadium is the 13th-largest in the anachronistically-titled Big 12. Its capacity is fewer than 3,000 seats smaller than the “Bounce House” at UCF, so named because the fans jump so much that the entire stadium shakes. Schools like West Virginia and Tennessee have classic ballads. Texas A&M is a full-blown cult. Baylor has a slow hymn, which, though iconic, tanks the energy level of any room it’s played in.

There’s all the makings of a great football culture in Waco: a stadium on the river, wild success in other sports, a (potentially) great color scheme, one of the best freshman traditions in the country. All the ingredients are there. But the school has to put them in the oven for the yeast to rise — and all too often, the top-down stadium experience feels more like distracted observation than anything adding to the dish.

Just about every TV timeout features an on-field panel of smile-and-wavers, or an old pop song, or a video of a safari guy, or an advertisement — there’s always something. But it’s never loud, it never has bass and it always ends with the crowd distracted from the game at hand. Fostering a raucous home environment is a must, particularly in a conference as passionate as the Big 12. It won’t happen overnight. But it can’t stay like this forever.

Get some black uniforms and lean into the blackouts. Play Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE.” and Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” with the volume up a few decibels. Cut the ads and PR during TV timeouts and stoke the fire the Baylor Line builds. Baylor has everything it needs to create a fantastic fan experience. It just needs to take that final step and actually do it.