Lewis: Hawaii football courting millennials

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Once upon a time the University of Hawaii could be assured that as its long-enduring football fans became seniors citizens and gave up their seats at Aloha Stadium many would be filled by a younger generation.

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Once upon a time the University of Hawaii could be assured that as its long-enduring football fans became seniors citizens and gave up their seats at Aloha Stadium many would be filled by a younger generation.

But as older fans have stayed home, unwilling or unable to make the trek to Halawa, their progeny have not followed in their footsteps in anything approaching equal numbers.

Not only is there a lack of takers for seats in the designated student section, there seem to be few recent graduates in the stands as well.

“We don’t have all the numbers, but we know anecdotally that’s true,” athletic director David Matlin said.

UH is hardly alone in concern about the absence of millennials in college football these days. “In the NCAA meetings I’ve been to on the mainland it is an area of focus for all of us,” Matlin said.

Nationally, Division I football attendance has been on a seven-year downturn.

Locally the numbers — and initiatives to improve them — are part of the discussion as Aloha Stadium and UH attempt to wrap up contract negotiations for the 2017 season. The home opener is Sept. 2 against Western Carolina.

“Wi-Fi is an issue and the events within the event are issues to be addressed,” Matlin said. “This is an area where we need to do some more research so that we can make it a more enticing environment for (millennials).”

With many millennials pressed with tuition costs and mounting student loans and HDTV is an attractive option in addition to other forms of entertainment, UH needs to bring added value to the equation.

The urgency isn’t just for the immediate term but to assure customers and donors for the future as well. Studies suggest that folks who didn’t attend games as students or recent graduates are unlikely to do so or contribute in the future.

Matlin said, “We’re working collaboratively with Scott (Chan, the stadium manager) to try to find some solutions. Chan said, “We want to improve the experience for our fans and assist our partner, UH, in any way that we can.”

The talks come as officials say an incentive-based proposal that would reward UH for hitting designated turnstile benchmarks is on the table for negotiation.

As UH brings in more customers and the stadium earns more revenue from concession, parking, etc., UH would stand to share in the benefits.

Currently, UH pays no rent but is charged approximately $90,000-$100,000 per game for operational expenses, including staffing, clean-up, utilities and security. UH also is able to purchase some parking for resale and place some advertising in the facility.

The stadium is required by the state to fund its own operational and payroll expenses and it has been hard-pressed to do so as UH average attendance has dropped from 34,742 in 2010, its last winning season, to an historic low of 16,082 in 2015. The drop has been reflected in the value of food and beverage contracts the stadium has been able to negotiate with the concessionaire, dropping from 48.5 percent to 34.1 percent.

While last year’s attendance in the first non-losing season in six years showed a gain of 3,216 per game, lagging season-ticket sales (14,462 in 2016 vs. 15,238 in 2015) tempered the overall rebound.

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Matlin told the Stadium Authority Thursday that season-ticket renewals this year are running at 92 percent of last year. The target, this year, Matlin said, is to stop the eight-year season-ticket slide. “Our goal is to at least flatten out and, then, begin raising (the totals) again.”

Winning games will help, but UH, like its brethren, needs to win over a youthful constituency as well.