Fueled by the potent combination of America's insatiable hunger for football and the games' increasing importance in the recruiting arms race, spring games have become far more prominent in recent years. Attendance has soared nationally, and nowhere is this more true than in our own B1G, where, one imagines, the combination of the first weather amenable to human life in months and lots and lots of people with nothing better to do led to some impressive crowds, including 5 of the 8 largest turnouts nationally this spring.
How do we feel about this?
Spring Games Are Vital Components of Offseasons and Must Be Attended/Respected
Imagine that you're a teenage football prodigy, trying to decide where to play your college ball, and you see 99,000 (!) people not only show up, but pay money to watch a practice.
The Buckeyes weren't alone in getting an enthusiastic display of crowd support, either. Nebraska drew over 76,000, Penn State 68,000, Michigan 60,000, and MSU 48,000. Over 350,000 people attended the spring games of just 5 schools despite knowing that most of what they were seeing won't mean much, if anything, when fall rolls around.
That's how much a national championship, or a new coach, or escape from NCAA sanctions can stir up interest. Even if you look at those numbers skeptically (as is probably a sensible approach given the way some programs are fudging the numbers), tens of thousands of people are showing up to these things. There are some pro teams that don't draw that well.
No matter your opinion of the typical college football fan, it would be hard to entice that many people to spend a Saturday, or an entire weekend for those who must travel, on something that didn't mean anything. When there's a new coach, people want to see what the team looks like. When the team won a title, people desperately want to inhale every residual glory fume their nostrils can find before the country moves on. And even if none of those things are true, people want to know what their beloved team is up to in the offseason, and there's nothing wrong with that.
So, to an extent, the fact that so many people are showing up to these things is the only argument about their relevance that's necessary. But let's pretend for a moment that all the gripes about spring games hold water; that they're vanilla, that they risk unnecessary injury, that they contribute to the transformation of college sports into a corrupt, year-round money-printing machine. In the face of all those assertions, it's still worthwhile for a lot of people to show up for one simple reason:
Most B1G schools host well over 100 prospects for their spring game; the number is often closer to 200, and the impression the environment makes on the kids is apparent. In the last week, MSU snagged 5 recruits for its 2016 class. Michigan picked up 4 after its spring game, OSU also got 4, and Wisconsin and Penn State each picked up a verbal commitment as well. And it goes past the most imminent class, too; schools typically bring up an enormous number of underclassmen to try and make the earliest impression on them.
Most coaches don't put it so bluntly, but the simple truth is that showing up to be part of a rocking crowd for a spring game is an easy and cheap way for fans to actively contribute to their team by convincing recruits that this is a place they want to be. Given the value so many people put on their college football fandom, what could be a better use of a Saturday?
Spring Games Are a Frivolous Excess and Should Be Shunned
The defense begins with the laughable proposition that popular participation in an activity is at all indicative of the activity's value. One need only consider the continuing popularity of NASCAR, and the fact that poker tournaments have been televised for over a decade now, to see how misguided this position is.
Consider the actual qualities of a spring game. Being held when they are, there are always a number of players still recovering from injuries or surgeries from the previous season. Any player with even the hint of a current injury will also be held out, and sometimes, important players who aren't hurt will be held out anyway as a precaution. Quarterbacks typically aren't live, so it's hard to judge their pocket presence or the pass rush's ability to finish. The playbook will be a combination of the most bread-and-butter basics and the goofiest over-the-top stuff imaginable (though we do concede that Jack Allen clearly needs more carries). Of course, most incoming freshmen aren't even on campus yet, so their impact on the depth chart can't be inferred.
The overall picture that should emerge is that the spring game is, at best, a funhouse mirror version of what fans will actually see on the field. For the team, this is but one practice of dozens over the course of the offseason, so the coaches and players have no problem keeping it in context. But based on its results, fanbases will pile unreal expectations on one player's shoulders or declare another should be set adrift.
As for the recruiting aspect, well, if you think the teams drawing a small city for their spring games need the help on the recruiting trail, I don't know what to tell you. OSU is going to pull its 30 blue chippers every season whether a single person turns up for the spring game or not.
And on the flip side, the teams who need the recruiting boost from a good spring crowd the most are precisely those who look worst when the spring game rolls around and the stands are mostly empty. The dropoff from MSU's 5th place draw of 48,000 to #6- Rutgers, surprisingly enough- was enormous, as the Scarlet Knights drew an estimated 15,000. Iowa's descent into the doldrums inspired only 8,000 people to show up, and Purdue, the team most in need of positive energy, managed barely 5,000. Again, these reports are created by the schools, so those numbers are probably inflated.
Ergo, other than Wisconsin- which somehow drew fewer than 10,000 fans despite having a new coach and a successful program- and arguably Minnesota, the popularity of the conference's spring games both reflects and feeds into the split in the quality of the conference. For every additional stud recruit who's blown away by Penn State's crowd, another capable player who's needed much more in West Lafayette or Bloomington looks at the mostly-empty stadium and hopes a better offer comes his way from somewhere else.