The Harvard-Cornell football game on Saturday was telling.
The team looks as strong as it has been in about a decade, perhaps longer. The Crimson currently holds the longest win streak in all of Division-I football, a run that dates back to week two of last year. Harvard is ranked No. 21/22 in the FCS. And the team handled the Big Red, the only squad in the league that was expected to contend with Harvard for the Ancient Eight Title.
None of this is the reason that the game was so telling. It was telling because the attendance was 7,112.
In what was probably the most important game in the Ivy League this season, Harvard couldn’t even draw enough fans to fill a quarter of the stadium—even if you assume that the official figure isn’t inflated, which it often is.
Saturday’s game is the latest demonstration of what has been clear for decades now: Ivy League football is in decline. The fact that Harvard cannot draw 10,000 fans in its most interesting game of the season shows that.
At a certain point, Harvard and the rest of the Ivy League will have to make a choice: compete, or stop pretending to try.
There are a number of fundamental issues in Ivy League regulation that holds the league back, the most significant of which is the mandate not to compete in the FCS playoffs.
Yes, I understand the arguments against participating: Harvard-Yale would not be the last game of the season, it would have a negative impact on academics, and it would go against decades-old tradition, to name a few.
The academic argument would be valid—except for the fact that every other varsity team on Harvard’s campus, and even some club teams, can participate in playoffs outside of the Ivies. And what the basketball program at Harvard has taught us is that there’s a very simple recipe for generating interest in a specific sport on campus: win, and compete nationally.
At this point, tradition is the only thing holding the league together. And the Ivy League’s inability (or at least lack of desire) to adapt has driven interest in Ancient Eight football to a low, even as Harvard fields one of its best teams in recent memory.
There are a few short-term solutions that would drive interest in Harvard football. In an interview last year with The Crimson, coach Tim Murphy said that the team would be interested in playing schools like Army, Navy, or Duke.
That’s a start, at least for the Crimson, but I think the program should aim higher. In a weird way, the program would do itself a service by inviting an FBS team to Harvard Stadium, selling 25,000 tickets, and getting killed (whether that’s good for Harvard competitively is a different question). Men’s basketball generated a lot of interest leading up to a game against Michigan at Lavietes in 2007, and the Crimson even managed to pull off a major upset over the Wolverines.
Even if this works, it’s a one-and-done deal that does not do much for the league as a whole. Then there are the gimmicky solutions, like playing the Harvard-Yale game in New York City. But that’s a short-term solution too.
Ultimately, the only real answer is participating in the FCS playoffs. At the moment, from the perspective of would-be casual fans, the teams aren’t playing for anything. Sure, you can argue that there’s pride, or honor, or tradition, but those rewards only draws the most loyal fan base, and an aging one at that.
Fans—and in particular, students—need to see that the team is playing for something more tangible. Participation in the FCS postseason can be that something.