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McKewon: Husker football's sellout streak is in trouble, and that could be good news
COMMENTARY

McKewon: Husker football's sellout streak is in trouble, and that could be good news

Sam McKewon breaks down the impact of Nebraska hiring Trev Alberts as the new AD.

LINCOLN — In the days since Nebraska hired Trev Alberts as athletic director, one of the smartest Husker supporters I’ve talked to asked a question Alberts will love trying to answer.

When is NU going to downsize Memorial Stadium to a smaller capacity and install real seats — with backs, cupholders, everything — to improve the game day experience?

You’re nodding your head, right?

Take that capacity down to 70,000, while creating some open concourses to include concessions stands that sell beer and wine, and you might be nodding more furiously. You can love the old battleship while acknowledging that it's time to take down a few masts.

Alberts has a reputation as an idea guy. Memorial Stadium, in great need of a reimagining, can be one big idea that has major buy-in.

Boosters have shelled out a lot of money for Husker athletics in the past decade. Perhaps they can shell millions more.

Perhaps raising money for an overhaul — that should include making South Stadium a cool, premium end zone experience like they have at Arkansas and will have at Wisconsin — will be easier if the sellout streak lapses.

It’s a sacred streak among NU brass and some fans. And if the Huskers hadn’t chosen to expand the stadium during the Tom Osborne era, maybe the streak might have been more easily sustainable.

At this point, it could be wobbling. NU’s advertisement of three-game minipacks is telling of the sellout streak strain.

You can get three games for $195, which is decent. Maybe faithful boosters, determined to keep it alive, take minibaths by buying a few empty seats in the upper reaches of each end zone. That was the scuttlebutt during the Mike Riley era.

But the cheapest ticket on StubHub for the Oct. 30 Purdue game is $27. Fordham is $30. What do you imagine it will be by game week?

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Even if the streak lives in 2021, how does it survive the back-to-back North Dakota and Georgia Southern experiences next season? Even if it survives that, when there are 15,000 empty seats at kickoff, what’s the point? Get rid of them.

Nebraska’s not just battling losing football. It’s battling a man cave stocked with beers, four TVs with DVRs and reliable, speedy home Wi-Fi.

Most of NU’s seats don’t have cupholders. The space on bench seats can barely fit my tiny mom, and if not-so-tiny me sat next to her, she’s squished.

The Huskers expanded with the intent of competing with stadium giants like Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. Nebraska needs to ditch the attendance arms race and focus on a premium experience. The stadium will still be the third-largest city on game day — only this time, without the Runza breath of the fan next to you.

Former Athletic Director Bill Moos wanted to address it, and may have been able to if fundraising for the much-needed football complex had gone better. The pandemic theoretically delayed construction, but downsizing the initial vision — plus rumblings that Nebraska didn’t secure the finish line donations until the spring — is again a tell.

“We will not be paralyzed in fear in decision making,” Alberts said. “So many times, it’s easy to identify the problem, and so many times, executing on that is where the rubber meets the road. We won’t always be right, but we’ll have the courage to execute, we’ll have the courage to do the tough stuff, as long as it’s in the best interest of Nebraska.”

Letting the sellout streak lapse without undue effort would kickstart the process of remaking the stadium, for it would send a message that Nebraska’s current setup is no longer appealing to 90,000 fans.

The challenge will come in accepting the end of the streak without blaming someone. Should it end this year or next, Scott Frost inevitably takes some national heat for it. The issue is bigger than him — The seat width! No seat backs! Sardine experience! — but he’ll get tagged with it. Even if he wins.

I’ve been to every home game for more than a decade. I know better. It’s not one person or the team. The stadium is too big.

The upper reaches of South Stadium might as well be in Roca and those top rows in East Stadium could be an outpost for SpaceX. There’s no alcohol. The Tunnel Walk is still great, but there aren’t a ton of in-game hooks.

Nebraska remains one of the best Big Ten experiences and compared favorably with nonconference games. Oregon was special — Autzen Stadium, at 60,000, is perfectly sized — while Miami was a depressing joke in an NFL stadium with all the bells and whistles. Seat backs alone don’t solve much.

But at NU, it would be a start.

Can Alberts open boosters’ wallets for, say, a $300 million overhaul? We’ll see. It may take seeing the sellout streak for what it’s become — something that needs to end.

On with the Rewind:

>> Nebraska heads to Big Ten media days Thursday.

That came up fast, didn’t it? Since Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren will chat with media Thursday, I’d expect the league’s perspective on player vaccination rates to come up. If the Big 12 intends to show no mercy toward programs that have to cancel because of COVID-19 cases, there’s no reason to think the Big Ten will. Frost and other league coaches will be asked about it.

>> Typically, there’s a Cleveland Plain Dealer media poll picking the Big Ten. I must have been left out of it this year, but if it comes out Monday, I don’t expect Nebraska to finish higher than fifth in the West Division. I expect Wisconsin to be the favorite by a couple votes over Iowa.

>> Alberts delivers lines so smoothly that you may glance over the strength of his words, but I keep returning to two lines from his press conference.

“We're going to have clearly defined roles, and we will always do what's in the best interest of Nebraska. We simply cannot afford to allow anybody to put their own personal agenda ahead of what's in the best interest for Nebraska.”

Take note.

>> I’ve tried to imagine which events over the past three years Alberts would have handled the same way or differently than Moos did.

One difference, I think, would have come in the way the Maurice Washington situation played out. That was a mess from which Moos kept a distance, and I doubt Alberts would have done the same. Especially in 2018, when Washington ignored two agencies’ request for information on a sex video investigation. Washington was eventually charged with felonies in California six months after authorities were actively looking to talk to him.

“We knew that there was some questions and things that the folks in California were asking about — but they weren’t specific,” Moos said Feb. 14, 2019. “I was made aware there were inquiries, but they were not specific.”

Alberts wouldn’t have allowed Washington’s situation to fester like that.


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