The amazing story of the Nebraska Cornhuskers: The greatest streak in the history of sports?
Flashback to November 3, 1962: The Nebraska Cornhuskers team took on the Missouri Tigers in a Big-8 Conference game of NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) University football. The Huskers (as they are popularly called), who were the home team in the game played at the Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, went on to lose the game 7-16 to the visitors (after being level 7-7 at halftime). That ended their unbeaten run in the Conference season, but no one at the home ground of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln would have imagined that the game would mark the beginning of a remarkable and fascinating streak which would go on for more than half a century (and is still going strong!).
That 1962 game saw an attendance of a then full capacity crowd of 38 thousand, and it started a staggering run of consecutive sellout matches at the Memorial Stadium. The streak has now gone on for 347 games over an absolutely astonishing period of 54 years and is still going strong, with the Huskers team and fans taking great pride in it and proactively ensuring that they continue to keep raising the record higher.
It is quite incredible that the feat has been achieved in College Football (NCAA football), which can't come close to rivaling the global popularity of sports like football (soccer, as it’s known in the United States of America) nor does it have the mass appeal of cricket – which is almost considered as a religion in the world’s second most populous country, India. Heck, NCAA is not even the professional league of the sport in the United States –that mantle belongs to the NFL (National Football League).
Also Read: The success of the NCAA collegiate system
While the NFL boasts of a professional set-up with contracted players of the very highest level, NCAA football has an amazingly strong following too, with the games being considered an integral part of college life. This concept may seem a bit alien for a country like India, where college sports severely lag behind the professional leagues like Indian Premier League (cricket) and Indian Super League/I-League (football) in terms of fan following, and only a handful number of spectators are seen at college games (and also the prestigious Ranji Trophy cricket games). However, the NCAA football games are a matter of prestige for the college students and alumni alike, who flock to the college grounds to attend the matches in large numbers and cheer for their team.
To put the Nebraska sellouts streak into perspective, one of the biggest challenges in modern day sport has been to ensure sizeable attendance in stadiums. The advent of technology and improvement in sports broadcasting (television as well as internet) along with the steep ticket pricing often mean that teams participating in the top leagues and boasting the best talents in the world end up struggling to have capacity crowds for even the supposed “big” games.
Major teams from the high-profile leagues like English Premier League (football) and Indian Premier League (cricket) often manage just a handful of games with full attendance every season. Even initiatives like discounted tickets and free entry for children are not enough to ensure full occupation of seats for the matches.
Professional sports in the United States – MLB (Major League Baseball), NBA (National Basketball Association) and NFL – attract huge crowds, and more often than not get sold out. The MLB side Boston Red Sox saw its record sellout streak of 820 home games over a period of 10 years come to an end in April 2013. But it’s the amateur-level College Football that seemingly has a greater pull in the country.
The United States might be the only place in the world where college sports rival the popularity (and are arguably more popular) of professional sports. For a parallel, it’s anyone’s guess how many spectators will be seen in a cricket game of Mumbai University versus Delhi University - we'll probably be lucky to find 20!
Nebraska Cornhuskers – the team, the streak, and the significance
When Nebraska Cornhuskers hosted the Kansas State Wildcats for a game on October 20, 1962, the home team fell short of a sellout by about 400 tickets. This was the last time that the Memorial Stadium didn’t see full attendance for a Huskers game, as the sellout streak started with the game against Missouri after a fortnight. The win against the Wildcats was followed by a 31-6 win at Colorado, which meant that the Nebraska side managed by new coach Bob Devaney had started the season with a winning 6-0 record. While the Huskers lost the game against Missouri and later against eventual Conference champions Oklahoma, they continued the momentum in the following season and won the Conference.
The team, which first participated in College Football in 1890, went on to win 22 Conference titles and 5 College National Championships between 1963 and 1999, and the crowds flocked to the home stadium to show their support. The run of 347 sellout games has seen the home side win 297 of the matches (with a win rate of approximately 86%) and score 12,740 points (an average of around 37 points per game). In this period, the team has seen six changes at the managerial level, but current head coach Mike Riley has a less-than-enviable record of only 6 wins out of 13 games.
The Huskers haven’t won any Conference championship in the 21st century, but that hasn’t deterred the supporters one bit. Despite their average form in recent times, the proactive promotion of ticket sales by the Huskers along with the keenness of the fans to keep the run going has ensured that the games see attendance in full capacity. As per official records, the season ticket renewal rate is close to 95%, and the tickets put up for sale get booked very quickly. The pride associated with this fascinating streak means that the run will likely continue for the foreseeable future.
Fred Kauffman, a prominent attorney in Lincoln and an alumnus from the Nebraska’s College of Law who passed away in July 2016, was one of the most well-known supporters of the Huskers and attended 345 out of the 347 games in the streak. Part of the group of supporters which started the sellout run back in 1962, Kauffman ensured that his entire family became supporters of the team and attended the games religiously, and he was closely associated with the Huskers management.
Nicknamed the “Sea of Red” because of the red outfits worn by the fans, the Memorial Stadium is located in the campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and has been the venue of the streak.
With a capacity of 38,000 in the 1960s when the streak started, the stadium has seen its size being increased to hold just over 90,000 people at present. Despite the continuous increase in the capacity over the years, the stadium has never struggled in getting the supporters to fill up the seats.
The stadium has also seen development in the playing surface to keep pace with the advancement in the sport. The grass turf from the 1960s was replaced by AstroTurf in 1970, and the artificial surface kept getting incremental upgrades with every improvement in technology. A new playing surface called FieldTurf was installed in 1999, which replicated the quality of real grass with an artificial surface (Memorial Stadium was the first College Football team stadium to use FieldTurf).
There has also been significant work done in terms of lighting and sound at the stadium in recent times to improve the experience of fans attending live games at the stadium. Keeping pace with the requirements of the modern-day tech-savvy sports fan, state-of-the-art Wi-Fi and cellular facilities have been installed in the stadium for the convenience of the spectators.
The attendance record at the Memorial Stadium is 91,585 on September 20, 2014, in the game against Miami Hurricanes. In comparison, Camp Nou in Spain (99,000), Wembley in England (90,000) and Melbourne Cricket Ground (100,000) are the only major popular stadiums which can rival the capacity of Memorial Stadium – and these are seldom sellouts. FC Barcelona’s Camp Nou gets sold out only during El Clasico and Champions League knockouts games.(India’s top capacity stadiums are in Kolkata: Salt Lake (68,000) and Eden Gardens (66,000).
For an Indian fan to appreciate the sellout streak, one needn’t look further than the fact that the cricket-crazy city of Bengaluru struggles to fill the much smaller 40,000 capacity Chinnaswamy Stadium during the Indian Premier League despite ticket promotions and discounts even for the high-profile matches. Those following the English Premier League will be able to recall the empty seats at the Etihad in some of Manchester City’s crucial Champions League matches, and the walk-outs and protests by Liverpool fans against ticket prices for the league games at Anfield.
As mentioned earlier, the fan following of college sports in the United States rivals that of the professional leagues – which becomes more incredible when considered with the fact that the American pro sports leagues are among the most well-attended leagues in the world.
The sense of ownership of the alma mater’s teams is massive in American culture. The students and college staff make it a point to attend their team’s games, and the alumni also return to their roots to show their support. Each team has a dedicated song which unites the supporters, and the concept of mascots, as well as the factor of the cheerleaders’ presence, adds spice to the contests. The lesser number of matches increases the significance of each game, and almost every game is a must-win for the championship.
The fact that many college campuses are in smaller towns which don’t have NFL teams means that the entire town gets behind their College Football team, attend all games in large numbers. For Alabama, with a population of 5 million and no major pro team, the only option for the sports crazy fans is to watch College Football and other college sports. Likewise, even the Huskers have benefitted because of the absence of a team from Nebraska in the NFL.
Anto Sheryl Peter, who supports his alma mater’s side – the Maryland Terrapins competing in the NCAA Big Ten Conference, stresses that doing well in the college sports is a matter of great prestige for the institutions. “How good a particular school is with the various sports teams it has is almost a measure how good the school itself is,” he says. “Unlike India, in the US, several generations of the same family end up attending the same schools. One of my friends, for example, had 3 generations of his family attend the University of Maryland. So college sports, especially football, end up being things that bring generations of families together.”
College Football doesn’t have contracts, and all players are amateur students; reportedly, just 2% of them go on to sign professional NFL contracts. But the College Football system is a big money business, with the media rights possessed by CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting worth $10.8 billion for a 14-year term. The media rights revenue along with gate receipts (average ticket prices as high as $290 for Notre Dame) and the huge proportion of student fees allocated to sports means the teams generate multi-million-dollar revenues every year. A significant part of that revenue goes into paying the wages of the big name coaches and in maintaining the infrastructure.
While the uniqueness of the scale of College Football in the US makes for an interesting story, it has its share of critics. The notion of sports fandom taking precedence over studies has been questioned; it has been statistically proven that good performances by a college’s football team lead to lower grades among the students. A study in Oregon based on data between 1999 and 2007 showed that for every three games won, the GPA of the male students dropped by 0.02. Also, the fact that almost 98% of the NCAA football players don’t go professional after college signifies the need for the students to focus on shaping their careers outside of College Football.
However, despite the criticism, College Football is an integral part of American culture and often forms a key aspect of the citizens' identity. The passionate fan following and the sellout streak deserves to be celebrated, and College Football needs to be recognized for the special nature of the competition it boasts.
Does anyone pose a threat to the Huskers sellout streak?
Nebraska’s sellout streak is incredible but isn’t the only one of its kind in college football, with Notre Dame Fighting Irish (249 consecutive sellout games till today) and Oregon Ducks (110 consecutive sellout games till today) having proud legacies of their own. Other universities like Florida (137 consecutive sellout games), Virginia Tech (93 consecutive sellout games) and Alabama (56 consecutive sellout games) have had their streaks come to an end in recent years.
Notre Dame could have posed a more genuine threat to Nebraska’s record, had it not been for the Thanksgiving Day game in 1973 when they didn’t have a sellout – the only one since 1966 (but it still would have been four years fewer than Nebraska’s run, which started from 1962). As of today, even if Nebraska are unable to add any more games to their tally, it could take Notre Dame till at least 2029 to match the Huskers’ feat given the less number of games every season. As for the Oregon Ducks, the task will require at least 33 years!
So it can be safely assumed that Nebraska’s record isn’t under threat anytime soon. Meanwhile, Notre Dame and Oregon are facing the risk of their streaks coming to an end any moment now, because of the decreased interest in games which may affect the rate of sales. Some at Notre Dame have questioned the need to keep their sellout streak going, citing the high ticket prices and the fact that apart from the streak being a good statistic to have, it doesn’t really make too much of a difference to the team. Correspondingly, the initiatives taken by the university to “force” sellouts in low-profile games have come under the scanner from various quarters.
Challenges to keep the streak going
The Nebraska Huskers are very proud of the sellout streak; the team, university, and supporters are equally enthusiastic about ensuring the run continues as long as it can. While a significant portion of fans are still renewing their tickets with gusto, the rate at which the tickets get sold has dwindled, which has caused some alarm.
With Nebraska having a population 1.8 million, it is quite a challenge to ensure the Memorial Stadium, with a capacity in excess of 90,000, is always full. The Huskers have even been doing promotional campaigns to motivate fans to buy tickets to ensure that the streak continues. Experts also believe that the availability of tickets for a longer duration could be a blessing in disguise, with those fans who didn’t get a chance to purchase tickets earlier, now having the option to book them.
Traditionally, the season tickets have been sold out well in advance and the ticketing system for single games has seen the use of wait-lists. The fans need to pay a token amount to be signed up on the waitlist and a lucky draw is used to select those who get the opportunity to purchase the tickets at full value and watch the games at the stadium.
The season tickets cost in the range of $400 for a 7-game package, while a single game ticket is for around $70. There are special multi-game packages with some discounts as well. Despite the ticket costs, selling them out hasn’t been a problem for the Huskers in the past. Even at present, the season tickets are all purchased as soon as they are up for grabs. All the premium tickets – luxury suites and club seating – are also leased out much in advance by the corporates and clubs. However, there has been some concern with respect to the single game tickets; the urgency to purchase those is not the same as before.
Video: Nebraska Huskers challenge the supporters to keep the streak going for another 50 years:
To keep the streak going it is imperative to have each and every ticket sold, and the Huskers' marketing team are ensuring that no stone is left unturned in their efforts to reach out to the supporters and get them to purchase the tickets and attend games. Technology has been utilized to the fullest extent to make fans aware of availability of seats via the online ticketing portal – fans can now check the exact locations of the seats which haven’t been sold out yet and pick one of their choice by making an instant booking online.
Video: Nebraska Huskers invite supporters to purchase season tickets for 2016:
The indifferent form of the team hasn’t helped matters, and with coach Mike Riley having a 6-7 win-loss record, an extended bad return will reduce the interest among the fans even further. Recent trends suggest that the visiting teams’ fans find it much easier to grab tickets at the Memorial Stadium and that their numbers have been increasing, especially for those teams on a good run of form coming into the game.
There could be a genuine risk of having some vacant seats if the response from the away fans is more than lukewarm for a game. Club officials have stated that in the previous season, there were at least three instances when they feared the prospect of not being able to sell out all tickets, and they had to take the help of corporate donors and supporter groups (friends of the program, as they are called) to step up and purchase the vacant seats.
But with the importance that the Nebraska locals and alumni attach to the sellout streak, it is very likely that the run will continue for the near future. Of course, an upturn in the team’s fortunes and performances would go a long way in extending the record further. Coach Riley, who represented Alabama in his playing days, has also been touring Nebraska to connect with the locals of his newly adopted state and increase interest in the football team.
But whether the streak extends much further or not, what the Nebraska Huskers have achieved is worthy of applause. In the current sporting world, where teams in other sports consider sellouts in a handful of games a big achievement, the feat by Nebraska Huskers is truly unique. The team and fans alike should try their best to ensure that it goes on as long as possible.