Has Cal-Stanford 'Big Game' lost its luster?

The 122nd Big Game is Saturday, with postseason hopes at stake for both Stanford and Cal.

Anyone care?

Of course the players do. And so does a good share of the student bodies and alumni.

But even long-time Big Game devotees readily acknowledge that this annual event, once among the biggest in the Bay Area, has lost the interest of the masses.

“When I first started doing Cal football, the Big Game would fill both buildings,” said Joe Starkey, who has done the play-by-play broadcasts since 1975. “That’s simply not the case either way now. It doesn’t seem to turn on the public.”

“Cal and Stanford just don’t have the magic to me,” said Art Spander, a retired San Francisco Examiner sports columnist who has attended every Big Game since 1968. “What are people talking about here? The Warriors, the 49ers. If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t think about going to the Big Game.”

Last year’s game at Cal drew 57,857 fans, the most in the series since 2012. Over the last ?10 years, average attendance has been 54,957 - down from 68,511 the previous 10 years, which was down from 77,358 the 10 years before that.

No small part of the drop-off can be attributed to a reduction in stadium seating. Capacity at Cal’s Memorial Stadium, which was roughly 75,000 at the turn of the millennium, is now 63,000. At Stanford, capacity has gone from 85,000 to 50,000.

But nobody is pretending that 70,000 people would be pouring into Stanford Stadium on Saturday, let alone the 85,000 that once did with regularity. As of Thursday, tickets were still available.

So what shrunk the Big Game?

Jon Wilner, who runs the popular and influential Pac-12 Hotline for the San Jose Mercury News, has written regularly about the conference’s struggles to keep fans engaged.

“It’s not one thing; it’s many things,” Wilner said. “It’s falling attendance for college football everywhere, and it’s kickoff times that aren’t set well in advance, and it’s a rivalry that hasn’t been competitive. The last time both teams were relevant in the same year was 2009, and the last time both were good - really good - in the same year (1991), Marshawn Lynch was in kindergarten.”

Neither team is really good this season - injuries to key players, including the starting quarterbacks have been a major factor - though both Cal (5-5) and Stanford (4-6) could still meet the minimum requirement (six victories) to play in a postseason bowl game.

Perhaps the last Big Game worth hyping occurred 10 years ago when both schools entered with 7-3 records. Stanford, ranked 14th in the nation and coached by Jim Harbaugh, lost 34-28 when quarterback Andrew Luck was intercepted at the Cal 3-yard line with 1:36 left to play.

Since then, Stanford has beaten Cal nine times in a row, the longest streak in a series that began in 1892. Prior to Stanford’s nine-game winning streak, Cal won seven of eight meetings. That followed Stanford winning seven in a row.

Rivalries aren’t built on one team’s dominance, but that is hardly the only thing that has pushed the Big Game off center stage in the Bay Area.

It’s a crowded market, and a pro sports market where the 49ers, Raiders, Warriors and Sharks are in the midst of their seasons. Inconsistent kickoff times and scheduling shifts have contributed to the erosion.

More generally, the demographic of the area has changed significantly. The diverse digital workforce does not have the kind of deep-rooted connection to the Bay Area that fosters interest in collegiate sports rivalries, long-time local observers said.

Tyrone Willingham, the Stanford coach from 1995-2001, said interest in the game waned when the schools stopped ?meeting in the final game of the regular season. That started in 2009 when Stanford, under Harbaugh and athletic director Bob Bowlsby, began playing Notre Dame in the final game of the season. Last year, the game returned to its traditional status only because of a schedule change forced by smoky air from the Camp fire in Paradise.

“So many people associate that last game, that last hurrah. Even if we have a bad season, it’s OK if we beat Cal,” Willingham said.

Kickoff times, determined the week of the game by the whims of TV networks, have been different every year for the last five games between Cal and Stanford.

“If you have a busy life, you can’t sit around and plan for a schedule that is unpredictable,” said Sonoma Raceway president Steve Page, a Cal alumnus and season-ticket holder.

It’s one of the consequences of catering to TV.

“When we start moving things around, it becomes difficult for people to schedule,” said Willingham, who also coached at Notre Dame and Washington. “It chips away at the tradition and consistency that you associate with a rival game over a long time.”

The game also no longer has a weeklong series of events designed to enthuse alumni across the region. For example, the Guardsmen charity event in San Francisco was last held in 2016 after a 67-year run.

What will it take for the Big Game to become a big deal again?

Stanford broadcaster Todd Husak, who quarterbacked Stanford to the Rose Bowl in 2000, answered in a word: Win.

“The Big Game wasn’t always a big game,” Husak said. “The fans will come to watch winners.”

Not necessarily. The decline of the Big Game underscores a growing national trend from which not even the mighty are immune.

The second-longest sellout streak in college football ended last weekend when No. 16 Notre Dame failed to fill its 77,622-seat stadium against No. 21 Navy. It was the first time in 274 games - since 1973 - that a Notre Dame home game had not sold out. Saturday, against Boston College, is expected to be the second.

With so many games being televised, Willingham said, the public is “losing the urgency to be in the stadium.”

The culprit is also the golden goose. Television generates much more revenue than a season’s worth of jam-packed stadiums ever could.

“The fluid that flows through the veins of sports is green,” said Andy Dolich, a longtime Bay Area sports marketeer. “Schools and conferences working with networks understand that.”

Tradition and all the rest must take a back seat, big game or not.

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