If you hope to sell more of anything these days, just rebrand it as handmade by some old-school—preferably eccentric, preferably mustachioed—craftsperson. Our household budgets still demand mass-produced products, but our hearts pine for something brimming with today’s buzzword: authenticity.
Which, surprisingly, brings me to college football, one of the Midwest’s dominant pastimes. No one’s denying the cash machines that university football teams have become. But every once in a while, you stumble into a refreshing throwback, even in the heart of big-time college sports.
Believe it or not, I’m talking about Notre Dame. Yes, the megabrand university that has a $10 billion university endowment, a global fan base and its own contract with NBC to air home football games. Yet when I attended my first game at this blue blood’s home stadium, I discovered an experience that was a refreshing throwback. Here’s what I was pleased to find missing*:
No video. The scoreboards at either end of the stadium could be the ones Knute Rockne gazed at. Glowing numbers show the score and yardage, and a small digital screen occasionally urges the crowd to cheer louder or shows a cartoon leprechaun pumping his fists. No highlight reels of games past or plugs for upcoming soccer matches. No replays of touchdowns or bad calls by the refs. Miss it on the field, and you miss it, period. In a rare twist in modern America, you actually have to pay attention to what’s happening in front of you.
No advertising. It took me a few minutes to figure out why it seemed somewhat restful inside a stadium jammed with 81,000 cheering fans and two marching bands. Then I realized that sense of calm came from the lack of a single ad in the stadium. In other stadiums I’ve recently visited, video ribbons around the bowl constantly flashed with corporate logos. Every play had a sponsorship, helpfully pointed out by the stadium announcer saying things like, “That’s another first down, brought to you by First Acme Bank!”
No cell service. The cellular grid around Notre Dame Stadium apparently wasn’t up to tens of thousands of data hogs simultaneously checking on and reporting to the outside world. So throughout the game, I got no Facebook and no web. The evening was about the here and now in a sense that I’d almost forgotten. None of us knew how the Cubs game was going until the score (text only) flashed on the tiny digital screen above the end zones. We celebrated or mourned as a group sharing one moment, not 81,000 different ones.
No food vendors. I have nothing against the hot dog guy. And I know there were hot dog guys roaming our stadiums back in the idyllic world of, say, 1940. But I didn’t miss the distraction of vendors walking the aisles, asking me to pass cash and treats up and down the row while the Irish played in front of us. Brats and drinks are out in the concourse. In here, the game is on.
No elbow room. As an antidote to romanticizing the good old days, I submit Notre Dame Stadium’s wooden bench seats. It’s not the hard seat you notice as much as the original architects’ outdated assumptions about the width of a typical football fan. We spent much of the game in a polite lean against a big guy to the left, trying to maintain ownership of our narrow piece of the pine. On the plus side, close neighbors aren’t all bad when the temperature dips to 35 degrees on a northern Indiana night.
*Notre Dame is currently renovating the stadium, which will alter some of the preceding factors. By the 2017 season, fans will see a new video screen, as well as digital “ribbons” around the bowl, but the university promises to keep advertising out. The Wi-Fi network will be upgraded, and the average seat space will grow from 16 inches to 18. One of those sounds like a great idea.