College football's oldest sellout streak, dating back to JFK, may be in peril

LINCOLN, Neb. -- On a recent quiet afternoon at Barry's, an iconic local watering hole, Kenzie Daily is asked to consider the unthinkable.

What would life be like if Nebraska failed to sell out a game for the first time in 54 years?

"I don't think that will ever happen," said Daily, the bar's hospitality manager.

Until recently, it was OK to believe in forever here. Memorial Stadium is a couple of fly patterns away from Barry's front door. It's almost a requirement on game days that fans stop over at the corner of 9th and Q Streets before heading over.

When they get to the shrine that is Memorial Stadium, the lack of elbow room is a proud inconvenience. These fans -- and their parents and grandparents -- have occupied every last seat at Nebraska for 347 consecutive games.

"It defines who we are," Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst said of the streak. "We're a hard-working, humble group of people. This is a connection, pride point, spirit point."

The streak is so old that approximately eight percent of current Americans were alive when it started in 1962. Nebraska wasn't even Nebraska back then. That season was Bob Devaney's first as coach.

The streak is so enduring that it begs comparisons. What's more everlasting -- Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hit streak or Nebraska's ticket-buying ode to loyalty, now in its sixth decade?

"It's always been," Asa Bryant said of the streak.

But will it always be? Bryant is 25-year-old grandson of Don Bryant, Nebraska's jovial former sports information director, who missed one home game himself in a quarter century of service.

Asa now owns property across from the stadium that he uses for a 50-space parking lot on game days. Those spaces didn't sell out at $15 a pop for last year's season opener against BYU.

The definition of what it means to be a Nebraska fans is slowly, inevitably changing. Financial, social and inevitable events have forced Huskers everywhere to consider the unthinkable.

The streak of streaks is in danger of ending.

Indicators are there: It's becoming OK to miss a game. Attendance is down for the first time since 2011. OK, the decline is only 1,251 per game (1.3 percent), but it's enough to raise Big Red flags for something other than touchdowns.

There are actual TV commercials advertising tickets. Earlier this year, Huskers.com reportedly was selling 50-yard line seats (albeit at $400 a pop).

In May, a Nebraska fundraiser told the Associated Press the streak almost ended last year on three different occasions. Jack Pierce said he had to call "friends of the program" to buy up tickets that had been returned by the opponent.

"Because we have tickets available, that's not a bad thing," Eichorst said. "In some cases, I think it's made people nervous. In some ways, it's given us an opportunity to introduce Saturdays in Lincoln to a whole new set of supporters."

To some, it's a referendum on what it means to watch live sports these days. The game continues to thrive, but college football attendance is down overall for the fifth consecutive year.

Clearly, the temptation to relax at home in a recliner with a beer not available a college stadium is more than a temptation. It's a national trend.

"The thing that concerns me most is the generational shift," Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick said. "I suspect you're seeing that more than anything else at Nebraska.

"Forty-year season ticket holders are dying and their children don't have the same passion, or they have more multi-faceted lives. For me, it's less about the alternative ways of viewing the game than it is a decision not to view the game at all."

Swarbrick claims to have little knowledge -- or concern -- over the nation's second-longest college streak. Notre Dame has sold out 249 straight games going back to 1973. (Oregon is a distant third at 110 games.)

"When is a game sold out?" he said. "There is so much subjectivity there. Every AD has six tickets in his pocket. Is that a sellout? That's why I haven't ever really focused on it."

Swarbrick is overseeing a $400 million renovation of Notre Dame Stadium that will actually reduce capacity below the current 80,000.

The idea is create ticket demand and more room.

"In recognition of America's expanding asses, we're taking a seat [space] out of our bench rows," Swarbrick said.

But he does understand the Nebraska angst. Memorial Stadium has been expanded twice since 2004 to its current capacity of 86,047.

All 69,000 season tickets for this season have been sold for this season. Eichorst said the renewal rate is 95 percent.

World-class amenities have been added. The video board is reportedly the 20th largest in college football. The closer Nebraska can get to replicating that a recliner view in a live environment, the more they retain the faithful.

Simply put: The challenge for most ADs these days is to create the game-day feeling of the world's largest living room.

"What I find with a lot of the younger people I encounter," Swarbrick said, "is they don't want to dedicate four or five hours to anything. They're always getting information. They're always in motion."

"You'd be crazy not to be engaged in [fan amenities]."

Nebraska has looked into adding alcohol sales but has decided against it ... for now.

"This [streak] has taken a lifetime to build. It didn't happen by accident," Eichorst said. "My mentality, our mentality here is we got to continue to pay attention to the landscape provide the greatest experience from driveway to driveway."

Yeah, but in Nebraska those driveways can be hours away in a state that measures more than 77,000 square miles. Meanwhile, the streak has become a living, breathing thing that cannot be ignored.

And the concern over it isn't new.

"We had to work like the devil to keep the streak going," said former Nebraska AD Bill Byrne, who arrived from Oregon in 1992. "We were close to not selling it out. They had been worried for several years prior to that."

Shortly thereafter, Nebraska won three national championships in four years. Ticket demand wasn't an issue. Ticket supply was. Nebraska claims to be the only Power Five program without competition from another Power Five or the NFL team in its state.

A quarter-century ago, Byrne instituted what was called a "scholarship donation" -- $100 per seat. While some fans continue to complain, such donations are common throughout pro and college sports.

According to Byrne, it used to be easy to calculate the three biggest visiting days in the state's nursing homes: Christmas, the day season ticket applications were mailed out, and the day season tickets were mailed back.

Families could oversee renewal of their orders through senior relatives. Grandma and grandpa had been around so long, they didn't have to pay the scholarship donation. They just had to sign the checks.

Byrne inherited a streak built on winning with strong, ground-based football. Just like harvest time, it was nothing flashy. Starting with Devaney in 1962, the Huskers won at least nine games in 38 of the next 40 years. But since that 2001 season, Nebraska has gone through four coaches. It hasn't won a conference title since 1999.

That makes 2016 critical for more than sellout reasons. Second-year coach Mike Riley is coming off the program's second losing season (6-7) since 1961.

The answer to the angst may be as simple as Nebraska becoming a factor in the Big Ten West.

"We're no different than the rest of the country in selling our stadiums," said Diane Mendenhall, Nebraska senior associate AD for development and ticket operations. "We're very confident with the Husker fans, they feel ownership with this streak."

Back at Barry's, a late lunch crowd is thinning out. Daily had time to show a visitor around the place. On game days, the place is wall-to-wall red. Would empty seats at Memorial Stadium impact attendance at that iconic game-day bar?

"It wouldn't affect this place," Daily said. "People will still be coming. It's easy to stay home. It's just not the same."

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Dennis Dodd has covered college football for CBS Sports since it was CBS SportsLine in 1998. He is one of only seven media members to attend all 16 BCS title games and has chronicled conference realignment... Full Bio

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