Fans

Northwestern students watch a game in 2010. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune / October 23, 2010)

If he weren't set to break Nebraska's all-time receiving record this season, Kenny Bell knows exactly how he'd be enjoying college football games this fall.

And it wouldn't be at the stadium.

"It's way easier to sit on your couch in your underwear and sit on Twitter," Bell said. "Then when there's a commercial, play a game of Halo, then go back to the game. There's no question."

Purdue defensive end Ryan Russell tried to remember the last time he watched any sporting event without checking social media. He finally came to the conclusion that it must have been before he signed up for Twitter.

Explaining why he thinks students wouldn't attend games, he said: "Why would I go when I can get it on my phone or my iPad?"

In Champaign, Illinois coach Tim Beckman envisions himself leading the team onto the field at Memorial Stadium with rowdy students in the stands. Yet entering his third season, he's not sure what the turnout will be.

"In the two years I've been here," Beckman said, "it's something definitely that I'd like to get better."

Across the Big Ten, football programs are watching the number of students in their student sections dwindle. The success of the team matters, of course, but it's happening to perennial powerhouses and bottom-feeders alike. This isn't so much a drop in school spirit as it is an increase in accessibility to it.

For a number of reasons, certain students no longer feel as compelled to cram into the bleachers on game days.

At Michigan, the Wolverines have seen average student attendance drop by 1,834 since the 2011 season. Student ticket sales have declined by 1,766 since 2010.

Part of that regression is rooted in revolt. Before last season, and without consulting the school's central student government, Michigan athletics scrapped its longtime seniority-based seating arrangement — with freshman seated in the end zone and seniors closer to the 50-yard line — and opted for general admission. The change was made to give students incentive to show up early.

Feeling underappreciated and unable to sit with their friends, some students simply chose to watch the game elsewhere.

When visiting teams ran through the tunnel at Michigan Stadium last season, identifying where students sit was a problem.

"I didn't even know if they had a student section," Nebraska's Bell said.

The Wolverines, after working with the student government, altered their policy for this season.

Students will be time-stamped as they enter the stadium; the earlier they show up and the more games they attend, the better seat location they'll receive going forward.

"This is pretty unique," said Hunter Lochman, Michigan's chief marketing officer. "It was a nice partnership ... to really get the student voice and to work together."

In early June, Division I marketing executives came together at the convention for the National Association of Collegiate Marketing Administrators to figure out how to attract students to football games. Schools traded tricks to help promote their cause in open discussions that covered every aspect of game day.

As a result, Illinois offered a 125-minute "special" in which individual tickets went on sale for $10. It sold more than 14,000 tickets. But selling tickets to students remains a problem.

In the last four years, student ticket sales have dropped from 7,475 in 2010 to 3,622 last season.