During the summer of 1996, I was working at Westside Church as a Student Ministry Intern. Led by the Senior Pastor, every Monday morning the pastoral staff would meet to discuss a variety of things. I would listen to the proceedings. Sometimes I would be asked a question, “Robert, do you think the youth liked that Hootie and the Blowfish reference?” (Again, 1996.)
At one of these meetings, church attendance was being discussed. The Senior Pastor remarked how church attendance dropped 10% the Sunday after a Husker loss (in football). While I was surprised by the statistic, in the moment I didn’t think to question it or the source.
The remark about Husker losses and church attendance stuck with me. Every time the Huskers lost, I wondered about church attendance. While it is easy for Nebraskans to say Husker football is the true religion of the state, as time passed I had a hard time believing the correlation between Husker losses and a 10% drop in church attendance.
I thought back to what I had heard. It was the summer of 1996. The Nebraska Cornhuskers were back-to-back National Champions and hadn’t lost in two years.
The Huskers were also undefeated in the 1993 regular season. However, the bowl game the Huskers did lose on January 1, 1994, the defacto National Championship game, was on a holiday weekend when families are traveling, and church attendance fluctuates wildly. All sorts of variables at play here. In the summer of 1996, you’d have to go back to the 1992 regular season to when the Huskers lost in the regular season. (That loss to Iowa State was painful.) Context and sample size matter.
When I started working at Christ Community Church, Sundays were often full of Husker football talk throughout the fall. When the Huskers lost, I would hear some variation of church attendance being down. The 10% figure would also be thrown around. No specifics, just the same mantra.
When I started the Online Campus, I would track a lot of attendance and social media numbers to measure the growth and impact of the campus. Around this time, I was reading different sports analytics books (Moneyball, Scorecasting, The Extra 2%) that upended a lot of conventional wisdom within sports. I started looking at numbers differently than I had been, and this influenced how I looked at church attendance. This was good because I would often have to educate people with attendance numbers. There’d be a random Sunday where online attendance was down, and I would often hear about it. My response was to educate them on the seasonal attendance trends and patterns with the Online Campus and CCC overall. Basically, provide context and expand their sample size. More often than not, what they thought was a worrisome attendance number was actually a good number.
Tracking attendance numbers from the beginning of 2012, with the launch of the Online Campus, I saw patterns emerge. I also saw how narratives with attendance that were often conveyed were not entirely accurate.
People would nonchalantly remark about attendance being down after Husker losses, but I wasn’t seeing it when I looked at the numbers. They might cherry-pick a specific weekend, but overall I didn’t see a pattern.
A few years ago, a guest speaker came to CCC to preach in a Sunday service. The day before, the Huskers lost and the speaker was told by various people attendance would be down around 10% because of the Huskers’ loss. The problem? Attendance that Sunday was up roughly 10% from the previous Sunday, and it was above the average for the year.
This all made me want to go back as far as I could and measure church attendance against Husker football losses. I asked someone on staff with access to attendance numbers if I could get a copy of the attendance data as far back as they had it. They sent over attendance data going back to 2005, and I started comparing attendance numbers with the Huskers’ football seasons.
Now, I’ve mentioned context a few times already. When measuring the numbers, I wanted to know context and variables that could have shifted the attendance. Was there a guest speaker? Was there bad weather? Was there a special event? Was it a holiday weekend? Tracking attendance while overseeing the Online Campus, I kept my own spreadsheet in which I plugged in numbers and recorded any variables that might have shifted the numbers one way or the other. And, having worked at CCC since April of 2005, I knew a number of Sundays that had variables affecting the attendance positively or negatively.
I wanted the attendance comparison to be fair. For a few years, CCC was a multisite church. This meant its overall Sunday service attendance number was comprised of multiple campuses. I decided to measure only the Old Mill attendance against the Huskers’ records all the way back to 2005. I did not factor in the bowl games with this because the bowl games were often near the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Those holidays already cause church attendance to fluctuate dramatically.
Also, when people say church attendance is down after a Huskers’ loss, what are they measuring it against? The previous Sunday? The average for the year? The average to that point in the season? The average for just the football season? I decided to measure for all possibilities, and that would give me a more accurate composite. Plus, I decided to average the church attendance of only Huskers’ losses against Huskers’ wins as well. I didn’t want Huskers’ losses to be an shorthand excuse for attendance drops.
This measurement is only one church. While it goes back to 2005, it’s still a small sample. This is also a side project of mine. While I enjoy “analytics” within sports, this is a hobby.
Why do this? Because I was curious. Going back to my time as a missionary, I know how numbers can easily be manipulated and taken out of context to reflect whatever someone wants. With non-profits, there is sometimes a pressure to manipulate and misrepresent data to one’s own benefit. Here’s what I wrote in the aftermath of the Greg Mortensen controversy when thinking about my own experience as a missionary:
The change was good for me since I got involved in missions and non-profit work. I did fund-raising for a number of years, and there was always pressure to stretch the limits of truth to get funds and support. Since you were doing non-profit work, people inherently trusted you a bit more. You didn’t worry about fact checkers.
People want to see results with their giving, so you had to produce…something. This isn’t feasible with some international work, but the Western mentality is that results should happen quickly. For the worker, it’s being stuck between a rock and a hard place. You need funds and to a certain extent you might have to say and do things to keep those funds coming in. However, to be true to the work you are doing, you can’t always say and do those things.
Another issue was missionaries wanting to go to countries where it would be easier to raise money. They were “sexier” destinations. For some it wasn’t about a calling, but a bottom line. The trips to countries in Africa, India, and China were sought after because they were easier sells. Mexico? Central America? Belaurs? Not as much.
I saw the struggle firsthand with missionary coworkers. It’s tough because they don’t have much of anything to begin with, and they are doing what they can to bring funds in to do good around the world.
In most cases, non-profit workers start off with the best of intentions, but to stay in the game is a struggle. To deal with a Western mentality that is fickle, and wants instantaneous results, is difficult. Lines are crossed, and half-truths are told to keep the support flowing. Were threats of persecution exasperated? Were numbers rounded up and fudged to show impact on an outreach? You bet, because it brought in funds.
You are also battling so many other things that vie for their attention. For example, in 2009 you had the uprising in Iran dominating the news until Michael Jackson’s death. In 2010 you had the BP oil spill dominating the news, until the World Cup. This year you had the revolutions in the Middle East going on until Charlie Sheen self-destructed. People feel the pressure to keep their audience interested and attracted. They employ short-term plans, which I think will ultimately undercut them.
I know it’s easy for some to say Nebraskans are loyal to the football team first and foremost, disparaging them. If the data said otherwise, I’d like that to be known. Especially for church-going Husker fans who might feel guilt unnecessarily. Husker fans are true to the word “fanatical”, but my experience is a majority of them are fair and grounded. (Some national sports writers think Nebraska fans are unreasonable because they expect a return to the glory days of the early 90’s. I don’t think that is true with a majority of Husker fans, but that’s a post for another day.)
The result of measuring Huskers’ losses against church attendance? The TL;DR answer is you cannot make a direct connection between a Huskers’ loss and a 10% church attendance drop.
Going back to 2005, there is only one season where one could look at the numbers and possibly think, “The Huskers’ losses affected church attendance.” That would be the infamous 2007 season. One season, between 2005 and 2016.
The Huskers’ regular season record between 2005 and 2016 is 98-49. So, we have a sample of forty-nine losses. With those forty-nine losses, church attendance the next day was more often than not up over the previous Sunday. In fact, Sunday attendance was up 28 times, the day after a Husker loss, from the previous Sunday. Attendance up 28 times, down 20 times, and 1 tie. (Yes, in 2010, the attendance stayed the same from the previous week, 2,500, the Sunday after the Huskers lost to Texas. The last time the Huskers would play Texas for the foreseeable future, and a game countless Husker fans circled. If there is one Husker loss during the 2005 to 2016 span that you would pick to affect church attendance adversely, this loss would be a top pick. No effect.)
Week-to-week is one measurement, but what about measuring it against various attendance averages? Remember, the narrative is church attendance declines 10% the Sunday after a Husker loss. So, I averaged the Sunday church attendance the day after only Husker losses in each season between 2005 and 2016. I compared it against the church’s yearly attendance average, the average right up the beginning of the football season, and the average of only the weekends with regular season games. Those averages I then multiplied by 90% to see if there was a significant drop when compared with Husker losses.
In 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2015, and 2016, the average church attendance the day after Husker losses is above all three attendance averages multiplied by 90%. (9 out of 12 years.)
In 2012 and 2014, the average church attendance the day after Husker losses is above 90% of the overall year’s attendance average, but below 90% of the year’s attendance average right up to the start of the regular season. The average church attendance the day after Husker losses is above 90% of only the regular season attendance average.
In 2007, the average church attendance the day after Husker losses is below 90% of the year’s average attendance and 90% of the attendance average before the start of the season. The average church attendance the day after Husker losses is above 90% of only the regular season attendance average.
Overall, the average church attendance the day after Husker losses often topped 90% of whatever attendance average people might measure it against. There was not a consistent 10% drop.
Okay, but what about a 5% attendance drop?
In 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, and 2015, the average church attendance the day after Husker losses is above all three attendance averages multiplied by 95%. (8 out of 12 years.)
In 2016, the average church attendance of Husker losses is above 95% of the overall year’s attendance average, but below 95% of the year’s attendance average right up to the start of the regular season. The average church attendance of Husker losses is above 95% of only the regular season attendance average.
In 2007, 2012, and 2014 the average church attendance of Husker losses is below 95% of the year’s average attendance and 95% of the attendance average before the start of the season. The average church attendance of Husker losses is above 95% of only the regular season attendance average. (However, in 2012, the average church attendance the day after Husker losses is actually higher than the average church attendance the day after Husker wins.)
Overall, the average church attendance the day after Husker losses often topped 95% of whatever attendance average people might measure it against. There was not a consistent 5% drop either.
In 2005, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2015, the average church attendance the day after Huskers losses was more than the average church attendance the day after Husker wins. (6 out of 12 years.) In 2009 and 2016, while average church attendance the day after Husker wins was higher, the averages were within 1% of each other.
Now, are there specific Husker losses that affected attendance dramatically? One that comes up at CCC is the Huskers first road game in the Big Ten. October 1, 2011, Nebraska at Wisconsin, in primetime. The day after Nebraska lost to Wisconsin, 48-17, the Sunday attendance was down 400, at the Old Mill Campus, from the previous Sunday. And, it was roughly 400 under the Old Mill attendance average to that point in the season. Again, it is important to note the 2011 season was the Huskers’ inaugural Big Ten season. Fans were looking forward to visiting Big Ten schools, and Wisconsin was within relative driving distance. (Especially when compared to Ohio State and Michigan.) The New York Times estimated 30,000 Husker fans made the trip to Madison. I know of people at the church who made the trip to Madison without a ticket for the game. They just wanted to experience the atmosphere.
People will use this game as an example of the Huskers losing and attendance declining, but it’s only one game. Small sample size. When you consider the context, the attendance drop (which I’ve heard exaggerated over the years) it isn’t as bad. Also, later in the 2011 season, the Huskers lost to Michigan 45-17. Attendance the following day was not only up from the previous Sunday, but also above the average for the 2011 year. Not as many fans traveled to Ann Arbor, Michigan for the game, and the game was a day game whereas the game against Wisconsin was at night. All those variables add up.
Two more examples.
In 2014, the Huskers lost to Wisconsin 59-24. The next day, attendance was down over 600 from the previous Sunday. However, when people woke that 2014 Sunday morning after the Huskers lost to Wisconsin, they saw snow covering the ground and temperatures in the single digits. Winter weather consistently affects attendance in a negative way. (Consequently, online attendance had its peak for 2014 that Sunday.)
In 2015, the Huskers lost to BYU on a last second play. The next day, attendance was down over 300 from the previous Sunday. However, this game was also on Labor Day weekend. Labor Day weekend sees attendance declines because people enjoy the holiday with family and friends.
Context matters. Sample size matters.
Some of the more painful losses between 2005 and 2016? 2006 Texas, 2009 Virginia Tech, 2009 Big 12 Championship Game against Texas, 2010 Big 12 Championship Game against Oklahoma, 2012 Ohio State, the Sunday after all these losses the church attendance was up from the previous Sunday and was above the attendance average for its respective year.
There is not a 10% drop in church attendance. Again, this is measuring one church during a recent twelve year period. Things may be different at another church in the state. Or, if one measured church attendance during the late 1960’s through the 1990’s, there may have been a correlation between Husker losses and a 10% attendance drop. Losses weren’t as common during some of those stretches, so maybe it affected people more.
Do church-going, Husker fans get emotional over the losses? Yes, but overall I would say it’s more than likely they are still going to church the next day.