Like many of the Mid-American Conference members, there's not much student interest in football games at Northern Illinois University, which leads to nationally televised images of empty bleachers once weeknight football begins.  A recent initiative to get more students to attend backfired.
In August, the university made a push to get at least 6,000 of its more than 20,000 students to each of the team's home games. If 6,000 students attended each game, the university even offered to raffle off a semester of free tuition to one student who attended all six games and checked in with NIU's Red Black Rewards smartphone app. The promotion created buzz around campus and was covered extensively in the news. Before the end of the season, it was clear no one would be getting a free semester.

On average, 1,986 students went to each of the NCAA Division l team's six home games at Brigham Field at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb, according to figures released by the NIU this week. Students get into games for free by swiping their OneCard ID. The team's first game of the season drew the most students: 2,965. When the Ohio Bobcats came to NIU for the final home game of season on a cold Tuesday night in November, 627 students turned out to cheer for the Huskies.
Didn't anybody buy a game theorist a cup of coffee to think about the incentives before rolling out the promotion?

To qualify for the prize, a student must consent to sit through all six games, to the end, no matter how lopsided the score is or how miserable those bleachers are on a November evening.  If six thousand students participate, it's straightforward enough to estimate the expected value of the lottery.  Even at today's prices, that's less than ten bucks.  And it's a prize that's contingent on sufficiently many other people participating. With such a low expected value, the dominant strategy is likely to be to not participate, as the reward is nothing if fewer than six thousand students attend one game.
A total of 86 students attended all six games. Of those, only 33 checked in using the rewards app and stayed the entire time. While no one will get a free semester, Huskies Head Coach Rod Carey offered a consolation prize.

"They're awesome," Carey said Wednesday. "I'd like to shake all their hands."
If not for the state drinking age, he could stand them all to a beer.

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