It’s an exciting time to be a college football fan, my friends. Conference realignment and expansion is bringing us regular season matchups we never dreamed of just a few years ago. A new postseason that promises a better resolution to determining a national champion is on the horizon. Add those to the existing level of passion, and that should translate into ever greater levels of enthusiasm which should result in more… greater… attendan… ah, hell, you know where this is going:
Regular-season attendance at college football’s highest level dipped to 45,274 fans per game in 2012, the lowest average since 2003.
Some of this can no doubt be blamed on the usual suspects. The economy is still in the doldrums for many. Some programs in decline inevitably suffer attendance losses. But the malaise is widespread enough that it should be a warning signal to the people in charge that something is amiss.
Fifty-six percent of the FBS schools reported fewer fans in 2012 than the previous season. Some of those dips were very minor, but others saw huge chunks of fans disappear.
Eight BCS schools experienced attendance declines of 10 percent or greater from 2011: Kentucky (17 percent); Maryland (15 percent); Stanford (13 percent); and Cincinnati, Wake Forest, Pittsburgh, North Carolina and Colorado (10 percent each).
Five of the nation’s top 20 attendance leaders experienced noticeable declines, led by 5-percent drops at Penn State and Tennessee. Penn State faced the aftermath of a child-molestation scandal that resulted in a postseason ban. Tennessee had its fourth losing season in the past five years.
Florida, which finished third in the BCS standings, was down 2 percent in attendance. Auburn declined 4 percent during its worst season in 60 years. ACC champion Florida State dipped 3 percent with an unattractive home schedule beyond Clemson and Florida.
Of course, these being the same people who’ve made it pretty clear that administration of college athletics has devolved into little more than a money chase, they’re more the problem than the potential solution. Right now, they’re engaged in wallet calibration.
In 2012, a face-value ticket for an SEC game reached $100 for the first time. Four years ago, the SEC’s priciest ticket was the Iron Bowl at $65. This season, 30 SEC games cost at least $65, including nondescript matchups such as Mississippi State-Tennessee, Ole Miss-Vanderbilt, Missouri-Vanderbilt and Missouri-Kentucky.
On the other hand, the minimum SEC season-ticket price in 2012 — defined by al.com as the cost of regularly-priced season tickets plus any required minimum donation — showed no increase from 2011. Half of the league’s returning schools reported decreases in their cheapest season-ticket cost.
And that’s likely to intensify as fans stay away on game day. Everywhere, seemingly.
The Big Ten averaged 70,387 fans per game in 2012, its lowest since 2008. The Big 12, in its first season with West Virginia and TCU rather than Texas A&M and Missouri, experienced the league’s smallest average (58,712) since 2005.
The Pac-12 (53,586) was the only BCS conference with an increase. But that’s largely due to California returning to its renovated stadium after playing last season in a smaller stadium. The Pac-12 average has declined 8 percent since setting a record in 2007.
The ACC’s average crowd of 49,544 was its smallest in 12 years and down 11 percent since 2004, the first year Miami and Virginia Tech played in the conference.
This, it seems to me, is the natural result of what happens when you compete against yourself for the fan-driven dollar. (Kudos, Jim Delany.) Realignment has been driven by TV money. Postseason expansion is fueled by more of the same. And if fans reject the watered down home scheduling that results and increasingly prefer the convenience of staying home and watching, what’s the response? Why, it’s to offer the people in the seats more of the TV viewing experience.
This season, the SEC began allowing stadium scoreboards to air multiple replays of any play, including those under review by officials. The NFL used a similar approach. The idea is to try to provide similar same bells and whistles fans can get by saving money and watching at home.
College football taking clues from the No Fun League on product promotion is dumbassery of the highest order. This is why I despair of listening to all who would insist that everything’s going to work out fine. The recent track record of the Slives and Delanys suggests nothing more than an ability to seek short-term fixes to the threat of reductions in the revenue stream. Remember, it was the panic over the BCS attendance numbers and television ratings that motivated those folks to make huge changes to the college football postseason in a remarkably short period. So what happens if the magic fixes turn out to be not so magical and the trend continues?
Well, if you’re looking for the canary in the coal mine about that, perhaps you might want to keep an eye on the Big East.
The Big East, now minus top draw West Virginia, averaged 39,185 for its smallest crowds since 2006. Four of the Big East’s top five attendance leaders will soon be in new conferences: Louisville, Rutgers, Pittsburgh and Syracuse.
Yeah, that’s a problem. The problem is reflected in the numbers being discussed for the conference’s new TV deal. Instead of getting something in the neighborhood of the $10-20 million per year each school was expecting, the number is likely to be little more than what each conference team is currently receiving, if that, about $4 million annually.
And that’s just on the football side. Don’t forget that the Big East has a sizeable non-football playing contingent. And those folks are getting restless.
Faced with an uncertain future and the reality that the Big East’s next television deal won’t be as lucrative as it once projected, officials from the Big East’s seven non-football members met in New York within the past 48 hours and discussed, among other things, the possibility of breaking away from the Big East’s football-playing members, a source confirmed to CBSSports.com.
It’s hard to blame them. The basketball money the new contract is expected to provide them works out to a puny $1 million per year. Maybe. There are practical problems, too.
… just as important, a new basketball-only league wouldn’t force schools like Georgetown and Marquette to water-down their schedules and blow their budgets playing against and traveling to schools like Tulane and Houston.
Regular season college football revenue is the ring that binds a conference together. Take that away and it’s likely you’ll see the membership spin off elsewhere. Too many diverging interests.
Even with the increase in postseason money, it’s hard to see how the have-nots keep up. Or why they’d want to. For one thing, go back and look at the chart at the end of Solomon’s article. The bottom of that chart is populated by MAC and WAC teams that saw heavy drop offs in their attendance figures. Eastern Michigan drew less than 4,000 fans per game. What’s the future for that school?
Sure, there will be some sharing, as long as it’s useful to throw the mid-majors a bone or two. But face it: existing at the sufferance of Jim Delany is hardly a viable long-term business strategy. It seems inevitable that D-1 is headed towards some sort of split. And while that’s probably for the best, financially speaking, for all concerned, that concentration of market power is also going to hasten the devolution of college football from a fan-driven sport to a broadcast-driven one. That’s where the money is and that’s where it will continue to be in at least the near future, split into fewer slices. And that’s as far as college athletics decision makers can see. Draw your own conclusions about where that will take things over the next decade.