You’ve got your numbers, and they’ve got theirs.

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.

48 Comments

Filed under College Football, It's Not Easy Being A Mid-Major, It's Just Bidness

48 responses to “You’ve got your numbers, and they’ve got theirs.

  1. DawgPhan

    moving this from the Petrino thread to this one.

    If you really want to be cynical, check the attendance numbers for this season. PSU’s “incident” only cost the AD 5% drop in attendance. I am sure it will be back up next year. I also believe that 2012 was the university’s largest donation year, around $200million this year.

    I am sure that ADs everywhere are taking note. Dont get the details, head in the sand, and the worst that could possibly happen is 5% drop in ticket sales, or about the same drop as UT in the middle of a major multi year decline.

  2. I went to three of the six games on my season tickets. People can pound their chests all they want about being a true blueDawg fann. The product sucked.

    • DawgPhan

      I dont think that schedules have as much to do with attendance and people want it too. Winning matters and kick off times matter.

    • Macallanlover

      So, stuckinred, divide the total costs of those tickets and what did you pay per game attended? Compare that to what you can “selectively” buy those tickets for from an online reseller, hint, better seats are available for far less money. I understand the “supporting the program” portion’s value, but many fans/families look at the attendance options just this way. This is particularly true when given Bob’s list of the product available. Managing costs this way also deals with the “gameday experience” supporters below. You don’t have to give up any games, but target the attractive ones and save money, plus having better seat locations in many instances.

      I think the attendance is a combination of the TV availability, unattractive games, the economy, and the “give-ups” for the comfort of yoru home vs the “gameday experience”. It seems very natural to me to have expected this decline, and to forecast it to get worse. As the Senator notes, the TV monies may decline significantly when the options for TV viewing are altered significantly, and this viewing trend seems to be a bus headed downhill that is gaining speed rapidly. Last year I had never heard of these options, now I see discussions about this weekly and even know people choosing “free” TV for their homes.

      • Darrron Rovelll

        TV availability or influence that television has on the day and timing of the contest?

        I think it is too easy to say that the availability of television broadcasts is the cause of decreasing attendance. I would love to see some attendance numbers of college football contrasted with the television schedule with when the contest was played (day of the week, time) and if the opponents were conference opponents, non-conference BCS teams, ranked, etc.

        • Macallanlover

          Maybe, but I do think the availability of all games broadcast that day does have an impact. Certainly being able to watch UGA 14 times a year is important, but if I can also see 1-2 more big matchups of SEC teams, and a game or two that have national interest, it does affect people. You are right about the time factor though, if UGA is playing at 3:30 for instance, going to the game would mean you miss every game that day starting at noon, and lasting to about 9-10PM that night, maybe longer. Many fans look at that and say, I can spend 300-400 and see one game, or buy some food and drinks for home and see them all. You miss the gameday experience but could buy another TV and watch two at a time for a decade.

          You may, or may not, recall only having 1-2 Georgia games broadcast live all season. Made it very important to make sure you got to all the games you could.

  3. Go Dawgs!

    All of this conference realignment makes me thankful for the (relative) stability of the SEC. I would hate to be a Maryland grad and heading off into a brand new league with a bunch of games that I couldn’t give a shit about just because my athletic department is the poors. Think about it… no rivalries. Trying to forcefully come up with new rivalries. Only one or maybe two conference road trips you can make by car. Ugh…

    Georgia needs to start taking note of this trend and stop giving us these pitiful home schedules.

  4. AlphaDawg

    As my old Statistics professor once said, “Statistics are like numbers with opinions”

  5. Bulldog Joe

    With conference expansion, the Big Ten, the PAC, and the ACC may only be getting a bigger piece of a smaller pie when it comes to TV ratings. They rarely show up in the top rated games in recent years.

    13 games pulled over a 4.0 rating in 2012:

    9.8 Alabama-Georgia
    9.4 Notre Dame-USC
    6.8 Alabama-LSU
    6.1 Texas A&M-Alabama
    5.8 Michigan-Ohio State
    5.2 Notre Dame-Oklahoma
    5.1 Florida-Florida State
    5.1 Stanford-Oregon
    4.8 Alabama-Michigan
    4.6 Florida-LSU
    4.2 Georgia-Florida
    4.1 Army-Navy
    4.0 Michigan-Notre Dame

    Top rated game participation by conference:
    SEC: 7
    Notre Dame (Indep.): 3
    Big 10: 3
    PAC: 2
    Academies: 1
    Big 12: 1
    ACC: 1

    http://www.sportsmediawatch.com/2012/12/college-football-wrap-tv-ratings-for-almost-every-game-this-season/

  6. No One Knows You're a Dawg

    Imagine what’s going to happen to the sports industry when cable and satellite customers who aren’t sports fans decide they’ve had enough of paying ESPN $5 a month for programming they never watch? It will be the end of the easy-money TV revenue bubble and all that has gone with it.

  7. andy

    Given the Kevin Drum “sports tax” article linked here last week, doesn’t this make you wonder how screwed some of these school’s are going to be if TV ever goes a la cart (and with the rise of watching TV for free on the internet doesn’t this seem a foregone conclusion)? The Maryland’s of the world are going to be rival-less and their conference TV revenues are going to be cut drastically. If that occurs will we see conference un-realignment?

    • Now you’re getting it. It’s not so much that I’m predicting that will happen, as it is that a scenario like that isn’t even on their radar right now. And if it happens, they’ll have altered their product so much chasing the old model that what’s left may not be of as much interest.

      • CitadelDawg

        My hope is this all falls apart for most of the schools a few years down the road, and geographically reasonable conferences re-emerge to entice fan support back to the games. Georgia would be excluded from any such post-apocalyptic Jubilee because the SEC seems likely to weather the attendance/ratings storm.

        • James

          The SEC will still be susceptible to the de-bundling effect, though, which is driving their ESPN dollars. But that’s just less money and fewer new scoreboards, and you’re dead on about their relative strength of the SEC compares to the rest of the country. The trick is going to be sitting on your hands while other conferences go out and over-expand like the Big Ten just did, which gives them more market share in the short term but lowers the value of the brand on a per-school basis in an a la cart world.

          • Macallanlover

            Excellent points. I do think we are headed for four 16 team Superconferences though, you don’t expand to 14 out of your geography if you haven’t decided to match it at 16, imo. It is the same mindset with the same people at the controls.

  8. The coverage is better at home…and there are the exact same number of TV time outs. Do you know what they play in the stadium during TV timeouts? Commercials. That is bullshit. Other than the tailgating (which they are slowly ruining) and the band, there is really no benefit to going to the games–especially when so many of the home games suck. I pay a premium to watch Soccer anyway…so $5 a month for ESPN and College Football is no big deal. Further who gives a shit about basketball!? They could stop having it all together and wouldn’t affect my life at all.

    • Slaw Dawg

      And at home, you can either do your own instant replays and then fast forward through the commercials (and play reviews that take so long you wonder if the reviewer is being helicoptered in from some undisclosed location), or just start late and fast forward.

      There’s nothing like being on your feet and ready to scream your lungs out for the Defense, only to find yourself being distracted by some totally irrelevant scoreboard “experience” and then trying to remember why the Hell you were standing in the first place.

  9. Debby Balcer

    There is no place like Athens on a Saturday. Being in the stands beats TV anytime.

      • Don’t get me wrong–I love game day in Athens. As I get older and have kids–going to games is just way more hassle than it is worth. Especially if they are playing Buffalo at Noon. Hardly have time to get a Chicken biscuit and hear a couple jokes before its time to go in and then the starters are pulled before you finish your first Jack and Coke in the stadium…

  10. Bulldog Joe

    Only some of our empty seats were due to the quality of competition as Buffalo, FAU, and Georgia Tech didn’t bring many fans.

    Most of our empty seats this year were due to a bad student ticket policy.

    The game / town / tailgate experience at UGA is still one of the best anywhere.

    • DawgPhan

      besides the fact that we are only talking about a couple hundred or so empty seats at a couple of games. it wasnt like there was a half full stadium every weekend…i know I know…tip of the iceberg…at home experience…blah blah blah.

  11. Four tickets, four hot dogs, four cokes

    Anyone notice that Vandy is catching up with tech…………ha

  12. Remember the UGA basketball game in the SEC tourney with the tornado where they played at Tech and it was closed to the public? Maybe that’s what we’re headed towards. They could have applause and cheer tracks like the laugh tracks on bad sitcoms.

  13. Cojones

    Much ado about nothing.

  14. Bryant Denny

    Senator,

    I agree with the assertion that diluted conferences can equate to lower attendance, but at the same time, I can see some JonSolomonAL.comfunwithnumbers.

    Many of the programs listed in the article had attendance-killing explanations. For example, Auburn crowds stayed away in droves, not just because they played Alabama A&M, but because they were DREADFUL and playing Alabama A&M. Furthermore, I believe if FSU had been ranked number one in the BCS throughout the year (or at the end of the year), they would have had better attendance.

    Also, the economy hasn’t been all that fired up, so that can explain some folks staying home versus going to games.

    Again, I can see your point that all of the supposed *fixes* to college football didn’t generate more fannies in the seats, but weren’t they really done for eyeballs on TVs instead of fannies?

    Have a good day,

    BD

    • BD, I acknowledged your points in the post. (I think Solomon did, too.) But even with that, it’s an awfully broad trend at this point.

      As for Auburn, I actually give their fans credit for largely sticking by their team (a 4% drop isn’t good, but it’s not horrific, either) through a season from Hell.

      • Bryant Denny

        Some thought it was a season from Hell, others Heaven. :)

        These are interesting numbers, but like all numbers, they can be spun however they seem fit to be used.

        I could spin them like this: given one of the worst economic periods since the Great Depression, college football’s attendance has only decreased 3% since it’s all time high in 2008. What’s more, 61 of 120 schools showed *increased* attendance or insignificant changes from 2011. Want more? Many of the schools with double-digit decreases in attendance either plain old stunk or lost exciting players (e.g. Andrew Luck).

        Instead, this seems to be number playing for the express purpose of expanding a college football playoff system.

        (Eastern Michigan is a horribly wretched football program that’s lucky to draw in the thousands. As to their future, the school probably views the football program in terms of connecting with alumni and fund raising versus expecting to win. Makes no sense, but that’s what I’ve been told – as in the case of Birmingham-Southern dropping a successful D1 basketball team to instead start a D3 football program.)

      • Dog in Fla

        Senator, I served with Auburn fans. I know Auburn fans. Auburn fans are friends of mine. Others are related to me. Senator, the reason Auburn fans went to games was because they wanted to see in person how bad it was.

        • pantslesspatdye

          I enjoyed this post. And, knowing many lifers, I concur. I’d like to write it off as them having won a recent national championship, but I believe they are pretty hardy fans.

          However, their 4% dropoff is the exception to the rule of the larger dropoff.

  15. Love Thy Playoffs

    ACC Championship: $4 a ticket, may have dropped by game time
    P12 Championship: Yes, it was raining. Yes, it was a replay of a game played the prior week. On the other hand, it was played at Stanford. In their home stadium. And it was empty.
    B1G Championship: I did check Twitter for a score update.

    Product is already diluted. Yes, some schools have had reasons for fans to stay away, but that’s always been the case. We’ve got an industry trying to maintain a growth business plan with a shrinking audience. We’re already deep into short-term gain/long-term loss thinking as people chase better annual profit statements.

    Hey, worked great for the banking industry, the tel-coms, and Enron for awhile.

  16. stoopnagle

    Games give me a reason to drink. There. I said it. I go through all the hassle of getting up early, paying to park, just so I can have some beers and bourbon with old friends. It’s a hassle. It’s so so so a hassle. But I still like being there. Probably because I am 1 part sap and 2 parts soused.

  17. Scott

    Too many night games…far too many. It seems like the entire SEC is playing after dark on Saturday night. It might be great for TV, but it makes attending the games tougher when you know you have to get a hotel or be forced to drive back late at night. It has kept me from going.

    • Macallanlover

      I prefer the night games, as a spectator in the stands, or at home. What I dislike is the way so many SEC are overlapped at night. If I could “build my own” schedule it would have a compelling SEC game at noon, another at 4, and a couple at 7-8. Or stagger them 1 and 1/2 hours apart. Of course, it is a rare week when the SEC has three compelling games on the same Saturday, but I would always put the best one at night. Different strokes. Don’t disagree that the night games has the choice of late night drive, or hotel room, but that is fine with me. I no longer want to sit in 90 degree heat with humidity for four hours; truthfully, I never did but I could tolerate it better.

  18. Debby Balcer

    My favorite game time is 3:30 it gives you time to tailgate, see the game and make it home before midnight. We have a two hour drive.

  19. Always Someone Else's Fault

    The last three trips I took that required more than three hours on the Interstate resulted in many extra hours on the Interstate due to complete closure of I-85 South, I-24 West, and I-75 North, respectively. All 3 involved people pulling trailers, until the poorly hitched or poorly packed trailers decided they didn’t want to be pulled anymore.

    Freaky back luck or a trend? Seriously, getting to and from just about anything these days has become a major headache. Not saying that would push down attendance. Just curious about other people’s experiences recently.