Reading the tea leaves on college football’s declining attendance numbers

One thing I found interesting about this CFN chart is that every SEC team that fired its head coach after the 2017 season saw a significant drop in year-over-year home attendance.

  • 80.  Florida: minus-1131
  • 99.  Texas A&M:  minus-3115
  • 114.  Tennessee:  minus-5189
  • 122.  Arkansas:  minus-6357

Given the surrounding circumstances, Matt Luke (minus-6279) is probably okay for a couple more years, but I’d say Ed Orgeron (minus-2725) better keep an eye on asses in the seats this year.

Now, if you’re an athletic director, it’s a safe assumption to make that an unattractive product on the field means less fans in the stands.  In the short run, a coaching change can’t hurt in that regard (other than the buyout you had to pay) and if you catch lightning in a bottle, so much the better.

It’s also a dodge at concerning yourself with the underlying factors that may also be contributing, though.  That’s an uncomfortable thing to consider, because it likely means looking at one key revenue source as causing a problem with another key revenue source.

But the overall drop that should concern everyone last year — and this one isn’t calculated in the NCAA figures — is the falling student attendance. It happened at Texas, and I assume that will change when Tom Herman’s team plays closer to its recruiting rank, but the Longhorns are not alone here. Stories about difficulty in getting students to attend games at previous levels can be found at many large schools, state and private, across the land.

And that’s the one that scares everyone because, frankly, millennials and their behavior scare the hell out of the rest of us. There are essentially four reasons for this, depending upon one’s viewpoint.

They don’t respect the things we honor. They want to change everything we view as traditional or necessary. They want to take our jobs. They’re cutting the darned cords on their cable.

It’s that fourth one that gets the most attention (especially if, full disclosure, one has a connection to ESPN), but I think this attendance discussion touches upon everything but the jobs component of the above.

How can it be hard to get college kids to go to college football games?

I understand some of the reasons that others have listed in the comments section of one of these NCAA attendance stories.

Tickets are too expensive.

The games take four hours and, given the burden of working one’s way into and out of parking lots, it’s an all-day commitment.

Since everything is done for TV, kickoff times aren’t even set two weeks before the game.

And then there’s the biggest which is the toughest to address.

It’s just easier to watch on your big screens at home.

We have seen a dramatic and important reversal on this front. A half-century ago television, a relative newcomer on the scene, did its best to recreate the game experience of actually being in the stadium. Today it’s incumbent upon teams in every sport to try to recreate the home viewing experience for those actually in the arena.

It’s remarkable how much effort (and how many millions of dollars) get spent in new buildings on things unrelated to actually seeing the game from your seat. It still stuns me to walk around, say, Globe Life Park and see the number of people busy doing something other than watching the game they have chosen to attend.

The college football experience as I mentioned can be a four-hour ordeal. Longer if Big 12 defenses are involved. The number of kids content to put their phones away, grab a seat and watch each team take 95 snaps from center is minuscule.

I don’t think college football is in danger of losing its entire audience in the near future, or even a sizable portion of it. But the battle to get people into a stadium at a lofty ticket price and keep them engaged is ongoing. TV money may drive all sports leagues and conferences, but no one wants to watch a studio sport. We want to feel like we’re part of that passionate stadium experience even when we don’t want to put up with all that comes with that experience.

I’m not sure I agree with everything there — there are plenty of people who will watch the early slate of bowls, which, from a live attendance standpoint, are essentially studio sports — but that last line is a perfect encapsulation of the dilemma athletic directors everywhere face in an era where broadcast partners call most of the shots.  Not only do I think none of them have a real clue about what to do, I don’t think most of them even want to consider the problem.  That’s troublesome, because for every program like Georgia that’s seen its fortunes suddenly explode, there are plenty of others that don’t have a reserve of fan enthusiasm like that to tap into.  If there’s a growing gap in that regard, only TV is equipped to step into the breach, which will only serve to exacerbate the problem.

49 Comments

Filed under College Football, ESPN Is The Devil

49 responses to “Reading the tea leaves on college football’s declining attendance numbers

  1. Hogbody Spradlin

    That little dweeb in the red jacket, who stands on the field with the power to control everything, is the sign of something very wrong.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. The other Doug

    When I was growing up and through my time on campus the games were a social event. It was a time to reconnect with old friends, eat some tasty food, drink a little, and tell stories.

    I think CFB lost that. Sure, disrupting tailgating locations, ticket prices, and ESPN have had an impact, but perhaps social media has made it easier for people to stay in touch. It’s easy to know how everyone’s kids are, and it’s a lot easier to plan a get together. I remember 10 years ago when we stopped going we also started hosting football parties. We didn’t have to wander old campus looking for friends. We messaged them and they showed up at our house.

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    • Yea, I think that’s kind of it. When you coupled serious and elaborate tailgating that has been in existence for several decades with rapid technology increases, both from the quality of Television broadcasts and the mobility and ease of set ups, you see the manifestation of the problem. Now, each place is different……..UGA tailgating largely blows from a macro standpoint because of administrative rules. But the principles of ease of consumption still apply, whether you’re on north campus (oh wait, you cant have TVs there) or in a bar or in your backyard.

      It’s not a lack of interest or “better things to do” on Saturdays, it’s simply the method of consumption. And frankly, I think people just flat out want to drink while they watch the game. If you put in the multi-point wifi so every fan could tap into other games via WatchESPN etc.,and you served booze in the stadium you’d reverse these numbers.

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      • It’s a lot like TiVo and the disdain for being part of a captive audience, whether on TV or live. Regardless of where I am, I’d like to be able to tune to the other game or go grab a beer rather than listen to an F-150 commercial (if I’m at home) or stare at the guy in the red vest (in the stadium).

        Maybe one day these schools with all this reserve money will bring the broadcasts in house and simply charge the fees themselves and have Zero commercials like the 2002 Masters. During a timeout, the sky cam just pans to the redcoats and turns on the field level mics for stadium ambiance. Hell, I’d pay $500 if I could consume every Georgia game on TV with nothing but stadium sound and the latest camera angles.

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        • 3rdandGrantham

          This is why I like the ‘ballpark sound’ option for the MLB extra innings package – as it eliminates all play by play/commentary and gives you audio from the ballpark only. And yes, I too would pay extra for that ability for CFB games.

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    • 3rdandGrantham

      That is exactly where we are as well, and we rarely attend sporting events anymore unless on vacation or something (e.g. Petco Park while visiting S.D.). Most of us these days can offer our friends a large TV with HD picture, libations, and all the rest for a good time. And with the ease of Uber, friends in the general area who want to throw back a few can get a quick $7-15 ride over to your house or carpool with a non/light drinker in a SUV.

      Maybe it’s not quite the same as tailgating on campus in Athens, but the greatly reduced hassle, headaches and cost more than makes up for it.

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  3. Where are the season ticket holders going to come from when the 50+ crowd (which I recently joined) either decide it isn’t worth the hassle any longer or die off? Once you have priced the younger alumni out of the stadium, you aren’t getting them to buy in later on (by that time, family, jobs or life is in the way). They’ll buy on the street or on the secondary market for a game they want to attend.

    Don’t even get me started on the structural changes to the game. The TV timeout guy is ruining the in-stadium experience. Of course, his bosses in the truck don’t care because they have ad space to fill.

    I don’t know where this ends, but I have a feeling it’s going to end badly,

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    • AthensHomerDawg

      ee you are so right. Sadly, the times they are a changing.
      I used to plan a whole years calendar around home games. Sanford would sit dormant. waiting for that first home game when it would again come to life with the sounds of screaming fans, marching bands, and the public-address announcer relaying the action on the field. I was that fan with the huge,red,Sony headset tuned into Munson during the game.
      Then came the cupcake schedules and increasing # of games starting in the heat of a fall day. The passing of the glory days into the Boo-bird days.(Poor Bobo couldn’t the escape the boo’s even when he was the OC)
      Then we had to leave dad at home because he would not tolerate the hateful nature of some of our fans and you just didn’t use the F word around his bride. ( The Hell with GT was acceptable and expected) Shoot, I remember taking a date to a game wearing a jacket and tie and a much move civil atmosphere. When did women start punching people at games?

      Now I content myself with a few select games I just cannot miss. I do envy Bluto’s shrinking bucket list though. Still my 65 inch tv and burgeoning sound system ain’t half bad and the beer is cold, green egg is always ready and there are no lines to the bathroom
      My oldest son’s wedding is on G day. Such Sacrilege!!
      I guess I’ll just have to keep up via my phone. 😉

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    • 3rdandGrantham

      I think there is a parallel somewhat between this and golf, as golf memberships/participation is down dramatically over the past 10 years. Younger folks, of which I’m on the upper edge, simply don’t have time (or don’t want to devote time) to 4+ hours of golf on a weekend like our baby boomer dads did. I live in a golf community myself along one of the fairways, and 85%+ of those I see out there hacking away are those aged 50+.

      The same applies to sporting events, as most of my friends and I don’t want to give up an entire Saturday on a beautiful fall weekend to watch a game live. Instead, we want to play with the kids, get a workout in, maybe engage in some hobbies, keep the wife happy, cook out, etc. followed by having games on in the background for entertainment. Heck, even for UGA games, we rarely watch them live, but instead record them and play catch up about 60-90 minutes in to avoid all that filler crap, as sitting through those ED commercials or car ads screaming at you isn’t exactly a good use of time.

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      • Same age. And I agree. But if UGA turned north campus into a fully in-house operated, classy, reasonably family friendly “beer garden”…..boy oh boy. Think some combination of backyard cookout meets outdoor wedding, where all the fan who parked a mile away had to do was walk in to north campus. No tailgate debris to trash the campus because everything is provided (at a price of course) from the chairs to the large and small tents, the food, the alcohol sales, and strategically interspersed projector TVs on some type of raised scaffolding showing the days action.

        Through in an optional babysitting club staffed by early childhood ed majors and you could separate me from A LOT of my money. I guess the point is, if UGA is going to run this like a country club, then give me my damn country club amenities.

        Liked by 1 person

      • PTC DAWG

        54 here, f not seeing the game live…either in person or in the stadium…

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    • Gaskilldawg

      I made the same point under a different topic. The UGA AA’s total failure to foster enthusiasm on the part of the students means that those students in 15 years not only won’t buy tickets but also won’t watch ESPN, reducing the reason for ESPN rights payments to increase.

      Of course McGarity will be retired when the chickens come home to roost, and he can brag about how rich he made the UGA AA.

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  4. MGW

    I’ve said it a thousand times and I’ll say it again. When they got rid of paper tickets for students, attendance declined. Give students a paper ticket that they can do whatever they want with, and that student section will be at least as full or more so than the rest of the stadium, every time. Its just that simple.

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    • AlphaDawg

      I agree, and also allow anyone to use those student tickets.This will not fix some of the larger underlying issues but it will help some.

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      • MGW

        There’s no good reason student tickets should be any different from others. Will there be some students who straight up eBay every ticket they get? Sure. Will 99% of those tickets go to the student, other students, or their young friends? Definitely.

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        • Or you could, alternatively, allow students to “sell” it back to the University (so it could go back into the resale pool) in exchange for maybe double face value equivalent Hartman fund points. Not sure exactly how it would work, but maybe there’s a way to also build some loyalty and future incentive out of it for situations where somebody may not actually be able to go. I realize the catch 22 of somebody who’s only interested in unloading all their tickets probably isn’t too interested in being a future Hartman donor.

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  5. paul

    I disagree. I do think college football is in very real danger of losing large swaths of their live audience. I’m certain of one thing. More commercial interruptions isn’t the answer. Millennials in particular are interested in experiences. It’s been proven time and time again that they will spend money on unique experiences. Schools are going to have to offer an experience that’s distinct enough and attractive enough to make it worth their time and money. Clearly, sitting on aluminum bench seats in stadiums with putrid bathrooms, paying outrageous amounts of money for crappy food and slow service isn’t the experience our younger generations are clamoring for. Good for them. I agree. The game day experience at way too many schools simply doesn’t warrant the investment of time an money. I’m sixty and I’m with them. Make it worth my time and money and I’ll come back. I’d love for it to be something I actually want to do. Give me a game day experience that’s better than what I can get at home or in a bar. It ain’t rocket science. I don’t understand all the hand wringing and existential stress. There is no ongoing battle to get people into stadiums. There’s just a bunch of people complaining that we don’t want to consume what they prefer to give us. Sucks for you.

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  6. Bright Idea

    Losing will always be rough on the Game day experience and attendance no matter the other factors.

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  7. kfoge

    I know it will never happen, but I would like to attend a college game that is not televised, hell, I’ll even settle for no replay and see how the game flows and how long it would last.

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  8. Anonymous

    How about students don’t want to show up because games now are sterilized middle aged events and the party’s gone? Back when the prettiest parts of campus were packed and wild, missing a game meant you were missing an essential part of college. Guarantee you that when all of North Campus made its way to the stadium for 2006 UT or 2007 Auburn, no one cared / sensed how long it took to get there. Now, there are isolated fun tailgates, but missing out doesn’t really matter. And there are no longer 4 glorious years of inexplicable glorious fun to cement a relationship that will tolerate rising costs and interference from media partners.

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  9. Chopdawg

    As I get older & my back gets more & more cranky, I find it’s a lot more comfortable going to those football games that provide me an actual chair to sit in, rather than a bench to sit on.

    Also no squeezing-in of extra fans for the most important games, in stadiums with chair seating.

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  10. MGW

    I’d love to see a “true cost of the ticket versus inflation over time” comparison. I’m guessing the true cost has grossly outpaced inflation.

    The point is it wasn’t always so expensive, but people are still mostly filling up the stadiums. Its kind of like gentrification – people are still there, and everything is nicer, but a lot of people have been priced out. So the neighborhood isn’t nearly as “cool” as it used to be. Its just a bunch of rich people being boring.

    For football thats fine for now because all those rich people willing to pay all that money came up in a time when the whole experience was a whole lot more fun. They’re fine with it being toned down because they’re toned down, so they write the check.

    But its no good in the long run because nobody coming up in this era is going to look back on it the same way the people writing the checks now look back on their time in college.

    There’s no nostalgia for pop-up homes and shopping malls, but thats what college football is becoming. Just a sterile, expensive money making venture with no soul.

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  11. siskey

    Question for everyone what was the last year that you observed a significant decline in attendance at Sanford? I remember the Vanderbilt game in 2000 as being about half full and I am sure that Goff’s last days were probably bad too.

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  12. doofusdawg

    Your last sentence raises another question. At what point will the more successful conferences and schools get tired of sharing the pie with the less prominent schools. It seems logical that on a parallel track the number of schools playing football will decrease as the overall attendance decreases. Has implications for future conference expansions or realignments. Clearly college football is looking at the possibility of some major changes.

    Although it seems that the underlying solutions appear to be making the college football game day experience less about the game and more about something else.

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    • paul

      As the P5 conferences continue to get richer and separate themselves from everyone else, I suspect that we will see large numbers of schools actually going back to the kind of football many of us grew up with. They literally won’t be able to afford anything else. Their players will actually be students first and athletes second. The question becomes in what way will the larger, profitable schools evolve? I don’t think an NFL model is the answer. The younger generations aren’t responding to the NFL game experience any more than they are the college game experience. The NFL currently reports tickets distributed not butts in seats. So far, the markets have failed to respond to changing consumer expectations.

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      • But I wonder if we’re going to see actual fragmentation WITHIN individual conferences. As we dive deeper and deeper into the world of both cord cutting / a la carte as well as Big Data availability, at what point do Alabama and Ohio State get fed a presentation showing them how much money they are leaving on the table by bringing Mississippi State and Rutgers along for the pie sharing ride ?

        I think the long term landscape has about 32 elite blue blood teams in one mega TV conceived conference and everybody else falling by the wayside. Not saying it will be NFL lite with the 32 number, just about what I can guesstimate once all the power teams have data analytics on just how much weight they are pulling for the ole misses and boston colleges of the world.

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        • paul

          True, but by that time your lower tier schools within the P5 become your cupcake games. That way, they don’t look so much like cupcake games and everybody can say they play a “rigorous 9 game schedule.” Every so often one of these schools has an unexpected year and we can all talk about parity.

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      • doofusdawg

        Yep. Probably more consolidation is the one thing I would bet on. Can’t imagine how that would play out and what it will eventually look like.

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  13. Otto

    The NCAA works for more parity and no power rise while traditional power like Tennessee, Texas, Michigan stumble while Baylor, TCU, Oregon (53k) rise and we’re surprised attendance drops?

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  14. HiAltDawg

    Although it didn’t happen last year, the Noon Kickoffs ruin football for the students that work for me. I joke with them: “Coach Kirby is a South Georgia Boy like me and we don’t care how much beauty sleep y’all spoiled, rich kids from Atlanta need,” but the Noon games just make things a hassle for them. They appreciate the fact that they get in cheap but they really feel unwelcome at games and then to them, it’s the first thing on a Saturday morning. If they don’t go to a game, they feel like they get punished with the “strikes” thing for ticket priority. If they go to a game they feel like they’ll get arrested if they so much as stick a pinkie finger in a beer. We all know bad experiences register more intensely than good ones.

    I used to blow that stuff off, but now I get it. The negative feeling these kids get adds up after a while and these kids ain’t soft. They work HARD in school and to get into UGA so when they see things negatively, they dig their heels in. Maybe because these kids didn’t grow up Georgia or even football fans–they all are First-generation UGA students (heck, some are first in their family to go to college), it’s a hard sell for them to treat games the way we did.

    On a positive note, they loved beating Florida and the postseason games.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. watcher16

    So UGA and Old Dominion are the only 2 stadiums in the country to sell out 2 years in a row? Hmm…

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  16. Cojones

    Butts in the stand conversations are exercises in frustration if you can’t add something positive that should be mixed into the thoughts. Whether we knew it or not, Kirby has resurrected our enthusiasm enough to fill those seats for the coming years. His foray into getting that spirit up while others seek to knock it down (B-M) has succeeded beyond even his wildest dreams. How many of you have planned to arrive early to G-Day this year just to get a seat, please raise your hands? Thought so. And it grows from there.

    Don’t students continue to pay athletic fees? Doesn’t that continue to make’em line up at the Stegeman ticket window for game-day tickets just to get their money’s worth? If they aren’t permitted to resell them, then give tickets free and refund their athletic fee money until the student section fills up. What’s that you say; that it isn’t that simple? Of course it isn’t because they have grown up watching their football on TV with the adults and they can drink spirits privately instead of showing school spirit by attending the game since the old arm flasks don’t work anymore with the searches. Ok, offer free drinks with a student ticket -, no, no,no – soft drinks or water, to mix the lyophilized drinks from packets they can bring in undetected. That avenue (of student perks, not boozing) may get student butts in the seat and hook them on game day experience for the rest of their lives. And lap dances, we could have…oh..too much? 🙂

    Don’t know about yall, but that grandeur we all enjoy has to be experienced at Sanford in order to build the next generation of donors that like their “G” planted all over the world by TV. Fortunately, now we have replay in the stadium as well if you have to leave for a moment and miss the big one.

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  17. Just Dawg

    Here are the reasons that the live experience is being devalued, in my opinion:

    1 Inconvenience – This includes the ridiculous nature of the TV schedule and the ‘6-day’ rule. Out of town fans need more than 6 days to make arrangements, and the difference between a Noon kick-off and a 7:30 Kick-off can really change travel plans. Even at home I am usually not ready to sit and watch by the time a NOON game kicks off. Also, not as a big a problem but a reason I have skipped games – late kick offs 8-9 est kick-offs run the game too late. By the time its is over most of your fans want to either be in bed or out at bars/clubs doing something else.

    2 Negative experiences – As HiAltDawg noted it only takes one negative experience to offset many good ones. The administration seems to not care. I am not just referring to over-policing students/fans, though sometimes that seems to be an issue. The parking, the traffic patterns, and the food prices/service – all of these generally result in negative experiences. There needs to be more cooperation and coordination by the university, the city/county and the business community to provide a more seamless, positive experience all around.

    And, one last burr under my saddle – If 8:45pm on a Monday night is such a great time to have an important sporting event, why is the Super Bowl at 6PM on a Sunday? College football games belong on the weekend, preferably Saturdays.

    Whew – I feel better now. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  18. steve

    As long as we can beat the shit out of Auburn I know there will be at least one alum in the stands.

    Liked by 2 people

  19. Macallanlover

    The tea leaves are foretelling the truth, CFB is facing a decline in attendance that will make people question the wisdom of all the stadium expansions. The decline in attendance has begun slowly but will begin to fall off rapidly at a point when the long term supporters step aside and the Millennials fail to step forward. I think it would have happened inevitably as the generational culture change evolved but the tone deafness of officials in charge that has been slow to respond to their customer base has accelerated the timeline. Normal complaints about better competition, creature comforts such as better seating, stronger wifi, improved concession choices, clean/adequate bathrooms, reasonable parking and fewer tailgating areas/restrictions, etc., have been pushed aside in favor for more pleas for larger donations, while providing less.

    For the near term, games of major interest will continue to sell out, but for most teams that means 1-3 high demand games a year, or less than half of the home schedule. Many schools already cannot sell out the high marquee games, much less the mismatches. When high traditional CFB venues like the SEC and Big 14 begin to tale off, can the picture get more obvious?

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