MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

October 8, 2013

Game attendance drops as college football fans shun a bad deal

by Tom Lindley
CNHI News Service

— Let me count the ways college football is seeing a continued decline in attracting fans to stadiums: Overpriced tickets, uncertain starting times, traffic jams, overpriced hotel rooms, some night games ending around midnight, overpriced (again) concessions, long television delays for commercials, terrible opponents, long reviews of disputed plays, parking lot problems, drunks, mid-week games and last but not least -- a lousy team.

It wasn’t always this way, but colleges sold their souls to TV networks and the marriage with big business left fans to deal with many inconveniences and price gouging. 

Here’s a number that should alarm most athletic directors. As reported in The Birmingham News, through the first five weeks of the 2013 season, attendance at Football Bowl Subdivision games is down 3 percent compared to this time last year. Worse yet, game attendance is off almost 6 percent from the same period in 2011.

News reporter Jon Solomon’s analysis showed average attendance this season is 45,596, down from 47,181 in 2012 and 48,279 in 2011.

Now this is startling: Half of the teams in the vaunted Southeastern Conference have shown dips in crowd size, modest as they may be. The issue isn’t regional as attendance is dropping across the country. So far this season six schools have seen attendance drop by 4 percent or more -- Penn State, Southern California, Michigan State, Iowa, Arkansas and Virginia Tech.

Here’s part of the problem: Games are expensive to attend. Depending on where you go, single game tickets go for $50 each (much more if you go through a broker), parking is another $20 and food and souvenirs, if you take the kids, can break the bank. On the other hand, if you stay home and watch it on a high-definition TV, you get none of the hassles, have a better, sharper view of the game, and can use commercial breaks to run to the kitchen for snacks that aren’t outrageously priced.

Which sounds like the better deal?

Now some college administrators might try to counter the argument by pointing out overall attendance continues to set records and teams are bringing in more money than ever. Also, some early-season games are scheduled against over-matched opponents so there’s no pent up demand to buy tickets, especially if a more-enticing home game is in the offing.

There are some who may see this as just a matter of overexposure during a period where people are making cautionary spending decisions. But here is something to fear. There is a disturbing trend among students to skip games. The Wall Street Journal reported that student attendance “is an illness” that has been spreading for years. Over the past four seasons, students at the University of Georgia left empty 39 percent of the seats in their designated section at Sanford Stadium.

Alabama, which has won three of the past four national championships, has experienced the same problem. Almost a third of the student-designated seats at Bryant-Denny Stadium remained empty at times.

This doesn’t mean the students are losing interest in football. What it does suggest is that there are sometimes better places to watch the game – such as campus bars or fraternity houses where the beer and the good times flow freely.

The concern has reached the point that the SEC has hired a consulting firm to look into the matter. The league wants to know what it can do to improve the game-experience for its fans, especially the younger ones who the conference counts on becoming the season ticket holders of tomorrow. 

In another case, it’s a generational matter. Students don’t want to give up their technological gadgets. Asking them to surrender use of their cell phones for four quarters is a non-starter.  Adequate Wi-Fi capability isn’t available in many stadiums and upgrades needed to serve upwards of 100,000 fans is an expensive proposition.  Industry experts told The Journal the cost would range somewhere between $2 million to $10 million per stadium.

In this day of big-time, big-money athletics, it seems odd that universities are struggling with so many challenges. Whether it’s alums grumbling about higher prices or students looking for a better time, athletic directors should be learning that bigger doesn’t always make better. It’s simple: college football fans don’t need to look at the scoreboard to know they’re getting a bad deal.

Tom Lindley is a sports columnist for the CNHI News Service. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.