College football has an attendance problem. And no one can figure out why.
It doesn’t make sense, right? College football is more popular than ever, neck and neck with the NBA as the second-most popular sport on television. The Big Ten Network revealed the power of the fan, as distribution battles were won so legends and leaders could pad their wallets. The Pac-12 jumped in, with less success. The SEC Network is about to launch as a future ATM machine for 14 universities.
The game is covered extensively online. The sport is dissected on Twitter every second of every day. A debate about the speed of offenses can dominate national headlines in the dead of winter. Signing day has become a national holiday.
In short, the college football fan is absolutely and hopelessly addicted to college football.
So why aren’t they all showing up to games? How in this era of unprecedented growth, an upcoming college football playoff and unmatched scoring are people staying away?
The problem manifests itself in how I phrased those two questions – and how college administrators and other writers are looking at the problem. It’s about they. What’s wrong with them?
The customer is always right, right? Not in college football.
The theories floated about the attendance decline all focus in on the fans and students. Some believe they are too into social media. Some have posited that college kids just don’t like college football as much as they used. Or they just want to get wasted. Others think the poor Wi-Fi at stadiums keeps younger fans away. Is pace of play a factor?
All of these factors play into the exalted “game day experience” that teams and franchises like to trot out as a way to entice people to come to the stadium. They promise better food, they promise better beverages, they promise better Wi-Fi, they promise a better experience – all in the hopes of you attending a sporting event.
No one has ever bought a ticket for a Georgia football because of better Wi-Fi access. No Maryland student was ever enticed to stay past halftime because the food selection improved.
In pro wrestling, they call it “being a draw” – why did you buy your ticket? If you’ve gone to a WWE show in the past 10-15 years, you’ll notice the pyro has expanded and the noises are louder and the screens are bigger. This all enhances the experience. But no one has ever bought a WWE ticket to watch fireworks. They buy a ticket because they love Daniel Bryan or hate John Cena.
What draws people – and students – to a college football game has changed. Just placing the pigskin on the tee no long ensures a sellout.
College football used to be able to sell an experience and the draw, as it were, was simply the sport and the notion that you were supporting your school. It was less a sporting event and more a matter of civic pride. In 1986, there was no BCS and no billion dollar contracts. Hell, there wasn’t even a true national champion. I remember as a six year-old, celebrating with my Domer Dad after Notre Dame won the 1988 national title. But as they celebrated on the Sun Devil Stadium turf, the announcers were quick to point out they won a “mythical” national title.
Fast forward a quarter-century and college football has changed. Mostly, the BCS came in and ruined everything, starting in year one. I will never forget the 1998 season-ending game between UCLA and Miami, both for its pure awesomeness and pure weirdness.
The Arizona football team, wanting to play in its first Rose Bowl ever, was rooting for their conference rival to win so they would play in the Fiesta Bowl, serving as the first BCS title game. Read that sentence again and you understand the bizarre world we entered.
Things only became stranger when UCLA lost to Miami and the Rose Bowl – the Granddaddy of Them All – was their consolation prize. UCLA did not want to play in the game that had been its ultimate goal for the previous 50 years.
The BCS continued to put so much focus on the top teams and the national championship that everything else lost meaning. Alabama has played twice in the Sugar Bowl when they would rather be anywhere else in the world. Florida – the fans and the team – didn’t show up to the 2013 Sugar Bowl. Oregon players openly revolted against the idea of playing in another Rose Bowl during the 2013 season, before karma nabbed them.
College football is no longer an athletic pursuit. College football is now a business. College football is a pro sport where the players don’t get paid.
The leaders can wax poetically about Ohio State/Michigan, the Iron Bowl and Notre Dame Stadium, but it is now about neutral-site games in JerryWorld, conference championship games and television inventory.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it completely changes the dynamic of how people root for their teams. Wins and losses matter more. Wins and losses mean everything.
And that is college football’s attendance problem – the sport is now being treated like its pro counterparts.
I live in Washington, D.C., about two blocks from the Verizon Center. People don’t blindly show up to support the Capitals and Wizards on a nightly basis. They have to win – and that’s all they have to do – to get people through the turnstiles. The halftime entertainment, the giveaways, the food – it doesn’t matter. More people watch the Wizards when they’re above .500 as opposed to when they’re under .500, unless the opposing team features LeBron or Kevin Durant.
That is the new reality that college football programs, and college presidents, need to accept. If you have an attendance problem, it’s because your team isn’t winning enough. As a Jets fan, I’ll accept 9-7 more than, say, a Patriots fan would. A Georgia fan is going to look at 8-4 a whole lot differently than a Minnesota fan would.
I’m a UConn season ticket holder. When Randy Edsall had the team competing for championships, the Rent’s student section was packed and loud almost every week, except for the I-AA creampuff on the schedule. When Coach Gramps was embarrassing himself on a weekly basis, the Rent was empty and sad.
Scheduling helps the attendance problem – you cannot expect people to pay up and show up for a glorified scrimmage and maybe a 13-game schedule would help that. But that is not the root cause of the problem.
The attendance problem is based now solely on wins and losses. It will only get worse when a 10-2 Oklahoma team is out of the running for a playoff spot, in the running for a Cotton Bowl spot and the students continue to show how much they care by not showing up. It’s playoffs or bust – just like in the NFL.
No one in college athletics wants to hear that because that’s the only thing they can’t control. But hey, here’s a hashtag and better Wi-Fi!
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