Some of the best programs in college football are seeing attendance decline, a result of many factors with late start times for televised games likely chief among them.
Yahoo! Sports’ Pat Forde wrote in his “Forde-Yard Dash” notes column a few weeks back that at least five teams that are having great seasons are not selling out on a consistent basis. Oklahoma State, Iowa, North Carolina and Houston have failed to draw capacity crowds.
The biggest surprises are Oklahoma State and Iowa, a couple of traditionally strong college football programs that are in college towns. The Cowboys average 57,352 fans in 60,218 Boone Pickens Stadium. The Hawkeyes average only 90 percent of capacity (63,179 at 70,585-seat Kinnick Stadium).
Forde also writes that the Florida Gators mostly draw to capacity, but The Swamp is noticeably empty at the start of games, especially those designated for noon kickoffs on the East coast because of television.
College administrators want increased revenue from gate receipts, but the real money maker comes from the lucrative television deals. They are willing to sacrifice empty seats for TV money that ultimately pays for enhanced facilities and coaches’ salaries – the general lifeline of the sport. Television rules all. Therefore, rather than expect attendance to increase, the opposite should hold true.
Another possible reason is the cost for a night out with ticket-price increases and the rise of cost-of-attendance (parking fee, snack bar prices, apparel sales, etc.). Fans can also watch most games on a high-definition television. In this day and age of social media, fans can also follow instantly what’s happening in a game via their hand-held device anywhere.
That sure beats having to wait around midnight to break free from the stadium traffic after spending about $200 on your family of four.
According to a CBSSports.com report on Oct. 6, the most significant attendance decreases in the Power Five from last year included North Carolina (24 percent), Syracuse (22 percent), Maryland (13 percent), Oregon State (13 percent), Washington State (13 percent), Northwestern (12 percent), Arizona State (11 percent) and Iowa (11 percent).
Northwestern is having a banner year ranked No. 13 in the nation with an 10-2 record. Washington State is having its best season under Mike Leach, at one point challenging for the Pac-12 North title with a prolific passing offense that is fun to watch. Evidently, folks in the Palouse would rather stay indoors.
Should we really be surprised in the digital age?
Convenience is a significant thing. It’s convenient to be on social media on a laptop at home, responding to Tweets and message boards rather than trying to do such a thing with a cell phone in the stands. The fan experience has certainly changed in less than five years because of the evolution of social media. While a fan’s voice is drowned among the din of the crowd, it can speak boldly on Twitter for all followers to read.
One of the most peculiar NCAA rules is its attendance threshold to maintain Division I-A status, now known as the Football Bowl Subdivision. FBS teams must meet the minimum attendance requirement of averaging 15,000 in actual or paid attendance per home game in a rolling two-year period to avoid the possibility of demotion to the Football Championship Subdivision.
According to NCAA attendance figures from last season, eight teams failed to average at least 15,000 fans a game in 2014, which is double the amount in 2013.
The one constant which should be penalized by the NCAA attendance rule is Idaho, which averaged 14,744 fans in its five home games in 2013 and only 12,886 in five home games in 2014. Although Idaho has considered a return to the Big Sky as an FCS school, the Vandals remain in the FBS despite the low attendance figures.
That shows that attendance is not the overriding factor for financial success. Idaho, of the Sun Belt Conference, played money games at USC and Auburn this season. The Vandals (4-8 overall this season) are regularly televised on ESPN3 with their Sun Belt games in addition to the Pac-12 Networks for their game with USC and the SEC Network for the matchup with Auburn.
Home attendance is not as much of an issue when television money or high-paying money games on the road are part of the equation.
Should we really be surprised about declining attendance?