At places like Notre Dame, Alabama and Ohio State, a sellout crowd is commonly a certainty no matter who they are playing, especially if those traditional college football powerhouses are in the top 10.
At Washington, a one-time juggernaut in the 1980’s and 1990’s under the late Don James, perhaps Husky Stadium would still be filled to capacity if a team like Idaho came to town.
Last week, with Washington a No. 8-ranked team – albeit a relative unknown in terms of strength because of a poor schedule – many of the Husky fans did not warm up to the idea of attending the game against Portland State on a cool 63-degree Saturday afternoon.
Only 57,151 attended the game at the 70,038-seat stadium. Through the first three games against the likes of Rutgers, Idaho and Portland State, Washington averaged 58,823 fans. That’s an average of only 83.9 percent to capacity. It is also about a 4.5 percent drop from last year’s average attendance of 61,919 in seven home games.
“You’re not going to have your ideal situation,” Washington coach Chris Petersen told the Seattle Times about schedule the “perfect” non-conference schedule. “If that happens, you’re just lucky. You’re trying to find unique matchups in that nonconference season, but I think the Pac-12 is where our focus is.”
Petersen can take solace that Washington is not alone in dropping attendance rates. CBSSports.com researched attendance data and determined home attendance for college football games has declined steadily in each of the last five years.
Football Bowl Subdivision attendance for home games averaged 43,288 fans per game last season, down less than 1 percent from 43,483 in 2014, according to CBS Sports. Crowds declined by 4 percent in 2014. Last year’s average was the lowest since the FBS drew 42,631 per game in 2000. Attendance stayed under 46,000 for the seventh consecutive season since it peaked at 46,456 in 2008.
The reasons for the attendance decline: Increased ticket prices, inconvenience of parking and dealing with crowds, and perhaps most important – the ability to watch the game in the comfort of your own home on high-definition televisions, some which have screens larger than 80 inches. College football did not have to deal with that phenomenon five to 10 years ago.
Can you blame a Washington fan for saving money and headache by staying home and watching the game on a big-screen high-definition television, especially if the Huskies are playing the Idaho Vandals? Fans have that belief that their team will win anyway without them there because of the inferior competition. If UCLA or Oregon visited Seattle, it’s a different story. Fans want to be there not only to watch two high-quality teams but to also have their presence seen and voices heard.
Doesn’t that mean Washington’s fans are fickle and not the type of ardent supporters who show up no matter who the highly-ranked Huskies face?
That’s where the minor-league baseball promotion mentality comes in to boost attendance by drawing fan interest other than from the matchup. Something more than the game must be presented to fans when home teams play far lesser competition.
Athletic departments have tackled some of this issue by upgrading facilities and seating areas, installing massive scoreboards with high-definition video displays, running promotions such as discounted three- or four-game ticket packages, and, yes, providing alcohol beverages to the general public.
In terms of scheduling, programs should make certain a Power 5 non-conference opponent is scheduled at home once every other season. It is unrealistic to believe that can be done every season because chances are a team will also travel to a Power 5 opponent. Programs are reluctant to schedule two Power 5 non-conference opponents especially in the Pac-12 where each team plays nine usually tough conference games.
The NCAA should look into a systematic schedule for its Power 5 schools the same way the NFL employs its rotating scheduling. NFL teams from one division play teams from other divisions one season and then switch to teams of other divisions the next. It would be similar to Pac-12 teams face Big 12 teams one season and then play SEC teams the next and so on.
Something like this can assure Alabama having to travel to Washington State someday, or USC playing at Vanderbilt. Nothing wrong with that. That type of schedule will not only boost attendance at schools where it’s needed the most, it will make for some intriguing matchups like UCLA at LSU, Auburn at Washington or Stanford at Florida State, etc.
That annually increases the possibility of a marquee non-conference home game for each Power 5 school. The problem with instituting that type of schedule is that future schedules have already been negotiated, some beyond the year 2030.
At any rate, any attempt of a systematic schedule in the future is the right one to make judging from dwindling attendance figures. The fans have made their stance known by staying home more and more each season. It is up to the NCAA and Power 5 schools to answer that apathy and make something happen to combat further declines years down the road.