Yes, college football attendance keeps dropping, but no, it’s not for a lot of the reasons you might think. Here’s why it’s happening.
Daily Cavalcade of Whimsy
Sorry if this take sucks, it’s not my fault …
It’s the millennials.
“Hey, remember when that icy blue stuff fell from the sky? Everybody thought it was from space and stuff, and it just turned out to be frozen pee from a jet airplane.”
You’ve got this college football attendance dropping thing sort of wrong, people.
Don’t make this harder than it is.
Dennis Dodd busted out a great piece on the biggest attendance drop in since 1982, going in great detail about why the fans aren’t showing up like they used to.
It’s the millennials, it’s time, it’s cell service, it’s the students not caring anymore, it’s people having to take Skipper to his fencing practice, it’s … it’s …
A shrinking middle class has less discretionary income to put toward multiple pilgrimages to the same capitol city every fall. – From Dan Bernstein’s column about the decline
It’s not really any of those things, at least as much as many are going to make them out to be.
Yes, fan attendance is down across the board by about 4,500 fans per game nationally since 2008. But there’s one giant reason things slipped last season …
The SEC sucked.
Neutral-site non-conference games, bad coaches, and a few natural disasters didn’t help, either.
Remember, what was one of the biggest themes of the 2017 college football season? Coaching changes. And why? A lot of big-name teams were bad.
The teams were bad, so the wins weren’t there, so the fans didn’t show up.
Who was okay? The Big Ten, and the conference attendance went up. Who was bad? The SEC.
Complain all you want about coaching salaries skyrocketing, but there’s a reason for that. If you don’t have a great coach, you don’t win, and the fans don’t show up, especially in the massive stadiums.
Again, there might be a trend downward nationally, but in terms of the health of college football attendance – at least among the programs that truly matter – here are 20 interesting test-case teams from last year and why this whole thing really and truly is just about winning, winning, and winning.
Start with two of the more curious situations ….
2017 Average Attendance: 86,937
2018 Average Attendance: 86,446
The simple answer: even with home dates late against Georgia and Alabama, Auburn’s attendance dipped because the 2016 team played Clemson, Texas A&M, LSU and Arkansas at home, and started out the year with six home games in the first seven. Last year’s best non-conference home game was ULM.
2017 Average Attendance: 97,881
2018 Average Attendance: 92.778
This one’s easy, too, even with the Tom Herman factor supposedly changing things around. The big non-conference home game? Maryland – 88,396. The big 2016 home game? Notre Dame, at night – 102,315. The date with the Irish – remember, Texas beat Notre Dame and the fan base was charged up – was followed up by the game against Texas-based UTEP, drawing 92,863 fans. Last year, Texas lost to Maryland, and 88,117 fans showed up to see San Jose State.
And then, nationally, there was the Irma factor …
2017 Average Attendance: 58,742
2018 Average Attendance: 58,682
The hurricane issues were a problem in terms of Miami’s attention and time last year. It also didn’t help that the Florida State game was in Tallahassee, and the two early non-conference games were against Bethune-Cookman (50,454) and Toledo (49,361). In 2016, it was the start of the Mark Richt era, and the opening two home games were local playing Florida A&M (60,703) and Florida Atlantic (57,123). And there’s your drop.
2017 Average Attendance: 16,789
2018 Average Attendance: 14,286
Butch Davis coming aboard and winning made a big difference overall, but the hurricane was a big issue early, meaning the Alcorn State date was a neutral site game for a team that didn’t start out the year at home until September 30th. The 2016 team started out the year at home against Indiana and Maryland. However …
2017 Average Attendance: 10,073
2018 Average Attendance: 18,948
Again, hire the right coach, start winning, and fans start to show up no matter what. Just ask …
2017 Average Attendance: 35,802
2018 Average Attendance: 36,846
The consistent fan base might not have been there – it didn’t show up for UConn (29,384) or Austin Peay (27,606) – but the place was rocking for USF (47,129) and the Conference USA championship vs. Memphis (41,433).
2017 Average Attendance: 37,539
2018 Average Attendance: 31,401
Again, the hurricane problems kept people away, but the bigger attendance problem was Florida State. USF hosted the Noles in 2017 and drew 61,665 fans. Last year, just as the region was dealing with the Irma fallout, 35,404 people showed up for the big non-conference date with Illinois.
But it wasn’t just Florida that had hurricane problems.
2017 Average Attendance: 101,917
2018 Average Attendance: 98,802
Not to be glib about it, but there really was a perfect storm of problems here in terms of attendance. The team gagged away the opener against UCLA, Kevin Sumlin was on a hot seat, and the region was dealing with the flooding fallout in Houston. And now, Jimbo is getting $70 million.
2017 Average Attendance: 87,846
2018 Average Attendance: 86,715
Again, this isn’t hard. Florida was rocked by Michigan in the opener, Jim McElwain was done, the team was boring and bad, and the fan base dwindled. Yes, the Gators were dealing with hurricane problems in late 2017, but they were also on their way to winning the SEC East.
2017 Average Attendance: 69,581
2018 Average Attendance: 63,224
The fans showed up for TCU, but the team lost, it was awful, it kept losing, and no one wanted to come to see Coastal Carolina, Mississippi State and Missouri in November. Who did the Hogs get in November of 2017? Florida and LSU, and the average attendance was well over 10,000 fans higher. But in the SEC, the real problem was …
2017 Average Attendance: 100, 968
2018 Average Attendance: 95,779
The wheels came off the program as the season went on, and the schedule stunk. Fans didn’t want to see Southern Miss (95,551 isn’t bad, though) or Vanderbilt (83,117) in November, but 102,455 came to see the Georgia debacle. The Vols were cranking out 101,000+ strong late in the nine-win 2016 run. But again, win, and …
2017 Average Attendance: 92,746
2018 Average Attendance: 92,746
All is well, and …
2017 Average Attendance: 101,917
2018 Average Attendance: 101,722
RELAX. Bama didn’t sell out the Fresno State game. That’s it. They sold out every other game.
Alabama was part of the problem in another way, crushing Florida State in a neutral-site opener, which meant …
2017 Average Attendance: 76,800
2018 Average Attendance: 70,943
Lose, and not as many fans show up, like at …
2017 Average Attendance: 50,250
2018 Average Attendance: 50,071
Or, at …
2017 Average Attendance: 58,569
2018 Average Attendance: 56,267
Which is why you pay the big money to the hot coaches so you can turn around places like …
2017 Average Attendance: 67,459
2018 Average Attendance: 56,044
And then, when you start generating more of a buzz and more excitement, fans want to come to the games, like at …
2017 Average Attendance: 43,814
2018 Average Attendance: 44,358
And if you start getting the base going, and you start winning, you get …
2017 Average Attendance: 34,451
2018 Average Attendance: 48,884
This, and this …
2017 Average Attendance: 25,493
2018 Average Attendance: 30,652
And then, even if you lose or disappoint, if you’re fun, and if you have the right coach, you get this …
2017 Average Attendance: 110,468
2018 Average Attendance: 111,589
Michigan went from giving away tickets on soda cans in the Brady Hoke era, to being the big event at The Big House again under Jim Harbaugh.
And then, when you really win, tickets for things like the College Football Playoff National Championship are sold on the secondary market for over $2,000 a pop.
It’s an easy formula.
Just schedule good home games. Just win. And just make sure your area doesn’t get hit by some weather thing.
And then throw $70 million at the problem and go after the right coach.