ADDRESSING COLLEGE FOOTBALL’S ATTENDANCE DECLINE

Attendance figures

After more than 25 years, my oldest childhood friend just decided to give up his season tickets for football at the University of Florida. I asked Jimmy why. I asked him if it was because he was finally outgrowing football. Hell, that might mean that I might outgrow the sport some day (in the distant future). Or if it was because the Gators are going through hard times with an offense that scores less than the Pope.

The Real Reasons

Now Jimmy did admit that he would like to fish more, if that is a sign of growth, and that the team’s woes were a factor. However, those were not the main reasons. Simply put, he was tired of spending lots of money to watch long games against mediocre opponents in the blazing Gainesville heat.

The good news is that these are all issues that the University of Florida, in particular, and the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) schools, more generally, can address. The bad news is that this does not seem to be the focus, even though attendance has generally been in decline since 2008.

The Problem Is Not Packaging

The FBS schools are keenly aware of the challenges posed by the sheer quantity of college football viewing options, the quality of HD production, the convenience of chilling and grilling at home, and the aging ticket buying demographic. “All of the surveys I see show that the average season-ticket holder is 50-plus,” claimed Matt DiFebo, vice president of IMG Learfield Ticket Solutions. “There’s a whole segment of the fan base that schools are having difficulty reaching.”

Athletic Departments are experimenting with lots of solutions. They’re trying variable pricing and dynamic pricing. Georgia is reducing the student allotment from 18,000 to 15,000 in an effort to lure younger alum. In addition to halving the student allotment from 10,000 to 5,000, Kentucky is also downsizing their capacity to improve the quality of the accommodations, which will presumably allow them to charge more.

The Problem Is the Product

Some of these solutions might make a small, short term difference. However, I have a really hard time believing that making it harder for students to attend games is a wise way to cultivate lasting loyalty.

The issues that Jimmy identified are far more crucial. Consider Florida’s 2014 home schedule. They are in the SEC, which means they have a really tough schedule, including home games against LSU, South Carolina, and once powerful Tennessee. The problem is that the season ticket package also includes contests against Idaho, Eastern Michigan, and Eastern Kentucky. Jimmy is not the only fan who would rather go fishing than watch three lambs gets slaughtered. Eastern Kentucky should be squaring off against Eastern Michigan. The Gators should be playing another FBS school.

Last season Alabama suspended the block seating privileges for 20 student organizations because so many fans elected to leave blowouts early, but the real problem is that so many of the games are blowouts.

Florida has done their best to start these meaningless games later in the day, sparing fans the full brunt of being in the Sunshine state in late summer. But many programs schedule such games during the middle of the day. 

Uncompetitive match-ups played in unpleasant conditions are especially hard to take because they last so damn long. NFL games usually take three hours. College ones usually take three-and-a-half or more because the commercial timeouts are longer and the clock stops to move the chain after every first down.

Resist Short Term Temptation

You might ask why the FBS schools have not aggressively addressed these issues. Part of the reason is that they have been complacent, assuming that college football will always be King on Saturday, but the bigger reason is their short term fixation on maximizing revenue. Games sometimes have to be played in the blazing heat to accommodate the real king, TV. The extra commercials generate more money for America’s favorite amateur sport and the 200-plus minute games with 20-minute halftimes increase concession sales. And the slaughtered lambs increase the chances of schools having winning records, which helps coaches keep lucrative jobs longer.

The problem is that the Jimmys of the world are starting to opt for more fishing, especially when their alma mater struggles. Nick Saban can get away with punishing student organizations because the Crimson Tide are competing for national titles most seasons. But the betting here is that he would not try to do that if Alabama was in the middle of a series of eight-win seasons.

College Football is a negative-sum game. For every Alabama, there are eight other teams in the SEC that have no realistic chance at conference honors, let alone a Top Ten ranking. Given this, the FBS schools really need to think about how they can foster long-term loyalty, which can see a school through the inevitable lean years, rather than trying to suck out every dollar when times are good and scrambling by offering gimmicks like dynamic and variable pricing pricing when they are not.

Good times don’t last; far-sighted policies do.

–Ken Pendleton