I really like college football so please do not take what I am about to say as a knock on the game because it is not. The fact is that attendance at college football games is dropping. On the opening week of this college football season, consider that UNC took on South Carolina in a game in Charlotte. Yes, it was a neutral field but it was not a huge schlep for fans of either school. I have made the drive from the Research Triangle area to Charlotte several times and it can easily be done in 2.5 hours. I have not made the drive from Columbia SC to Charlotte but a glance at a map tells me that it ought to take about 3.5 hours – give or take a few moments. In that circumstance, there were a lot of empty seats in the stadium.
Similarly on opening day, Alabama played Wisconsin in Arlington, TX. In that situation, I can understand the argument that the site of the game is a major travel event for both schools. Nonetheless, there were lots of tix available for that game up until the day of the game on the ticket resale sites and watching the game had to tell you that more than a few of those tix on the resale sites did not make it to the hands of consumers.
Last year – at the end of the college season – CBSSports.com reported that attendance at college football games dropped to the lowest average in 14 years. Their report came before the bowl games happened so they were not including the bowl games where stands struggled to be 30% full. Division 1-A teams averaged about 43.5K fans per game representing a 4% drop from 2013. If you want all the data that went into that CBSSports.com report, you can find it here.
I think there are two forces at work driving down attendance:
Television deals: Perhaps UNC and South Carolina would have chosen to play in Charlotte on their own but TV networks want games in signature places and there was big TV money if the game happened in Charlotte. There is no way Alabama and Wisconsin choose to play in “North Texas” to start their seasons without TV money as the lure.
On top of those two games, every conference now has its own TV deal – and some conferences have their own networks. That means a fan can find just about any major college football game on a TV channel somewhere. Put that fact alongside another fact – tickets to college football games are not “ten or twenty bucks” – and you have a formula to get some fans to choose to stay home instead of going to the stadium.
Millennials: This is not going to be an old-guy rant about young whippersnappers who do not enjoy what I used to enjoy. This is an observation that is made by people across the age spectrum. Millennials do not like to sit still and do one thing exclusively for about 3 hours. If you are in a stadium full of rabid fans and boosters, it might be difficult – or at least distracting – to texting or posting shots on Facebook or listening to some tunes or playing Angry Birds. All of those ancillary activities are much more easily done away from a stadium packed cheek to jowl with screaming football fans.
If you think I am exaggerating here, consider that more than a couple of schools are investing a lot of money to upgrade the capacity and the speed of the Wi-Fi system/cell phone coverage in their stadiums. They are not doing that for the comfort and convenience of the guys in the press box; they are doing that to accommodate people who come to the games and are not interested merely in watching what is going on down on the field.
In last week’s Sports Illustrated, here is an item from the Scorecard section:
“Attendance at college football games has remained relatively flat since 2009 but the average has dropped 7.1% among students according to a 2014 WSJ study. So many students show up late or leave early – or both – that in 2013 one coach publically prodded ticket holders to arrive on time and stay for the duration. That coach? Nick Saban at Alabama.”
So long as TV networks can sell ads for college football, the system in place can stabilize. But there are economic threats to TV networks too and if advertisers ever get the idea that too many folks are watching games on TV but skipping through the commercials, the amount they will be willing to pay for ad space will go down. That will be an economic blow to college football that will be seismic – because major programs have become addicted to TV money.
So, later this year when you see that two MAC teams will be playing a game on a Tuesday nite in cold weather at one of the MAC venues, tune in and check the stands. If they are 25% full, consider that it must be a big game in the MAC. At the same time, file away in the back of your head that the sponsors of that telecast are worrying about the fundamental interest in that game. They do not see “interest” in the number of fannies in the seats.
When ESPN and Colin Cowherd parted company, it left ESPN Radio with a 3-hour hole to fill in the late-morning/noontime slot. Cowherd took over that time slot from Tony Kornheiser back when TK went to do MNF and while Cowherd can be repetitious at times and definitely trolls listeners to generate controversies, he was a solid presence in that time slot. The new inhabitant will be Dan LeBetard whose program used to be in drive time and that is not a good time for national network programming. [Aside: If you have not heard, you can pick up Colin Cowherd on Fox Sports Radio these days.]
Generally, I like LeBetard but he has the same proclivity that Tony Kornheiser had for doing/saying things on the air that can run crosswise with the suits at ESPN HQs in Bristol. I will tune in to hear if he has “toned down” his act any now that he is in a bigger time slot.
Finally, there have been reports that the NBA is considering putting small sponsor logos on the fronts of team uniforms in the future to add new revenue streams to the teams and the league. Estimates of the size of the new revenue streams vary widely but any increase is better than no increase. Here is what I want to see:
I want to see the logo for Oscar Meyer Hot Dogs on a team jersey worn by Nick Young.
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………