Vince Thompson, who estimates he attends close to 20 college football games a year for his Atlanta-based sports marketing agency, is hardly surprised by NCAA data quantifying an attendance decline at games around the country.
“You’ve been seeing a softness coming for several years,” he said. “You look around a lot of the stadiums, and if it’s not a huge rivalry, you’re beginning to see some empty seats scattered in the upper decks.”
The NCAA data, released last week, sounded alarms across college football, revealing that attendance at FBS games declined for a fourth consecutive season, this time by an average of 1,409 fans – or 3.2 percent -- per game.
Average attendance has fallen in seven of the past nine seasons, dropping a total of 10.1 percent from a record high of 46,971 in the 2008 season to 42,203 in the 2017 season. Last season’s drop was the largest in 34 years and the second largest since the NCAA began tracking attendance in 1948, according to CBS Sports.
“I think (athletic directors) absolutely should be concerned,” said Bernie Mullin, whose Atlanta-based firm handles outsourced ticket sales for dozens of colleges. “My concern is ... it’s almost like some (ADs) are standing on the train track outside a tunnel and hearing noises and wondering what that noise is. And it’s a train flying out of the tunnel with fans wanting something completely different these days.”
The Georgia Bulldogs continued to strongly buck the downward trend, averaging 92,746 fans per game at Sanford Stadium for a fifth consecutive sold-out season. Georgia ranked ninth among the 129 FBS teams in attendance. Still, the national numbers didn’t escape the notice of UGA athletic director Greg McGarity.
“We pay very close attention to it, as do all of the other Southeastern Conference athletic directors,” McGarity said. “We talk about it frequently and have really taken a deep dive into the analytics from a conference standpoint.
“If you ignore this data and these statistics, then you’re not being responsible. So even though those patterns might not exist at your institution, you always have to be knowledgeable enough and try to get ahead of things to where you don’t ever want that to be a problem.”
The SEC, as usual, led conferences in attendance last season, with its 14 members averaging 75,074 per home game. But the SEC also had the largest decline among the five power conferences, falling 2,433 fans per game – 3.1 percent – from the year before. (Schools typically announce attendance as tickets sold or distributed, and the NCAA figures don’t adjust for paid no-shows.)
ACC attendance declined 1,292 per game, or 2.6 percent, to an average of 48,442. Georgia Tech averaged 46,885, down 618 fans per game from the 2016 season, according to the NCAA figures.
Nationally, the attendance declines don’t seem to portend a serious threat to college football’s underlying popularity -- unless, that is, they persist. But they do show a gradual retrenchment in the number of fans willing to make the considerable investment of time, money and hassle to attend games.
“I think it’s the tip of the iceberg,” said Thompson, CEO and founder of marketing agency MELT, which works in the college athletics space on behalf of major companies, including Coca-Cola. “I think we’re just at a crossroads in trying to figure out that next evolution.
“The fascinating thing is that college football has never been more popular, but physical attendance is going to create a challenge for it. In a content environment – multi-media rights, broadcast, cable, social media – I think it’s going to thrive. But as it relates to purely attracting the same group of fans and consumers to the on-campus experience, I think there’s going to have to be a complete evolution.”
That could include, he and other observers suggested, bringing the sport’s historic old stadiums up to date in terms of technology, wireless signals, concessions and fan amenities; dealing with the disconnect between the game times required by TV networks and the game times preferred by fans in attendance; reducing the number of uncompetitive games by strengthening non-conference schedules or expanding conference schedules; and working with local entities to improve the experience of navigating through congested college towns to and from games.
Georgia Tech is planning a series of fan-experience enhancements to be made at Bobby Dodd Stadium over the next five years, including additional premium seating areas, improved cellular and Wi-Fi connectivity and enhanced audio. This year, Tech is offering season-ticket buyers complimentary guest tickets to one non-conference game.
Gary Stokan, president of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, said some of the decline nationwide may be attributable to the normal “ebbs and flows of the business of college athletics.” He noted, for example, that several high-profile SEC programs had down seasons on the field in 2017. But beyond that, he said, there are issues to be examined.
“We’ve got to look at the millennials, the younger generation,” Stokan said. “I think that’s where we’re losing some of the fan base.”
“Aging of the fan base is the single biggest thing colleges are experiencing,” said Mullin, founder and chairman of The Aspire Group, which provides ticket marketing, sales and service support. “Millenials want a completely different experience. They want a social experience, a connective experience.”
Student attendance declined 7.1 percent from 2009 until 2014, according to a study of turnstile counts from 50 major-college programs by the Wall Street Journal.
“Generally speaking, if you don’t get them as young fans, you’re not going to get them later,” Mullin said.
Another significant factor: Some fans prefer the comfort and convenience of watching games on their huge high-definition TVs at home.
“The advent of accessibility to watch all games on television ... has eroded attendance to some degree (nationally),” McGarity said.
“Right now, college football is programmed for the TV viewer and not the fan attending,” said Thompson, citing games that start at noon (11 a.m. in the Central time zone) or end close to midnight.
From kickoff times to amenities, connectivity to comfort, there’s no shortage of issues to tackle.
“I wouldn’t call it a problem, but I simply would call it a fascinating challenge,” Thompson said. “It’s a great opportunity to truly evolve the fan experience to attract the next generation of fans, because the product on the field has never been better.”
CHARTING THE CROWDS
Average college football attendance for FBS games over the past 10 seasons and the change from the previous season:
Season / Avg. attend. / Change in avg.
2017 / 42,203 / -1,409
2016 / 43,612 / -321
2015 / 43,933 / -670
2014 / 44,603 / -1,068
2013 / 45,671 / +231
2012 / 45,440 / -634
2011 / 46,074 / -558
2010 / 46,632 / +351
2009 / 46,281 / -690
2008 / 46,971 / +10
Average 2017 attendance for FBS conferences and the change from the 2016 season:
Conference / Avg. attend. / Change in avg.
SEC / 75,074 / -2,433
Big Ten / 66,227 / +76
Big 12 / 56,852 / -679
Pac-12 / 49,601 / -472
ACC / 48,442 / -1,292
FBS independents / 45,230 / -2,010
American Athletic / 28,669 / -2,942
Mountain West / 24,963 / +832
Conference USA / 19,248 / -601
Sun Belt / 17,843 / -214
Mid-American / 15,934 / -997