When it comes to the recent news about college football's attendance drop, the answer is right out there on the field. The product, in 2012, took a massive hit, and attendance numbers tumbled along with it. It's not about offense or defense or conference realignment. It is about the very base idea that people do not particularly look forward to paying to see teams that are not very good.
Jon Solomon of The Birmingham News brought us the report that detailed the drop. College football saw attendance that was the lowest since the 2003 season. In fact, only the Pac-12 saw its overall attendance increase on the season.
This reveal led folks, including Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated, to agree with Solomon's discussion of non-conference schedules as the reason for the shortcomings. As Mandel explained:
Pac 12 was the one BCS conference with attendance up. Teams play 9 conference games and strong OOC schedules. Coincidence?— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) December 10, 2012
It makes sense, in theory. Hell, as someone who is hoping for improved out-of-conference schedules, I even wish I could agree. Then falling attendance numbers would push schools to schedule better games and we could see improved football across the map.
Unfortunately, what we're forgetting is that the Pac-12 was also the conference with the most turnover from a year ago. It did not pack more stadiums because of its conference schedule or teams' amazing non-conference slates. No, it packed more stadiums because Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA and Washington State fans had a reason to get excited.
Then, with the exception of Washington State, those teams went out and kept fans hooked all season long. That's not the scheduling getting fans to games; that is coaching excitement and on-field success putting those fannies in seats.
The opposite most certainly held true as well. Teams that were in bad situations, underperformed, disappointed or flat-out stunk in 2012 got hit with serious attendance losses. West Virginia, a team that plays nine conference games much like the Pac-12 teams, experienced its lowest attendance in quite a while.
RT @artdirectorbyu: West Virginia moved to the Big 12 and had their lowest attendance since at least 2005.— Mark Ennis (@Mengus22) December 11, 2012
That probably had more to do with its five-game losing streak than it had to do with the James Madison game. West Virginia hosted a Top 15 Oklahoma team and could not fill up the stadium. That's what happens when your team piles up losses—people stop coming.
Across the nation, teams experienced attendance hits for this very reason, as noted in Solomon's report. Penn State and North Carolina, on probation and unable to go to the postseason, experienced plenty of empty seats. Tennessee, Auburn, Colorado, Maryland and other schools saw big losses due to seasons not exactly going as planned.
College football attendance issues are not rocket science. The formula is remarkably simple: If you win, they show up. If you lose, they will find something else to do.
Scheduling better out-of-conference games is a highly desirable cause, but ultimately if you put up wins, folks will pack the house. The recent attendance woes can be tied to failures by teams to win, not simply their scheduling practices.