College football, without a doubt, has an attendance issue. The sport, like football in general, is fighting to get customers to the stadiums and to extend the stay of those folks once they arrive. There is a problem with student attendance, and as that is felt, schools have to worry about the next generation of season-ticket buyers.
Despite the NCAA's most recent attendance release detailing gains in patronage for the sport, the truth is that college football attendance is still not at the level it was in 2008. As ESPN's Darren Rovell pointed out, average attendance is below 46,000 for the fifth straight season at the FBS level.
Although the NCAA's information is accurate, at the base level, it is quite misleading.
Like Rovell, The Wall Street Journal pointed to the attendance issue early during the 2013 season, as students left sections sparsely populated in September contests. Some folks point to the matchups with bad opponents. Others point to the weather. There is also the issue with technology.
The fact is, for students, whatever excuse they have to not get into the stadium is reason enough, and administrators are recognizing the problem.
At Oregon, the school is giving away burgers to students in hopes they stay the whole game, as the Journal pointed out. Meanwhile, Rovell notes that Arizona is working cash prizes with the same goal in mind: trying to convince students to stay for the entire affair. Everyone notices the aluminum as students come late and leave early.
Alabama's Nick Saban weighed in on people leaving early, telling AL.com, "Maybe if you're not interested in [staying the full game], you should let someone else go who would really like to go because I have a lot of people who want to go."
Winning ballgames and playing tougher competition help, but ultimately, even those are not answers to the student attendance problem. Unlike the average fan, who simply does not buy tickets to poor contests, the student fan has tickets and just elects not to travel the short distance to the stadium.
That is a problem that goes beyond simply trying to add value to the ticket. Schools have to find a recipe to get students into the mix.
Perhaps that does mean incentives, like the ones mentioned for Oregon and Arizona. Or maybe it means cutting down the size of student sections, as Georgia did recently, to help reduce the impact of the no-shows. It most certainly means working to be more student-friendly from a technology standpoint.
In the Instagram, Twitter and smartphone world, being the dead zone that most stadiums become with the influx of people in the small area is a liability. Cell service is terrible. Most stadiums lack Wi-Fi. Both elements create drained batteries as phones search for service, and charging stations are few and far between.
Sitting at a game and being unable to communicate with friends via the preferred methods can turn the stadium from a great experience to a hassle. Texts that go unsent or undelivered as friends try to meet up. Pictures that do not upload as the phone searches endlessly for a signal. Mix in less-than-ideal weather or a blowout contest and no one can blame students with tickets for electing not to use them.
Schools do not lose money when students decide to stay at the tailgate instead of heading into the game; those tickets are already purchased, and at times, unclaimed tickets go back into the general admission pool for purchase. The issue is that without robust, consistent turnout from students, universities worry about what that means for the future.
If students, with tickets that are very close to free, are already deciding to skip games, can the schools count on the future alums to travel and fill the stadium with season tickets that have to be purchased? Can the schools even count on this group of students to purchase the season tickets?
College football's attendance issue is twofold. In the short term, college students continue to skip games and pick the more compelling options. For the long term, this could truly mean major ramifications across the collegiate landscape where tickets and attendance are concerned.
These students are the future of the programs. The students before them make up the base that put more than 100,000 into stadiums at Tennessee, Michigan, Alabama and Ohio State. As people age out and the base must be filled with newer alums, these game-skipping students will be major question marks in the season-ticket equation.