College football has an attendance problem. Not an interest problem, and certainly not a money problem, but an empty-stadium epidemic that is gaining steam. The infamous empty-stadium shots that were once reserved for Miami home games and other no-show regulars are becoming the norm at programs, regardless of location or prestige.
The concern is so great that the SEC has hired a market-research firm to tackle the problem, according to the Wall Street Journal. This firm will spend time in stadiums and also in homes of football fans, trying to understand what the game-day experience inside the football cathedral is lacking.
Even Alabama and Georgia, two power schools enjoying overwhelming success, are feeling the effects:
Winning isn't even necessarily a solution. The average student crowd to see last year's Georgia team—which finished the season ranked No. 5—was almost 6,000 short of maximum capacity. Even at Alabama, 32% of student seats went unused by students between 2009 and 2012, when the Crimson Tide won three national championships.
Through the first five weeks of the college football season, attendance in Football Bowl Subdivision games was down 3 percent from 2012 and 6 percent from 2011, according to Jon Solomon of AL.com.
TCU got a taste of these attendance woes during Week 7, providing one of the more telling stadium shots in recent years. Up just seven points on Kansas late in the second half, the Horned Frogs stadium was, well, the opposite of full:
It's one-score game here. You can cut the tension with a knife. pic.twitter.com/JLdsUi906m— Stefan Stevenson (@FollowtheFrogs) October 12, 2013
At about that same time, a higher-profile game was taking place one state away. LSU was taking on Florida at home in an SEC game that seemingly always draws incredibly well. It was hot in both places, and the mid-afternoon playing times didn’t do any favors, but the turnout (or lack thereof) created a buzz shortly before the game began.
LSU defensive tackle Anthony Johnson could sense it, although—much like everyone else—he couldn’t exactly put his finger on the reason for the small turnout:
#LSU's Anthony Johnson on empty seats Saturday vs. Florida: "It doesn't feel electrifying. I guess people are waiting on the Texas A&M game"— Matt Boudreaux (@MattBoudreaux) October 15, 2013
So why is college football seemingly down everywhere? There isn't just one point of origin, which makes developing a quick-fix elixir a challenge.
The HD Effect—The Home Setup Is Pretty Amazing
This isn’t a groundbreaking theory—or, at the very least, your television has taken the blame before. In fact, it is now blamed regularly, and its influence on attendance for both college football and the NFL is a frequent topic of discussion. It’s not irrelevant either.
Enjoying football on a paper-thin, pixelated wall under your own roof is a magnificent experience. High definition has changed the way we consume all programming, although the influence on football—the country’s sport of choice—has been significant.
Production quality has drastically improved at the same time technology continues to soar, which makes it harder to leave home. HD is no longer an option—it’s the only option.
But the HD lifestyle is not restricted to vibrant moving pictures. There’s the fridge 20 feet from the couch, or perhaps closer if you’ve planned accordingly. There’s the food that you can prepare (or order) well in advance without much planning. There’s the comfort of having no dress code, choosing to enjoy your football without pants if you please.
The HD effect isn’t just about your television. The home-viewing experience has drastically improved, and our habits have changed because of it.
We’ve Got HD, and We’ve Also Got Plenty of Viewing Options
Forget about having to maneuver a satellite dish to the appropriate angle to watch an assortment of games, praying it doesn’t rain.
With ESPN’s College GameDay starting shortly after the sun comes up, you typically have legitimate football viewing options for 15 or more hours. It doesn't require tacking on an expensive package to your already expensive cable bill, although those options are available too.
Networks do a tremendous job broadcasting compelling games throughout the day and are improving each year. Options aren’t the issue. A shortage of televisions and working eyeballs usually is.
From CBS to NBC to the ESPNs and many other channels, our access to these games is also no longer limited to one room. We can watch on our computers, on our phones or on our tablets, all while ensuring the television does the heavy lifting.
As great as these options are, it’s only going to improve. Each conference will soon have its own network, headlined perhaps by the SEC Network, which will launch next year. Teams will also follow this trend, and the Longhorn Network will soon have company.
Saturday gives us ample options at limited costs. Our biggest problem isn’t whether the game we want to watch is on, but rather, what other channels we need to have in the rotation.
Staying Connected—Social Media and Having a Constant Internet Pulse
I can’t imagine watching a football game without Twitter. It simply wouldn’t be the same.
The world’s greatest social media device has made the greatest game on earth that much better. Whether it’s updates on scores and injuries, images from tailgates (maybe empty-stadium shots) or the daily serving of sarcasm that I require, Twitter serves as the largest Saturday tailgate in the world.
Accessing this outlet is certainly possible on the go, as seen by a significant percentage of Twitter usage occurring through mobile devices. But it’s also not the same.
Network and cellphone access is seemingly impossible in a football stadium overloaded with thousands of people with the same idea. The need for improved WiFi options is something stadiums are working on, acknowledging this as a potential issue for low attendance.
And it’s not just Twitter or Facebook, or the frustrating inability to track down a friend because the cell tower near a crowded area is strained. The constant access to the Internet is something we crave for a variety of reasons. There’s a sad comfort in it, one with which we’ve come to be far too familiar.
In the case of the college football fan, the thought of any lost access on Saturday can influence behavior—as sad or appropriate as that might be.
No Doubt About It, Scheduling Hasn’t Helped
Attendance woes have surfaced in high-profile games, although the early season out-of-conference matchups aren’t helping this cause.
Whether it’s Miami-Savannah State, Oklahoma State-Lamar, Oregon-Nicholls State, Ohio State-Florida A&M or plenty of others, a significant portion of the college football season is devoted to cupcake football and matchups lacking intrigue. The philosophy behind scheduling these games requires no further examining. Neither does the lack of motivation to attend this game from the fans' perspective.
Seeing a football game live is an experience, regardless of the opponent. But why pay to attend a game that will undoubtedly feature backups near halftime?
Dedicated fans will find a seat in a stadium regardless of the opponent on the other sideline. These fans exist, certainly, but they’re now an endangered species of sorts.
Perhaps the upcoming College Football Playoff will follow through on its claims of stressing strength of schedule. For this to happen, it will have to be a national movement—one that will require time, energy and a drastic philosophical switch.
The Stadium Is Only a Sliver of the College Football Experience
The mentality of many college football fans could be changing right before our eyes, taking on more of a fantasy football approach without, well, fantasy football.
The team-specific experience is still an enormous aspect of what makes college football special—the tailgating, the Saturday morning feel, the marching bands, etc.—but much of this can be accessed without having to pay for admission.
A fan of a particular team can (and will) still tailgate before a game. He can then choose to enter the stadium or perhaps watch the game in a bar surrounded by similar colors, intentions and excitement. Oh, and they also serve beer in these places, which most stadiums don’t. Don’t think that doesn’t factor in.
More than that, however, is a growing interest in the national brand of college football, something the SEC blog Saturday Down South recently pointed out. This is good for the sport and also helps justify the incredible amount of money pouring into the game.
In doing so, however, it might de-emphasize—not for all, but for some—the need for exclusive support for just one program. Rooting interests will not shift, but a growing perspective on the sport and happenings out of other pockets certainly could.
At the very least, the sport is acknowledging that there is an issue. Understanding our habits and why we do the things we do will be a more challenging task. The college football fan hasn't left, which is what makes this so perplexing.
In fact, there is more passion and emotional investment in the sport each and every day. Trying to bring fans back to the stadium environment and away from the outlets college football has helped perfect, however, is a significant obstacle ahead.