It’s not really news to say that college football attendance is on the decline. Anyone who looked around half-empty stadiums during major games in the last few seasons would have been able to tell, even as the schools have announced attendance numbers that imply otherwise. The real question is, what are schools doing about it and will it make any difference?
Rachel Bachman of the Wall Street Journal wrote about this problem, which is affecting just about every program, big and small. Across every FBS conference, from the tiny Sun Belt to the mighty SEC, announced attendance for the entire season is, on average, about 30 percent higher than the number of butts actually in seats. Everyone has their tricks to goose attendance numbers, from counting staff and marching band members to just flat-out lying. When pressed about the 57 percent difference between announced and scanned attendance, Florida State blamed technical issues and human error, per a spokesman. “We do not believe the difference is as large as the data appears to show.”
Believe all you like, the proof is in the unused seats, diminished merchandise sales, and lack of concession proceeds.
For a school like Florida State, it’s mostly a vanity issue. They want to have big numbers that compare to their peers like Alabama and Ohio State, but regardless of the numbers, their athletic department’s doing pretty well. For small schools, however, attendance numbers are a matter of financial life and death. The NCAA requires 15,000 “actual or paid” home attendance averages over the course of two years in order to remain in FBS. That might explain why a school like Coastal Carolina will announce an attendance figure of 89,754 compared to the scanned average of 15,248. Louisiana Monroe, which could find itself afoul of the NCAA with a scanned average of 13,302, announced 49,640 attendance across five home games.
There are certain factors to consider, such as free tickets which might not be counted against official attendance figures. The Cal Bears gave away 57,108 tickets last season, only 35 percent of which were actually used. “Our sales and marketing team continues to look for more creative and unique ways to bring fans to Memorial Stadium,” a Cal official told the WSJ. And it’s those creative and unique ways that many schools are banking on to bring people back.
There is perhaps no offering that schools are leaning on more than booze. After decades of rejecting alcohol in college football stadiums, more and more are welcoming beer and wine in an attempt to get people off their couches and into the bleachers. Going into the 2018 season, 52 out of 129 FBS programs now allow alcohol sales in their stadiums, which is a huge change from a decade ago when that number was less than a dozen. LSU recently added an alcohol-friendly zone. Ohio State earned $1.35 million in beer sales last year while Purdue racked up $550K in their first season with the sauce.
The truth is, it might not be possible to ever get back to the glory days when you could sell out college football stadiums with ease. There are just too many options and too many ways to enjoy the sport without plunking down $100 every weekend to see it in person. However, with more alcohol sales and further new options like that, at least the schools can somewhat offset the lost revenue.
And at the end of the day, isn’t revenue the point of college football anyway?