Is College Football Attendance A Problem That Needs Fixing? Part One

Charlotte Wilder over at Sports Illustrated posted an article ‘delving deep’ into how college football attendance is down, and it’s a serious revenue issue that concerns college programs and is in need of fixing.

It also states that schools are having difficulty addressing the problem because they’re throwing solutions at the issue without really determining the underlying root causes.

I appreciate the effort – traveling, interviewing and writing – that she put into this piece, which is well written. She also makes some worthwhile points that we’ll come back to later.

Except, this is an article examining a problem that doesn’t really exist.

The Data Says Whatever We Say it Says

Look at this graph of the numbers Charlotte is referencing; it shows annual total FBS regular-season attendance for the five-season stretch from 2014-2018.

A fascinating downward trend, isn’t it? Yes, I’ve shrunk the scale because the line looks more dramatic and so there are not swaths of dead white space. Watch what happens when we add in 2013.

Now it looks even worse! We’re on the downward slope of attendance doom, are we not? Yet, it isn’t really true.

Yes, FBS college football attendance is down 2.73% over that five-year span, a decline that climbs all the way to 4.27% if you go one year further back.

But realistically this is, like any other data-driven assessment, all about where you place the goalposts.

It is also true that attendance only declined by 0.82% in 2018 compared to 2017, and 2018 was also only down 0.92% compared to 2006. Let’s add another modified version of that graph for additional context.

See that ginormous crater at the front of the graph? That represents a whopping 7.65% decline in attendance from 2003 to 2004, and then an even more massive 11.68% increase in attendance two years later.

Compared to that, the next largest year-over-year change of three percent from 2012 to 2013 is peanuts. This year is the first since 2005 that attendance has been below 34.1 million, but in that same stretch of time, there have also only been two instances where attendance was over 34.9 million.

Say what you will, but in a sport that has nearly 8,000 regular-season games a year, a range of attendance fluctuation of only 880,000 is little more than a rounding error.

Just Like a Professional

This attendance “issue” is not unique to college football, either. Here’s another graph featuring college football’s 2014-2018 attendance decline compared to the NFL, NHL, and NBA.

I left MLB off the graph because their larger cumulative totals would have skewed the visuals, but their attendance declined the most (5.6%) from 2014 to 2018. In addition, MLB saw most (4.2%) of that decline between 2017 and 2018, and then an additional 1.7% decline in the 2019 season.

I also left out MLS’ numbers for the exact same (but inverse) reason, but I’m confident that adding 10 expansion franchises between 2017 and 2022 is not something a league does when it is having attendance issues.

This suggests strongly that the problem is not that people aren’t attending college football games.

The problem is really that people, in general, are attending less live sports, in general, than they were even five years ago. If that’s even the case; the equally small growth in attendance across the NHL, NBA, and MLS might just indicate that fans’ preferences are changing with which sports they’ll pay to watch live.

Different leagues and sports have different issues, but the relative attendance issues of your favorite college football team are not unique to that team, and likely not even unique to that city or state.

The decline in attendance is evident, but not drastically different than that of any other major sport, and far less than it has been at other times in recent history.

Writing A Whole Lot, Saying A Lot Less

Last year over at Off-Tackle Empire, SB Nation’s Big Ten blog, they did their own assessment of the real reasons that attendance was flagging.  As a reaction to Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald’s assertion that “millennials and their phones” are the issue, the author rattled off his own list of what’s actually wrong with attendance.

The list really boils down to the cost of attending in person, in both time and money, and the relative appeal of the at-home hyper-produced HD experience. It also doesn’t talk about the fact that while Fitzgerald’s statement was so simplistic it was easily dismissed out of hand by many, it wasn’t actually wrong. We’ll come back to that.

When it comes to the Sports Illustrated article, the biggest downside is that the conclusion could almost be the entire article. It cites a business class at Florida where students were asked to talk to their friends about why they don’t go to Gators games:

…Students wonder whether it’s worth paying when you don’t know if your friends are going to go. When it might be 125º—or 25º, depending on your school—at kickoff. When you might be watching a blowout. When college is already so expensive that you’re facing decades of debt. When the academics are harder. When there have never been more cheaper entertainment options just a click away.

I left out the part about how none of the respondents cited player safety concerns or the pace of play as reasons they don’t go. I’d be shocked if those kinds of issues popped up in a random sampling of “friends of UF business students’ friends” that represents a fraction of a percent of one college campus.

That ridiculously small and biased sample size invalidates his “research” entirely, but it also obfuscates the point, contained entirely in that very last sentence about other entertainment options.

I don’t see attendance as a crisis in need of a solution, but I do think that there are a lot of areas where schools can improve and enhance the gameday experience in meaningful ways that turn their stadium into a destination rather than a place where sports happen to be played.

In part two, I’ll talk about my own suppositions about the areas needing improvement, and part three will tackle what a recent slew of business insights reveals about how to tweak those beliefs towards an achievable future proposition.

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