College football attendance at lowest levels since 2003

By Jerry Hinnen | College Football Writer
Miami drew less than 40,000 fans to its 2012 home opener. (Twitter.com/Tim Reynolds)

If you're a college football fan who spends gameday mornings on Twitter, it may have seemed all of the FBS was disappointed with attendance, as picture after picture after picture showed empty stands at Kentucky, Miami, Maryland, Auburn, etc.

As it turns out, that impression wasn't wrong; figures compiled by al.com and published Monday showed that the average per-game attendance at an FBS college football game dropped to 45,247 fans, the lowest since 2003.

Five of the six BCS conferences reported attendance decreases, and per al.com reporter Jon Solomon, the only exception -- the Pac-12 -- was an exception only because Cal left its temporary limited-capacity stadium setup in 2011 for its newly renovated Memorial Stadium.

Even the mighty SEC wasn't invulnerable -- though it once again led the nation in average attendance at 75,444 fans, its lowest number since 2007. The ACC averaged its fewest fans since 2000. The Big Ten averaged 70,387 fans, its lowest mark since 2008.

And now, Jim Delany and Co. have added Rutgers and Maryland to the Big Ten mix -- even though the Terps saw one of the biggest decreases in attendance in the FBS. Maryland's attendance in Year 2 of the Randy Edsall era plunged 15 percent, a drop exceeded only by Joker Phillips' hapless Wildcats.

No one expects the Big Ten's attendance issues to be repaired by playing games against a Maryland program that has no current football cachet and zero history against any team in the league not named Penn State. It also seems unlikely that after the novelty wears off, Maryland fans will be any more inclined to come watch games against Purdue or Michigan State than they were Boston College or Duke (or, for that matter, incoming ACC members Pitt and Syracuse).

But Maryland president Wallace Loh explained upon Maryland's arrival into the Big Ten why that wasn't an issue.

"(The Big Ten) is going national because of a phenomenon," he said. "Attendance among college-aged students is dropping. The reason is because this generation is completely wired, and they are getting their education and entertainment on tablets and mobile devices. Everyone thinks you make your money in seats. You make it on eyeballs on a screen."

That doesn't mean attendance is irrelevant just yet -- Phillips was fired, as was fellow double-digit attendance-drop victim Jon Embree at Colorado. (No doubt Maryland's struggles at the gate aren't doing Edsall any favors, either.) Former SEC commissioner and BCS creator Roy Kramer's fears that college football might shrink its stadiums by half to meet nonexistent demand seems years away. A trend toward stronger nonconference scheduling with the arrival of the 2014 playoff and the replacement of paycheck scrimmages with a ninth conference game in leagues like the SEC or the Big Ten could help stem the tide, too.

But the bottom line is that conference expansion -- whether in the Big Ten, ACC or elsewhere -- has meant that college football has responded to its long and now severe attendance decline by guaranteeing that teams play fewer games that matter to their fans (no more Kansas-Missouri or Texas-Texas A&M, no more annual Iowa-Wisconsin, Alabama-Florida twice a decade, etc.) rather than more. For any college football fan who believes that the reason Loh's "eyeballs on the screen" are on the screen in the first place is (in part) to drink in the sports' unimpeachable atmosphere and spectacle, this "solution" doesn't bring much comfort.

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