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Attendance lags put SEC on offense, looking to enhance fan experience

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DESTIN, Fla. -- You know, this college football thing is really starting to catch on in the Southeastern Conference.

Some numbers to back that up:

 Last season, with the addition of two new members (Missouri, Texas A&M), the SEC set an all-time attendance record with a total of 7,478,304 fans who attended games in the conference's 14 stadiums.

 The SEC had an average attendance of 75,538 fans per game, which led the nation for the 15th consecutive year.

 Six of the top 11 schools in average attendance come from the SEC (Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Tennessee, Florida, Texas A&M). Only 18 schools average more than 80,000 per game. Eight of those are from the SEC.

But as coaches and administrators gather here for the SEC's annual spring meetings, one of their greatest concerns is the future of college football attendance.

That's right.

"It's a real issue," said Jeremy Foley, the athletics director at Florida. "A confluence of things is coming together and the world has changed. We have to change with it."

While the SEC led all conferences in average attendance per game last season, that figure has actually gone down for four consecutive seasons after reaching a high of 76,844.

SEC average attendance
Year Total
2008 76,844
2009 76,288
2010 76,719
2011 75,832
2012 75,538

In fact, according to a Chattanooga Times-Free Press report, nine of the 14 SEC schools saw attendance dip last season.

The SEC has created the Working Group on Fan Experience and charged it with coming up with recommendations to deal with a new reality in college football: Because of technology, the in-stadium experience is lagging behind what fans can get at home. With a 60-inch, high-definition flat screen, access to multiple games, unlimited replays and with no hassles with traffic, parking or ever-increasing ticket prices, more and more fans are deciding that home is the best place to watch college football.

"At Mississippi State we determined that 60 percent of our fans drive 90 miles or further to attend our games," said Larry Templeton, the former AD at Mississippi State who now serves as a consultant to the SEC. "Our fans are very loyal. But we can't just assume that they will always make that commitment. We have to give them something unique when they get into our stadiums."

Scott Stricklin, the current athletics director at Mississippi State, is the chairman of the group.

"Every industry that depends on people showing up for your events has to worry about this one," said Stricklin. "One of the biggest challenges we have to deal with is how good the product has become on TV. And we have to make the in-stadium experience as good or better than watching it at home on TV."

2012 average attendance
Rank School Total
1. Michigan 112,252
2. Ohio St. 105,330
3. Alabama 101,722
4. Texas 100,884
5. Penn St. 96,730
6. Georgia 92,703
7. LSU 92,626
8. Tennessee 89,965
9. USC 87,945
10. Florida 87,597

Earlier this year our Dennis Dodd told the story of a Michigan State home game with Big Ten foe Iowa where the student attendance was lousy. Why? It rained. Dennis wondered if college football attendance had reached its peak.

The issues of traffic, parking, lines for concessions and restrooms are universal. Everybody knows those have to improve because as the fan base ages they are less willing to deal with the hassle factors of attending a game in person.

But here are some new issues this SEC working group has already identified that must be improved in order to get fans back into the stadiums:

 WiFi: Cell phone service and WiFi are spotty at best in most large stadiums. Fixing it is going to cost a lot of money (about $2 million per stadium). "Our next generation of fans is used to staying connected. They should be able to communicate in real time with somebody on the other side of the stadium," said Dave Hart, the athletics director at Tennessee. "It's quite an investment but we have to make it."

 Replay: In the past, the SEC would only show one replay of any particular play in a game. And it had to be in real time, not in slow motion. The objective was to protect the officials from an overexcited fan base. That rule was changed last season. "If a play was under review, we couldn't show it at all," Strickland said. "That had to change. If the people at home are seeing a numerous times in slow motion then we have to do it as well."

 Student attendance: Student attendance overall has dropped or, if the students do come, they show up late and leave early. Georgia has cut back its student allotment for tickets from 18,000 to 16,000 per game. It has taken those 2,000 tickets and sold them to young alumni who can obtain them without a contribution. "We haven't averaged 16,000 in student attendance in a long time," said Greg McGarity, the athletics director at Georgia. "This was a chance to help our young alumni get started as season ticket holders with a relatively small financial commitment."

A study by the Crimson White, the student newspaper at Alabama, said only 69.4 percent of student tickets were used during the 2012 season. And we're talking about a football program that has won three of the last four BCS national championships.

"I'm very concerned about it," Alabama AD Bill Battle told me when we visited in his office this spring.

 Secondary ticket market: The existence of StubHub, Craigslist and other services that allow fans to buy and sell tickets has made it possible for people to pass on season tickets, and the contribution that goes with them, and simply pay a premium for the games they really want. They can pay a high price for a big game or two but still come out ahead financially. Some fans have stopped buying bowl tickets through the schools because they can get better deals on the secondary ticket market. "The secondary ticket market has changed everything," Foley said.

 Quality of games: Fans say they are growing tired of paying premium ticket prices for cupcake opponents. Some fans will put those tickets on the secondary ticket market or just stay at home for what they know will be a blowout and save the money for transportation, hotel and food. Even though the schools have sold the ticket, they miss out on the revenue generated by concessions, memorabilia sales, etc.

"There once was a day when every single seat for every single game would be full," Foley said. "But those days are gone. If it's a big SEC game we don't have a problem. But if it's not a big game we are concerned."

That, said Tennessee's Hart, is why he believes the SEC should go to a nine-game conference schedule in order to give fans more quality games.

"We have a new paradigm coming and we have to recognize it," Hart said. "What we are doing now transcends the postseason. We have to change our way of thinking."

A lot of what the working group has discussed so far has been anecdotal. That will change. The SEC is going to invest some real money into high-level market research to discover what fundamental changes have to occur that will allow the conference to at least hold on to the attendance it currently enjoys.

"What is the real attitude of our fan bases?" said Strickland. "We know about all these issues, but what are the real world solutions? Soft attendance is something we've been dealing with a few years. We have to get a handle on this now."


Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.
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