College football must innovate as FBS attendance dips for sixth straight year to lowest since 1996
Will college football find a moon shot ot stem the tide as fans continue to watch en mass ... from their couches?
At a Google innovation hub last week, administrative leaders from each of the Power Five conferences were invited to what amounted to a two-day think tank in Santa Monica, California. Google does it all the time, inviting experts from different walks of life just to … contemplate the world.
"It sounds nebulous, but it was one of the better professional days of my life," said Brad Wurthman, Virginia Tech senior associate athletic director. "Just being able to sit there and have them educate us on where the world is headed."
Part of that athletic world -- part of the Google experience last week -- is fan engagement. How to keep folks interested in the college product.
"To put it bluntly, it was a very smart person which followed another very smart person which followed a very smart person which followed another very smart person," Wurthman said. "We were all chuckling, 'We get it. You guys are geniuses.'"
None of them have been able to figure out what has become a chronic problem in college football. Once again the sport's attendance is down.
In 2019, college football attendance hit a 24-year low according to the NCAA's official numbers. The FBS average of 41,477 per game is the game's lowest since 1996. That's also the fourth-lowest average nationally since 1982. (The total includes home, neutral site and bowl games.)
While the overall decline was slight -- down only 379 fans per game from 2018, less than 1 percent -- it marked the eighth time in nine years there had been an overall national decline.
The declines listed below are slight, but they're still declines and something more than a trend. CBS Sports reported in 2018 that college football hit its, while in 2017 it suffered its .
|Avg. attendance in 2019||% change from 2018||Notes|
Lowest since 2000
Lowest since 1993
Lowest since 1999
Lowest since 1978*
Lowest in history^
2nd lowest in history
* NCAA records date back to 1978 for the Pac-12 | ^ MWC records begin in 1999
The numbers are critical when you consider that, after media rights revenue, football ticket revenue is typically the second-biggest source of athletic income.
"I don't want to say this the wrong way," BYU AD Tom Holmoe said. "You can't just put on a game. They come [to the stadium] for entertainment. They come for the amenities. Most people don't come for the game right now."
That from an AD whose program had the fifth-biggest attendance increase in the country (7,071 more fans per game).
Marketing 101 says it is not necessary to count on winning solely to sell tickets. BYU enjoyed that increase completing its second consecutive 7-6 season. Holmoe said BYU was helped by a home schedule that included Utah, USC, Washington, Boise State and food trucks. Hey, you haven't lived until you've tried a Cougar Tail, a 16-inch slab of maple.
That's another example that the attendance discussion is layered, complicated, depressing and inspiring. But in the second decade of the 21st century, there is one certainty: Just going to games can be damn difficult.
"That's the hardest thing I've ever done in my life going to the Super Bowl," said SMU coach Sonny Dykes, who took his family in 2019. "Trying to get to the stadium, trying to figure out parking, trying to figure out ride sharing, trying to get through security."
Those inconveniences translate to the college game. So do rising ticket prices. Televisions are bigger, better and sharper. A cold beer is only a refrigerator away.
The dichotomy is maddening. TV ratings continue to soar because it is increasingly easier to stay home. College football is the nation's second-most popular sport. But its attractiveness as a live event is slipping.
"A live game at home, [against a] quality opponent, you're battling the couch. You're battling the cost. You're battling travel [to the game]," said Texas AD Chris Del Conte. "You're battling students [who say], 'I'm going to leave at halftime.'"
If only there was someone -- some central figure -- to call.
But there is no head of college football. There can't be because the game is made up a series of fiefdoms. We call them conferences, but they're akin to small countries because the leagues all operate with sometimes vastly different rules -- number of conference games played, scheduling philosophies, talent.
Commissioners can't sell tickets or market games or wire stadiums for high-speed internet. (More on that below.) They can't keep Florida from its lowest attendance in almost 30 years. (That happened in 2018.)
Sometimes, it doesn't matter. Rutgers attendance is down 40 percent since joining the Big Ten in 2014. The addition of Maryland and Rutgers, though, added more media rights revenue. Michigan once again leads the nation in the attendance, filling college's largest stadium. That number (111,459) is built on decades of tradition and winning.
Then there one is one great attendance mysteries of the universe: Kansas led the country last season in attendance increase. The downtrodden Jayhawks averaged an increase of 14,451 per game -- from 19,424 in 2018 to 33,875. That's an almost 75 percent increase for a program that finished 3-9. That increase is the largest in college football since Temple attendance went up almost 21,000 per game in 2017.
Apparently, the Les Miles Effect is real. Student attendance was up 179 percent to 20,879 for the season. That number was almost triple the 2018 number of 7,477. The economic impact of a football weekend (visitor spending) almost doubled in Lawrence, Kansas -- from $14.6 million to $27 million.
That's an anomaly from the Midwest. Fan engagement remains the key to it all. At the Google summit, they discussed a national demographic as important to the presidential election as it is college football: Generation X, Y and Z. Those terms refer to those born in the mid-1960s (X), in the early 1980s (Y) and in mid-1990s (Z).
The three generations require unique approaches.
"It all goes back to, 'Just offer what they want. We'll be able to see positive results,'" Wurthman said. "Everybody wants mass customization. They want it their way."
At Google there was a lot of, "'Here is what the future looks like. Here is what people are asking for. Here is what the younger generation is expecting,'" Wurthman added.
Customization can be a tough task when there are 100,000 in the house. Mighty Alabama is spending more than $100 million renovating Bryant-Denny Stadium, basically making the experience watching one of the nation's best programs … better.
Alabama AD Greg Byrne said there has been a "paradigm shift" away from neutral-site games. In the Nick Saban-era, the Crimson Tide have made a living (and nice payout) taking their significant brand to a neutral venue to kick off the season against a name opponent.
After the 2021 season, no more. Alabama has scheduled seven home-and-home series against Power Five opponents from 2023-33. During that decade, fans will get to see Texas, Wisconsin, Florida State, West Virginia, Notre Dame, Georgia Tech and Oklahoma.
"The most valuable content is good, live contests on our campuses," Byrne said. "I've talked to schools who could have another [schedule] hole there to do a neutral-site game. No interest. They want content on their campuses."
We told you the discussion is layered: A 2017 change in tax laws kept fans from claiming 80 percent of the purchase of their season tickets. That made it tougher to sell season tickets.
"My $1,000 ticket user used to be able to write off 80 percent," Del Conte said. "Now, it's just a $1,000 ticket. You better have quality games for that ticket."
Byrne and Del Conte are among a group of Power Five athletic directors upgrading their nonconference schedules because they can't afford not to. The moving target that are those key demographics increasingly aren't putting up with mediocre opponents. Del Conte noticed it last season when more than 110,000 fans crammed their way into Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium to watch the showdown with LSU. Del Conte said there was $2.5 million in concession revenue alone that day.
"You create value on your season ticket," Del Conte said. "It's the brand of who you're playing."
Maybe that's a solution for those Power Five elites. But not everyone can -- or wants to -- play a full Power Five nonconference schedule. Scheduling philosophies alone could cause an ongoing and widening gap between the haves and have nots of the sport.
That, plus fans are increasingly selective. Since an all-time high of 46,971 fans per game in 2008, overall attendance is down almost 12 percent. Attendance across all divisions spiked in 2013 with more than 38 million fans. Since then, overall attendance is down 1.3 million or 3.5 percent.
|Year||Avg. FBS Attendance||Year||Avg. FBS Attendance|
* All-time high | ^ Lowest since 1996
We already know the attendance drop has reached the highest level. The seven games run by the College Football Playofffollowing the 2019 season. That marked the halfway point of the 12-year CFP contract with ESPN.
Not to mention, the CFP has contributed to making it a playoff-or-bust discussion in the country. Check those Tuesday nights in November when ESPN has made appointment viewing out of the weekly CFP Rankings.
"If you watch college football in this day and age, the only teams people are talking about is the six teams that can make the College Football Playoff," Dykes said. "If you're not one of those six teams, you lose interest in your team a little bit."
Here's a good place to start a comeback: Make sure stadiums are wired for WiFi. Amazingly, in 2020, many still are not. Perhaps that starts the conversation as to why attendance is down. With more available land and revenue, professional teams can build state-of-the-art stadiums. For the most part, colleges have to renovate. Sometimes that means drilling into stadiums that were built during The Depression to install WiFi.
"This is part of your daily life," Wurthman said of the smartphone. "It sounds terrible. It's oxygen."
And when there is no connectivity, fans can't breathe. BYU has spent what Holmoe says is "seven figures" wiring LaVell Edwards Stadium. "We wanted students to come," he said simply.
That's critical. If you lose that student passion, you most likely lose the connection with the university. Lose that connection, you lose potential donors when those students are older.
Simple solutions may start with winning, but not every team wins. The experience can change. Actually, it must. The conservative SEC finally caved last summer. Its presidents voted to allow schools to serve wine and beer at games. If booze isn't the cure all, it helps numb the pain of losing.
Meanwhile, SEC attendance declined for the fourth consecutive year. Since setting a college football record with an average of 78,630 fans in 2015, SEC attendance is down almost 6,000 per game or 7.5 percent. The SEC average decline per game from 2018 (-1,271) led all FBS conferences. Almost half the league's teams, six, declined by at least 1,700 fans per game.
Some of it makes sense. Ole Miss (-7,752), Mississippi State (1,875) and Arkansas (8,953) all saw steep declines in a season all three changed coaches. Some of it is alarming. As mentioned, Florida's average attendance of 82,328 in 2018 was its lowest since 1990. A three-year decline was halted in 2019. Attendance increased to 84,684.
South Carolina was an outlier. In a 4-8 season, it had the largest SEC attendance increase. Gamecocks fans continue to pack Williams-Brice Stadium win, lose or weather delay. The increase was the nation's 10th-largest in 2019 -- more than 4,300 per game. The reason: The home schedule was definitely better with Alabama, Florida and Clemson coming to town.
"Now it's like, 'Well, I don't have to watch it. I'll pick up the final score or watch the highlights [later],' said Eric Nichols, South Carolina's senior associate AD, marketing. "People are still fired up about big events. … Those still resonate, but the rank and file games are a little harder to grab attention."
Overall, the decline doesn't make sense for the game's most rabidly followed conference until you factor in the typical reason: Sometimes it's just easier to stay home.
"Winning takes care of it, but not all of it," Holmoe said.
The Big Ten routinely has the top three teams in attendance -- Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. But the league declined in 2019 for the fourth time in six years, and you can blame bottom feeders Maryland and Rutgers if you must. Rutgers' attendance (30,082 in 2019) has dropped 40 percent since it joined the league in 2014. Maryland rebounded slightly this season after posting its lowest average attendance since at least 2005 in 2018 (33,594).
The Pac-12's decline is easier to understand. The conference has struggled on the field, appearing in only two of the six CFPs. League attendance has shrunk seven consecutive years. Since a league-record average of almost 58,000 in 2007, the conference's attendance is down almost 20 percent to slightly more than 46,000.
"There is no question that attendance across all sports -- collegiate and pro -- and not just college football is something we are all looking at," the Pac-12 said in a statement provided to CBS Sports. "There are a lot of reasons for the challenges around attendance, including changing fan habits, technology, entertainment options, television options and game times. Our schools spend a lot of time and effort to drive fan attendance and engagement, and the conference supports them and works collaboratively in this effort."
There is that obvious correlation between winning and losing. Only two of the top 10 teams in the final AP Top 25 lost attendance. Even then, it was minuscule at Oklahoma (-4 percent) and Alabama (445 fans per game, -0.04 percent).
No. 10 Minnesota won 11 games for the first time since 1903. No surprise it had the largest overall increase of any team in the top 50 in attendance (8,275 fans per game, 21.9 percent).
There's also no better way to get fired than fan apathy. Of the nine FBS schools that fired coaches in 2019, seven suffered attendance drops. Colorado State (-20.9 percent), Florida State (-20.9 percent) Rutgers (-20.4 percent) and Arkansas (-15.0 percent) were the "leaders." Only Missouri and UNLV gained attendance last season while firing coaches.
Again, no single source speaks for the game. It can't be NCAA president Mark Emmert. The association sets play and practice rules but has nothing to do with revenue distribution or staging a football championship.
AJ Maestas said college administrators tend to be conservative with new ideas because of the "tight financial environment" at public universities. Maestas is the founder and CEO of Navigate, a sports and entertainment research firm located in Chicago.
"It's kind of ironic," he said. "Public universities are supposed to be this safe space for innovation. Politically and professionally that's not true."
That why's the Google summit meant so much. They talked of "roof shot" ideas vs. "moon shots." Roof shots improve businesses by 10 percent. Moon shots can spike a business by a multiple of 10.
"What's the moon shot?" Wurthman asked. "We talked a lot about breaking rules."
College football would settle for breaking some attendance records.
CBS Sports HQ Newsletter
We bring sports news that matters to your inbox, to help you stay informed and get a winning edge.
Thanks for signing up!
Keep an eye on your inbox for the latest sports news.
There was an error processing your subscription.
Handicapper Josh Nagel is 40-22 on college football prop bets and he just revealed his top...
Financial concerns and other potential implications make the eligibility vote far from guaranteed
We move on to the region final round of voting for the best pop song of the '90s
Handicapper Josh Nagel is 40-22 on college football prop bets and he just revealed his top...
The NCAA is relaxing its rules during the pandemic to allow athletes to help raise money
The stacked 2021 recruiting class for Ohio State and Ryan Day continues to build with stars
CBS Sports was with you all day covering National Signing Day as the Class of 2020 wrapped...
Complete analysis, highlights and coverage of the 2020 College Football Playoff National Championship
Live scores, highlights and updates from the Miami (OH) vs. Louisiana football game