Crowds up for returning bowls but down overall for sixth straight year

Announced attendance for college football’s 39 returning postseason games increased 2 percent, and the average bowl crowd declined for the sixth straight year, according to analysis conducted by CBS Sports.

Among the returning bowls, 23 games (59 percent) reported higher crowd totals than last season. A year ago, 40 percent of the returning bowls had increases. Five of the six New Year’s Six bowls in 2015-16 listed larger crowds with only the Sugar Bowl reporting a slight decrease.

Still, the average crowd dropped to 43,817 for this bowl season. The average was skewed by the addition of two new bowls that brought the number of postseason games to 41 -- 40 bowls plus the College Football Playoff National Championship. Average attendance at bowls is down 17 percent since 2009-10, when there were 52,961 fans for the final season with 33 bowls.

The data used for the analysis came from box scores of each bowl game. The crowd totals listed by bowls often are paid attendance figures, not the actual number of fans at the game.

The bowl industry is trying to stay relevant as more attention shifts to the CFP. Two bowls host semifinal sites each year, and the national championship gets selected by bids.

“I am concerned about how does a playoff and a bowl system coexist, and how could we make it better if that’s possible or get it right,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “I think it’s difficult on the fans, too, as well as I’m sure the players would agree. We go stay in Dallas for a week to play a (semifinal) game, we come home for five days, and we come out here (to Arizona) for three or four days to play a game. I mean, that’s hard on fans. It’s hard on players.”

Highs and lows from this year’s bowl crowds

Thanks to the Alabama-Michigan State semifinal, the Cotton Bowl had the second-largest crowd this bowl season (82,812). That was a 16-percent increase from Baylor-Michigan State last year.

The Orange Bowl was up 16 percent to 67,615 by getting the Clemson-Oklahoma semifinal. The Orange said it achieved a sellout after failing to do so in four of the previous six games. The Orange was below 68,000 for the fifth time in seven years after averaging 75,673 from 2001-09, but the recent renovation at Sun Life Stadium reduced the capacity to slightly more than 65,000. 

Even without the SEC or Big 12 champion in its game, the Sugar Bowl averaged 72,117 for Ole Miss-Oklahoma State. That’s down only 3 percent from Alabama-Ohio State in a national semifinal last season. Three years ago for Florida-Louisville, the Sugar had its smallest crowd since 1939.

The Rose Bowl was the complete opposite of the Sugar Bowl and is usually better off with a Big Ten vs. Pac-12 matchup. A year after hosting a Florida State-Oregon semifinal, it was up 3 percent for Iowa-Stanford.

The Fiesta Bowl got a 6-percent spike for Ohio State-Notre Dame after having Boise State-Arizona a year ago. This year’s game (71,123) was the largest since Boise State-TCU in 2010.

The Peach Bowl snapped a streak of three straight years under 69,000 by drawing 71,007 for Florida State-Houston. Attendance was up 8 percent for a game that averaged 73,359 from 2006-11.

The biggest winner this bowl season was easily the Birmingham Bowl, which got to pick in-state Auburn and a hot Memphis team. Auburn-Memphis drew 59,430, up from 30,083 for Florida-East Carolina last year. The Birmingham Bowl finished 12th in attendance, ahead of more prominent SEC bowls such as the Gator, Outback and Music City.

The biggest decline went to the St. Petersburg Bowl, which announced 14,652 for Connecticut-Marshall. That was down 45 percent from Central Florida-NC State last year.

The Citrus Bowl enjoyed 63,113 for Michigan-Florida, the bowl’s largest crowd since -- wait for it -- Michigan-Florida in 2008. If only the Gators and Wolverines could play in Orlando every year. This was a rare year when the Citrus was back over 60,000 fans.

The good news for the Outback Bowl: Its announced crowd of 53,202 was up 21 percent from Auburn-Wisconsin last year. The bad news: It has gone five straight years under 55,000 after previously surpassing that mark in 10 of 11 seasons.

Given their small fan bases, Miami-Washington State was bound to be a poorly attended Sun Bowl. The crowd of 41,180 was the game's smallest since North Carolina-Texas in 1982.

Remember when the Holiday Bowl was a fairly prominent game? It averaged 62,114 from 2001-09. This year, USC-Wisconsin drew 48,329. The Trojans made a repeat appearance to help produce the Holiday's smallest crowd since Hawaii-Illinois in 1992.

Note to bowl organizers: Take a page out of the Las Vegas Bowl’s playbook and schedule more discontinued rivalry games. The Holy War (Utah-BYU) drew 42,213, up 28 percent from Utah-Colorado State last year. It was the largest Las Vegas Bowl crowd since 2006.

The GoDaddy Bowl needs new parents after Bowling Green-Georgia Southern produced 28,656, the smallest crowd in the game’s 17-year history. Other bowls this season with new lows in their history: St. Petersburg, Heart of Dallas and Poinsettia.

Virginia Tech-Tulsa, a wildly entreating game, was the lowest attended Independence Bowl since Southern Miss-UTEP in 1988. Just 31,289 fans were announced for Frank Beamer’s final game. When Beamer coached his first bowl game at the Independence in 1993, an announced crowd of 33,819 watched the Hokies beat Indiana in one of 20 bowl games that season. Time flies when you double the size of the postseason 22 years later.

2015-16 College Football Bowl Game Attendance
Bowl Matchup Attendance Change from 2014-15
Rose Iowa-Stanford 94,268 +3%~
Cotton (Semifinal) Alabama-Michigan State 82,812 +16%^
National Championship Clemson-Alabama 75,765 -12%
Sugar Ole Miss-Oklahoma State 72,117 -3%~
Texas LSU-Texas Tech 71,307 Less than +1%
Fiesta Ohio State-Notre Dame 71,123 +6%
Peach Houston-Florida State 71,007 +8%
Orange (Semifinal) Clemson-Oklahoma 67,615 +16%^
Alamo TCU-Oregon 64,569 +7%
Citrus Michigan-Florida 63,113 +30%
Liberty Arkansas-Kansas State 61,136 +19%
Birmingham Auburn-Memphis 59,430 +98%
Gator Georgia-Penn State 58,212 +4%
Outback Tennessee-Northwestern 53,202 +21%
Music City Texas A&M-Louisville 50,478 -16%
Holiday USC-Wisconsin 48,329 -13%
Belk Mississippi State-NC State 46,423 +2%
Las Vegas Utah-BYU 42,213 +28%
Sun Miami-Washington State 41,180 -14%
Russell Athletic Baylor-North Carolina 40,418 +1%
Cactus Arizona State-West Virginia 39,321 +11%
Armed Forces Cal-Air Force 38,915 +3%
Pinstripe Duke-Indiana 37,218 -24%
Military Navy-Pittsburgh 36,352 +6%
Quick Lane Minnesota-Central Michigan 34,217 +43%
Foster Farms Nebraska-UCLA 33,527 -4%
New Orleans Arkansas State-Louisiana Tech 32,847 -3%
Independence Virginia Tech-Tulsa 31,289 -18%
New Mexico Arizona-New Mexico 30,289 +5%
GoDaddy Bowling Green-Georgia Southern 28,656 -22%
Boca Raton Temple-Toledo 25,908 -12%
Hawaii Cincinnati-San Diego State 22,793 -10%
Miami Beach South Florida-Western Kentucky 21,712 +5%
Poinsettia Boise State-Northern Illinois 21,501 -35%
Camellia Ohio-Appalachian State 21,395 +6%
Arizona* Colorado State-Nevada 20,425 --
Heart of Dallas Washington-Southern Miss 20,229 -35%
Potato Akron-Utah State 18,876 +4%
Cure* San Jose State-Georgia State 18,536 --
St. Petersburg Connecticut-Marshall 14,652 -45%
Bahamas Middle Tennessee-Western Michigan 13,123 -4%

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Michigan and Florida sold out the Citrus Bowl on New Year's Day. (USATSI)
Michigan and Florida sold out the Citrus Bowl on New Year's Day. (USATSI)
CBS Sports Senior Writer

Jon Solomon is CBS Sports's national college football writer. A former Alabama resident, he now lives in Maryland and also writes extensively on NCAA topics. Jon previously worked at The Birmingham News,... Full Bio

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