Seven College Football Playoff bowls post record-low attendance total in 2019 season
Midway through the contract, the seven CFP bowls dipped to a combined low this season
Attendance for the seven games run by the College Football Playoff dropped to an all-time low this postseason, halfway through the CFP's initial contract that created the New Year's Six games and the CFP National Championship. The attendance at those seven games were down a cumulative 42,500 fans or 8 percent from a playoff-era high in 2015.
That's an average decline of 6,069 fans per game across the Rose Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, Orange Bowl, Peach Bowl, Sugar Bowl and CFP National Championship. A sellout crowd of 76,885 Monday watched LSU defeat Clemson at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in the title game. That brought the CFP attendance total to 492,220, down 3 percent from the previous season.
For the fourth consecutive year, four of the seven CFP games decreased in attendance from the previous season.
"It's exactly what Nick Saban has been saying," said Wright Waters, outgoing Football Bowl Association executive director. "We've created a group of schools that their goal is to be in the playoff."
The biggest declines this season came in the Cotton Bowl and Sugar Bowl, each of which featured a non-traditional team and was not a semifinal game.
Georgia and Baylor drew only 55,211 in the Jan. 1 Sugar Bowl. That was down 16,238 from the previous year's game, another non-semifinal when Texas beat Georgia. The Georgia-Baylor game was the eighth-lowest attended Sugar Bowl since it started in 1935. Three of the lowest-attended Sugar Bowls since the early days of the game in 1939 have come since 2013. Baylor, which lost to Georgia 26-14, was coming off a Big 12 Championship loss to Oklahoma. A win in that game could have sent the Bears to the CFP.
Memphis, the Group of Five automatic qualifier, was in a major bowl for the first time in the Cotton Bowl. Its game against Penn State drew only 54,828 fans in AT&T Stadium, the smallest Cotton Bowl crowd in 31 years. That's a drop of approximately 17,000 from the previous year's Cotton Bowl, which drew 72,183 for a CFP semifinal matchup between Clemson and Notre Dame.
CFP executive director Bill Hancock said the overall decline was not a concern.
"This is all best viewed in a game-by-game perspective," Hancock told CBS Sports. "... Digging deeper into the game-by-game [attendance], the Sugar Bowl had a school with very small alumni base [Baylor] and Georgia had been to the Sugar Bowl last year."
The numbers were compiled by the FBA. Overall bowl attendance for bowls was up 1.64 percent to 1,666,000 fans.
"Maybe not earth shattering, but I'd rather be up 1.64 than down 1.64," Waters said. "... The good news is, two years in a row, we're up in numbers. I don't know how many live events can say that."
This is the third year that an all-time high 39 bowls have been played. Next year, the total goes up to 42 with the addition of three more games (Los Angeles Bowl, Myrtle Beach Bowl, Fenway Bowl).
Overall attendance for the seven CFP games has increased only once year-over-year since a record 534,707 fans saw the major bowl games in 2015. That season, almost 83,000 fans watched Alabama beat Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl semifinal. Compare that to this year when attendance decreased almost 34 percent from that number for Memphis and Penn State.
Clearly, there is a drop off in interest in some major bowls below the semifinals. Officials at the so-called "access bowls" subject to taking the Group of Five qualifier -- Fiesta Bowl, Cotton Bowl and Peach Bowl -- sometimes quietly lament having to take those teams from smaller conferences because of decreased interest in the game and lessened ticket demand.
Those smaller fan bases sometimes are compelled to travel long distances to see their teams play in a rare major bowl. Those Group of Five qualifiers in the CFP era have been Boise State, Houston, Western Michigan, UCF (twice) and Memphis. The cumulative attendance for those access bowls dropped an average of 10 percent from the previous year in the CFP era when they contained Group of Five teams. The aforementioned three bowls have each hosted two games featuring a Group of Five qualifier.
The CFP began in 2014. Bowls bid on being part of the New Year's Six rotation. Cities bid separately on the national championship game. Twice in six years (Tampa, 2016 season; Santa Clara, 2018 season) that championship site has not been part of the New Year's Six. The other four years, existing New Year's Six bowls have "double-hosted" two postseason games. That includes this season when New Orleans hosted Monday's title game 12 days after the traditional Sugar Bowl.
The CFP has six years remaining in its current contract, lasting through the 2025 season.
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