At Big 10 media days last week, Northwestern Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald was asked about the problem of declining attendance in college football. Fitzgerald simply held up his cell phone and went on to explain that “young” fans would rather play with their phones than “experience” college football. Essentially he went on to blame cell phones for the declining number of fans in the seats at Ryan Stadium.
There’s a ton of reasons for the drop-off in college football attendance (and practically every other sport) and cellphones are at the bottom of that list.
If Fitzgerald was being totally honest, he would have started the blame game with the proliferation of televised games. Back in the 1970s and 80s, televised college football consisted of basically two or three games of the week.
One of those games was an early 12 noon regional game, usually featuring a top 20 ranked team. The other was a national game of the week.
As cable became more prevalent and channels were begging for content, it advanced to the point where now fans have the option to view a dozen or more games in noon, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. time slots. Add Thursday and Friday games into the mix, the Internet channel ESPN 3, and conference networks and practically every division one game is available somewhere on television for free.
As a Florida State fan, I can honestly say with the exception of three or four games that were only available on a pay-per-view channel, every Seminoles game in the last decade has been available on free television or ESPN 3.
But Fitzgerald did not mention the proliferation of televised games as a major factor. And why would he? In 2018, the Big 1G shelled out roughly $37 million to each team. That money mostly came from television revenues. The same year the SEC handed out $43.4 million per team, the Big 12 roughly $34 million per team and the ACC roughly $30 million per team. It’s easy to see why Fitzgerald didn’t mention television as a culprit, without it I doubt he would be hauling down $3.3 million per season in salary.
In addition to the number of games available on television, let’s examine the actual game-watching experience. No one is viewing the Florida-Florida State game on a 27 inch RCA black and white anymore. Sixty inch plasma screens featuring high definition and surround sound makes watching football games a lot more enjoyable then the third deck of a 75,000-seat stadium.
Cost of attendance is also a major factor.
Let’s go back to FSU as an example. Let’s say you live more than three or four hours from Tallahassee and want to attend the Louisville game on Sept. 21.
You might as well plan on driving up Friday because, in order to book a hotel room, you will be required to stay two nights on a home football game weekend. Let’s say you need two rooms because the kids want to go to.
Plan on spending around $400 for the two rooms in an economy hotel and double that for a decent one. Game tickets will run $50 each for something on the 20-yard line. Add the price of concessions, parking and food for the weekend and a family of four can be spending anywhere from $600 to $1200 to cheer on the Seminoles.
Want season tickets or want to watch your team on the road? That can be more expensive. Many schools require fans to make a substantial “donation” to the athletic booster club in order to purchase season tickets or to have access to the team’s allotment of road game tickets. The closer your season tickets are to the 50-yard line, the bigger that required donation will be.
Scheduling is also a factor. For years, Power 5 schools wanted/needed to play seven home games to maximize revenue. That, along with a desire to pile up wins, often results in schools scheduling “pay to pay” games to lesser opponents that need the big pay day that comes with agreeing to play a Power 5 opponent on the road.
Does any casual Alabama fan really want to drive to Tuscaloosa to watch the Tide pound New Mexico State or Western Carolina University by 50 points?
The Gators will host suspenseful games against Tennessee-Martin and Towson State this season; while I’m sure the FSU faithful are eagerly awaiting those key matchups with Louisiana-Monroe and Alabama State.
Other than a blind desire to support your team, why would anyone want to spend a ton of money, go through the travel hassles, fight traffic and crowds to witness a 56-7 game when they could have watched it for free from the comfort of their living room?
There are many legitimate reasons why attendance at college football games is dropping, young fans addicted to their cell phones is hardly at the top of the list.