The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

College football attendance sees second-largest decline in history

Iowa students run to their seats before an NCAA college football game against Wyoming in September. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

The NFL saw attendance drop 3 percent this past season, but that decline can be explained in great part by two teams that recently relocated to the Los Angeles area: the Rams, who saw their attendance fall from 83,164 per game at the cavernous L.A. Coliseum in 2016 to 63,392 per game this past season, and the Chargers, who played last season in a stadium that seats only 27,000 people after playing for decades in a San Diego stadium with a capacity of around 70,000.

Of that 3 percent total decline in year-over-year NFL attendance, 77 percent can be attributed to those two teams.

College football has no such excuse, and the NCAA team that shares the Coliseum with the Rams — USC — saw its attendance rise by 4,224 per game in 2017.  Yet according to numbers recently released by the NCAA, attendance at games played by FBS teams as a whole also dropped 3 percent in 2017, from 43,612 in 2016 to 42,203 this past season. As told by Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports, it’s college football’s largest per-game attendance drop in 34 years and second-largest decrease ever, behind only 1982-83. For the first time in history, Dodd notes, college football attendance has now declined in four straight years. Since 2008, when a record 46,971 watched live college football games on average, attendance has declined 10.1 percent.

The reasons are varied and have been discussed at length in recent years. Better television quality and presentation of the games by the TV networks have made staying at home or watching at a sports bar a much more enticing proposition; why would you pay top dollar to fight traffic and crowds to watch a game out in the elements when you could simply stay home and have a much better view at a much lower price? Other observers point to today’s students, fewer of whom see going to football games as an important element of college life.

“The simple exercise of going to a sporting event has changed significantly, especially for millennials,” Patrick Chun, then athletic director at Florida Atlantic, told Bloomberg in January 2017. “I hope it’s cyclical, but there’s not really an answer out there right now.”

The Owls actually were one of the FBS teams to buck the national trend in 2017, nearly doubling their average attendance from 10,073 to 18,948 thanks in part to an 11-3 season engineered by first-year coach Lane Kiffin. It was the third-largest increase in per-game attendance in the country behind Purdue (13,433) and Akron (9,232).

Fewer people seem to be watching college football, both at stadiums and at home. As examined by Sports Business Daily’s Austin Karp, the sport’s TV ratings declined this past regular season on ABC (down 18 percent), CBS (down 10 percent), ESPN (down 6 percent) and NBC (down 3 percent). Only Fox (up 23 percent) and Fox Sports 1 (up 4 percent) showed increases among the major networks, and that was because they were in their first year of a new deal with the Big Ten. (Likewise, ABC’s and ESPN’s ratings declines can be explained in part by having fewer marquee Big Ten games under the conference’s new TV deals).

The NFL’s TV ratings, meanwhile, declined 9.7 percent this past season.

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