How to briefly fix college football attendance, sort of


After years of boom times, college football attendance is slipping. CBS analyzed the NCAA’s annual numbers and found the lowest average attendance since 1997 and the biggest drop since 1983.

Around here is where marketing people tell you the things that might work to get fans off their paid-for couches and back into stadiums. These ideas usually range from cheaper food and better wireless to Prestige Worldwide ponderings about The Future Of Social (Is Now). Once a year, we hear about college ADs who are studying the marketplace and concluding people actually prefer spending less money to more money, plus other takeaways.

Let’s distill all that into one list. Here are five ways to make fans keep coming to games.

  1. Win more games than you used to: This worked for Purdue, which increased by 13,433 fans per game to come within 19,000 of the Big Ten average. This two-part method involves winning almost no games for several years and then suddenly winning some, so it requires some serious investment.
  2. Sell booze and/or actually cheap food while also winning more games: I don’t know how much this helps, but I do know people love the new Falcons stadium because of cheap food. People are going to lose their minds during next year’s Super Bowl over $2 hot dogs at an event where they usually cost $87.99, but unless your college team plans to host a Super Bowl, I’m not sure whether this is relevant.
  3. Make the whole thing feel like sitting at home, watching multiple games on huge screens with blazing internet, and not spending any money (while the team wins more games): Seems like the big one, don’t it?
  4. Shorten games: Shorten games, please.
  5. Fill fans’ living rooms with booze and then relocate those living rooms into the stadium, where the team wins more games than it used to: This might be more trouble than it’s worth.

Try to do the first one, basically. Every year, the NCAA’s list of the biggest attendance risers is full of teams that won more games than they did the year before — Akron, FAU, New Mexico State, Iowa State, Fresno State — and teams who are early in multi-year runs of winning more games than usual, such as Penn State and Washington. The attendance difference between a winning season and losing season is about 18 percent of stadium capacity, per one study, which also found that a winning season the year prior is even more important.

This isn’t future-proof, though, and it doesn’t cover everyone, since somebody has to lose these games your team is winning more of. So the key will be to hang onto a job in college athletics for as long as you can while also knowing when to bail for a job in the NBA, esports, or the NBA’s esports league.

The best college football game environments can’t really be topped by anything else in sports, but long-term trends are long-term trends. Watching a bunch of games at home and a great game in person are both wonderful, but I wonder how much longer it’ll be until downsizing some of these really ambitious stadiums becomes a topic.

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