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Marc Daniels: CFB Attendance Is Down But Does It Mean Fewer Fans?

2022 CFP National Championship - Georgia v Alabama

Photo: Getty Images

February 25, 2022 8:30 a.m.

For the seventh consecutive season attendance is down in college football. The average attendance for games slipped below 40,000 and even the SEC saw its numbers fall. This is not just a sign of life coming out of a pandemic, but it's a sign of how fans consume their sport.

CBS Sports Dennis Dodd (@dennisdoddcbs) wrote about the declining numbers and many in the sport are concerned because fewer and fewer people are coming to the stadium.

But does this mean there are fewer fans in college football? Maybe. But also, there is a thought that college football fans are consuming their sport differently than fans in the past 50 years.

The old college way used to be that you got up on game day and made the trek to the stadium hours before kickoff to meet up with friends and family and tailgate for hours. Or many would pack up the car on a Friday and drive for hours and stay in hotels and eat out and shop near campus to fuel the local economy of the college town. It became a three day journey and you did it six times a season.

But then television domination happened. Florida Gator fans might remember there was a time when their team was on the tube maybe 2-3 games a season. Now, every game is available and now you can watch a 72-inch television screen with a clear picture that offers non-stop replay, a bathroom with no line and access to food in seconds, not minutes and no parking fee, or jacked up hotel room bill and long traffic congestion getting out of the small town.

Fans started adding up the cost of a football weekend or a home game and compared it to the at-home experience and started to realize they could text their friends during the game to celebrate or complain.

Fewer students attend college football games than ever before. They now live in a world dominated by their iPhone that is filled with streaming options. They have no patience for a four-hour game, four-minute TV timeouts and poor wi-fi inside the stadium. 

So what's the fix? Or maybe there is no fix but other approaches to capture the fan.

Schools want as many people on-campus and buying tickets as possible. Ticket revenue is important and a money stream schools want to maximize but the future college football stadium will, and should be, smaller. UCF will eventually add seats but their focus is on premium seating because those tickets sell at a higher price and likely are to fans who a school has a better chance of turning into a donor. The future Florida Field will, and should be, smaller with more luxury boxes.

What would make fans want to go to games as opposed to the in-home viewing experience? That's the secret formula many schools are trying to figure out. I think that answer varies from what part of the country you are in and the history of a program. Michigan will likely not have a problem attracting fans any time soon but there are some schools that face real challenges.

Fans want better wifi. Don't laugh. Survey after survey across the country show better wifi as one of the biggest, if not the most important, item fans want inside stadiums. Great wifi inside a stadium is expensive. Some schools have spent, or committed, millions to upgrade. A better home schedule is something fans want but that is a challenge in a sport that schedules non-conference games a decade out. Pre-game concerts, kid zones, access to other campus sports facilities are among things schools offer to get fans to come to campus for games.

But the future has arrived and schools now must find ways to engage their fans 24/7 whether they are at your games or not. That is why things like NFTs and gaming are starting to flood the market.

NFTs(think of a digital collectible) are an entry point for schools to engage with fans and provide access to special events, player interaction and contesting that connects the school and fan far beyond game day. And then there is the mother-of-all connections, gambling.

Do not laugh, but every conference and every school is watching or already partnering with someone in the gambling industry. The money is too good to avoid and it's inevitable. Last year, LSU was the first SEC school to partner with a gambling company in Caesars Entertainment. The deal is said to be worth high-seven and possibly eight figures to the school. But the future is filled with fan engagement opportunities. 

People are gambling on sports, as they have for decades. But now it's accepted and the day is coming where you can sit at home or even inside the stadium and have the ability of wagering on the game with your favorite team- with your school making money on this application. You will be able to wager whether they win, how many yards the quarterback will throw for or whether the next play will be a run or a pass. If you think this is crazy, ask a Florida fan in 1980 if they thought the day would come that every game would be on TV. That year three Gator games were on television, none of the first seven.

Winning will always attract fans because people love being part of the party. Some schools are excellent at putting on a game day experience that has fans wanting to come back but now schools must work everyday to stay engaged with their fans for more than the six or seven days they have a home football game.

Thirty years from now, schools will still announce their attendance for a game. But in 2052, schools will also know how much money they are making on a game day and every day they engage with their fans on things other than a mobile ticket to get inside the stadium.

The SEC might have 10,000 fewer fans per game in 2052, but by then, schools will be making money on so many more things than tickets, it may not matter how many people are in the stands...

Final thought: In 1980, Florida field had a capacity of 62,800. Today, capacity is listed at 88,548.

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