If college football is so popular, where are the fans?

Attendance at bowl games is declining; schools should find out why.

John Bazemore/AP
Alabama defensive lineman Jonathan Allen (93) runs after recovering a fumble as Washington wide receiver Aaron Fuller (12) defends during a NCAA college football playoff game in Atlanta Dec. 31. Alabama won and will play Clemson for the national championship Jan. 9.

Fans in the stands at the Allstate Sugar Bowl in New Orleans Jan. 2 might have wondered where everybody went.

The announced crowd of 54,077 fell far short of the seating capacity of the cavernous Mercedes-Benz Superdome, which holds more than 76,000. Vast swaths of seats sat empty. The attendance figure was the lowest for the Sugar Bowl since 1939.

But it was hardly alone. The Camping World Independence Bowl, held each year in Shreveport, La., brought just under 29,000 fans through its turnstiles, its worst attendance since 1988. The Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic in Arlington, Texas, drew a respectable 59,615, but that was the lowest number since 1998. The TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., counted 43,102 occupied seats, the fewest for that event since 1958.

And it wasn’t just bowl games. For the sixth consecutive season attendance at regular season major college football games dropped as well, down about 7 percent since its peak in 2008, according to an analysis by CBS Sports.

Declining interest in college football would come as a big surprise to fans of the University of Alabama and Clemson University, whose teams will clash in a sold-out, nationally televised championship game Jan. 9. But the national championship playoffs themselves, which involve only three of the more than 40 bowl games played from mid-December into January (two semifinal games and a championship game), may be part of the problem: They turn the other bowl games into essentially meaningless exhibitions, except to their most ardent fans.

Many traditional football powerhouse schools have seen no decline in attendance. But other teams in major conferences have. Attendance at University of Missouri games was down 20 percent compared with 2015, for example; at Minnesota, it was down 16 percent; and at Kentucky and Stanford 12 percent.

What’s happening? It could be the Revenge of the Couch Potato: Large-screen, high-definition TVs mean games can been seen with more comfort and greater clarity from a living room sofa than a seat in the stands.

Or have colleges become slaves to the TV networks? To please schedulers games start as early as 11 a.m. or may be played on a weeknight, hardly convenient to attend in person. Could the problem be price gouging? High ticket prices can start fans wondering if soaking in the pageantry at their local ivy-covered stadium is worth the cost.

And that doesn’t include other possible turnoffs, such as the persistent parade of scandals resulting from misbehavior by players off the field, or concerns about players diagnosed with concussions or who incur other serious injuries while playing.

A slow but steady slippage in live attendance doesn’t mean a precipitous slide is ahead for college football. Lucrative television broadcast contracts are a much more important source of revenue; strong TV ratings, which haven’t seen a similar decline, not ticket sales drive those contracts.

But fewer fans interested in attending games in person ought to worry universities. Stands are usually filled by current students and the most loyal and passionate alumni, groups who are expected to support the institution financially now and in the future.

Finding out why they’re staying home – and addressing those problems – would be in the best interest of one of America’s favorite sports.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.