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Friday Water Cooler: Football Attendance

If you look at the small picture, it probably looks like it's going to be a banner year for football attendance across all of the nation.

In FBS, five schools (Michigan, Ohio State, Texas, Penn State, and Alabama) average more than 100,000 fans thronging in their stadiums, and with a bunch of rivalry games yet to go, it looks like there might be more than ten teams that average more than 90,000 fans per game.

And in FCS, too, five teams (Appalachian State, Montana, James Madison, Jackson State, and Georgia Southern) are averaging more than 20,000 fans a game.  That's already up from last year, too, where James Madison and Georgia Southern have rejoined the 20,000 club this year.

Yet these individual attendance wins obscure a larger picture.

For every Michigan or Appalachian State, there is another side of the coin - a college football program that is seeing attendance diminish year to year.  And there are plenty of reasons for this decline.


Recently, I had the honor of being able to interview Stephen Koreivo over the phone, who is the author of the book Tales from the Tailgate, a tome of Mr. Koreivo's quest to see all 124 FBS teams in person, at the stadium.

It turns out that when he's not going to games like Rutgers/Navy (his destination this weekend), he's going to games like Yale/Lehigh, as he details on his website.  (He's also a Lehigh season ticket holder.)

He's also a Penn State season ticket holder, too, and he's traveled to a lot of college football games all across the nation.

Lately, though, he's started to see some empty seats in Beaver Stadium.

"Up at Penn State, you're starting to see thousands of tickets available for every game," he said.  "and you see a lot of empty seats out there that you never saw before."

And attendance numbers provided by the NCAA bear this out.  While there's still plenty of season to go, this years average of 100,860 fans per game is significantly off of last year's average: 104,234 fans.  When you expect to see games at Beaver Stadium, and instead the stands are 94% full, it makes a difference.

Another place that has seen some attendance dropoff?  Delaware, according to an article in the Delaware Journal-Online:

Last year, Delaware's seven regular-season home games averaged 20,684 in paid attendance, which ranked fourth in the FCS. Delaware is the only FCS school to average more than 20,000 fans in the regular season each of the last 12 years. 
That streak could end this year. Delaware has averaged 18,050 after four home games, which ranks 12th. Delaware has two remaining home games that should draw large crowds -- Parents Day this Saturday against Massachusetts and Homecoming Nov. 12 against Richmond.

Both Penn State and Delaware share some interesting similarities.

Both recently implemented new policies on their season ticket holders - asking them to fork over more money for the same season tickets they get every year.

The new [Penn State] pricing guideline begins with a $100 contribution per year for each ticket, for seating primarily around the end zones.  There are $400 and $600 seats from the 10-yard lines to the 50. For a much smaller section at midfield, there is a $2,000 charge for seats with backs.  
A fan with four seats near midfield who previously had been paying $400 in Nittany Lion Club dues will now see that price jump to $2,400.
And at Delaware:
The university introduced an additional fee on season-ticket purchases this year, with the money going toward the UD Athletic Fund. It's a common practice at Football Bowl Subdivision and highly competitive FCS schools, such as Delaware, to have such an attachment on ticket purchases.

Partly as a result, Delaware sold less than 8,000 season tickets, well below last year's 9,700. It sold a school-record 11,302 in 2008.  
Athletic director Bernard Muir suggested in September it's been a fair tradeoff because UDAF contributions increased by $1.53 million during the 2010-11 fiscal year, and "we've developed a relationship with a lot of people we didn't know before."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, both venues are seeing fewer season ticket renewals - but, perhaps more surprisingly, they're also seeing a dropoff in attendance.

Granted, few at Lehigh are going to cry for the Blue Hens and Nittany Lions losing some fans.  Even with the newly-empty seats, Delaware averages more than 10,000 fans per game than Lehigh.

But there's also ample evidence that these fans may just sit at home rather than go to any games at all.

"Going out to see a college game in person is not that special anymore, not in this high-tech era when you can see whatever you want to see right on your cellphone," one person told me, echoing the opinion of other fans I've talked to. "Back in the old days, there were two or three games on TV on a normal college Saturday. Now our TV listings show about 25 games available every Saturday and that’s not including those with Direct TV and other options."

In ways, the explosion of cable TV, live internet streaming, and DirecTV is a great thing for college football fans - meaning Saturdays are never free of the ability to watch games.  (It also allows me to follow and watch games I cannot see in person.)

But when it comes to attendance, too many people would rather just open a beer at watch it all on TV rather than smell the tailgate food and breathe the atmosphere of a real game.

(Folks have also told me that it's actually true of high school sports, too.  Rather than see the alma mater play football, they'd rather just stay home.)

****

To be fair, Penn State's problems are not totally the same as Delaware's.

Mr. Koreivo thought that a home schedule filled with "Eastern Michigan's and Indiana State's", as he put it, didn't create a lot of interest for Nittany Lion fans.  The games are, for the most part, guaranteed wins, there only to secure victories for bowl eligibility.

He also thought that if the FBS ever adopted any playoff system, like the FCS does, you'd get more interesting games during the regular season, which would pique interest and boost attendance.

But we did spend a lot of time talking about how great the atmosphere is at FCS games, such as the gameday atmosphere at a Delaware or Lehigh.

Not only is it reasonably priced - you can get tickets for $12 apiece at Lehigh - you can generally get a seat right up close to the action, at a level of involvement that is unthinkable at Beaver Stadium or Lincoln Financial Field.

But despite all these advantages, attendance still has dropped significantly at Lehigh in particular.

In 2004, I attended a Lehigh/Colgate game that had an announced attendance of 12,284 people.  Murray Goodman that day had an energy that was a lot of fun - a large, local, partisan crowd, a group of hundreds of students in the "Hawks' Nest", and a student tailgate section that was having a time they won't forget.

Since then, I have not seen any non-Rivalry football crowd approach that number - and each year, the number is dwindling.

Why is that?

It could be an echo of what is also being reported at Delaware, too: the making of football games into a "no-fun zone".

Matt Delaney never wanted himself and his trumpet to become central figures in the growing rift between the University of Delaware and some football fans. 
When he was tooting his horn in Section J at Delaware Stadium -- or at NCAA title games in Chattanooga, Tenn., or Frisco, Texas -- it was about bringing attention to the Blue Hens. 
"I did everything I could to try to get our section and the stands excited for the ballgame and to support our ballclub," he said. 
But when Delaney, 31 and a 2003 Delaware graduate, did that Saturday night, it set off a chain of events that riled Blue Hens rooters and led to a commotion involving fans and UD police. 
The incident, some fans say, exemplifies how UD football games in recent years have become less appealing as administrators have made the experience more expensive and less fun. 
In the third quarter of Delaware's 21-0 win over William & Mary, Delaney was escorted down the stairs from his row Q seat in Section J of the East grandstand after playing his trumpet, as he's done several times each game the last 15 years. 
Other fans sitting in the area stood and booed Contemporary Services Corp. (CSC) security personnel and UD police officials as Delaney was led out. 
Underneath the stands, he was handcuffed and taken to UD police headquarters. He was not charged, but many fans, angry over Delaney's removal, left their seats in protest, leading to confrontations between fans and police underneath the stands.

Now, Lehigh has not gone as far as arresting trumpet-wielding fans at Lehigh games - indeed, the Marching 97 and members of the alumni band have been allowed to toot their horns in the stands since forever.

But over the years policies have been put into place that has made the tailgating experience, especially among students, more of a hassle than a celebration.

Once upon a time, fraternities and student boosters could have tailgates in the North Lot before games.  While folks left the tailgates for kickoff, they'd usually come back to the tailgate (sometimes at halftime) and eat and have a good time before packing up and heading back to campus.

Last year, though, a policy was enacted that said that "they have to breakdown and carry their stuff away before kickoff,"  one fan told me.  "It's too much of a hassle to do that and go back over the Mountain."

There have been other, less tailgating-friendly policies implemented as well over the years, like making all games a 12:30 kickoff, and instituting Breathalyzer tests on the buses going from main campus to Murray Goodman to games.

Specifically, the combination of the "pack up before kickoff" and the 12:30 kickoff times have seriously dented what once was a more tailgate-friendly experience - that attracted a lot of different fans, from the Lehigh Valley, sure, but also from opposing schools.

For families, too, "Kids' Day" meant a moon bounce for the kids, and other fun, kid-friendly activities involving Clutch, the Mountain Hawk.  But this year, on kid's day, the moon bounce was nowhere to be found.

It's not just one thing.  But too often, this accumulation of little things means too many potentially interested fans instead stay at home - and watch the game on TV.

It seems to me that there are some simple things that could be done to boost attendance at games that wouldn't also open the University to lawsuits.

Relaxing the tailgating rule, while still implementing zero tolerance on drunken tomfoolery.

Some new, interesting promotions and giveaways, perhaps - like an Android Tablet giveaway, as an example - to encourage folks to see at least one game.

A reinstatement of the kid's activities, and more involvement with Clutch.

And maybe something even more different - like a game with a noon kickoff, followed by a big-time outdoor concert at Murray Goodman - could also bring in a new fans to the Lehigh football experience.

That's the sort of things that maybe could be tried if Lehigh fans want to see a repeat of the days of 10,000 fans attending a Lehigh game that doesn't involve Lafayette.

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