College Football: Interest Waning Or On The Rise?
When attendance numbers for college football took yet another drop in 2018, some observers believed it continued to signal an end to the massive interest in the sport. The drop was the seventh in the last eight years for the college game, which saw average attendance for FBS schools dip to 41,856 per contest – the lowest it has been since 1996. That followed 2017 numbers, which included the largest per-game drop (1,409) since 1982.
The decreases weren’t just among non-Power 5 schools, either. In fact, the top five schools in attendance drops in 2017 were USC, Ohio State, South Carolina, Florida and Virginia Tech. While those schools weren’t enjoying their best seasons, it points out that the problem exists across the board.
The numbers are buttressed by some depressing visuals – swaths of empty seats for many games, especially those played on weeknights as well as lower tier bowls, to the point that producers of such contests now shy away from the panoramic shots that highlight that negative.
The reasons for the drop are many, including cost of attendance, unwillingness to endure anything but perfect weather conditions, and the convenience for watching from home or a bar that has perfect sightlines, quick food and drink service as well as immediately available restroom facilities and unclogged Wi-Fi.
Colleges and universities across the country are brainstorming and implementing ways to combat the attendance decline, and while some of those could have a positive effect, it doesn’t change a basic paradigm shift – many fans, especially younger ones, simply consume games differently, and being in the stands to experience it firsthand doesn’t matter to them. That’s neither right nor wrong. It just is.
However, the bigger question should be: Does it matter?
Numbers recently released by the National Football Foundation (NFF) shows that while in-person attendance may be dropping, presence in front of screens to take in the action, ranging from cellphones to 80-inch big screens, is on the rise.
NFF President and CEO Steve Hatchell, as might be expected, highlighted the growth in viewership.
“In an increasingly fragmented world, especially in the media markets, college football remains one of the most powerful platforms for reaching a mass audience in real time,” Hatchell said. “Whether you’re one of the 47 million attending a football game or the 163 million watching on television, college football creates a powerful vehicle with those unique moments that are quickly disappearing in today’s culture.”
Rather than selling the power of being there, Hatchell and his group, as well as many college administrators, are pushing the connectivity option. While schools obviously want fans in the stands, which brings in more revenue via ticket sales, concessions, parking and the like, they know that the bigger money continues to lie in rights fees paid to broadcast the games.
While rights fees are locked in with the Power 5 conferences for the next few years (the Big 12 runs until 2025), there’s no doubt that a precipitous decline in viewership would lead those rights holders to explore options to lessen their payouts in future seasons before their existing agreements expire. And without question, dropping viewership would also lead to negotiations in that direction the next time contracts come up for grabs. However, that isn’t happening.
The Big 12, for example, had $313 million in revenue for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2016. That amount leaped to $371 million the next year, and was right at $374 million for the just-reported 2018 fiscal year. That, in turn, spurred payouts to conference teams this year to $38.8 million per school, up more than $2 million from last season.
Of course, year-to-year numbers can vary based on performance. For example, the Big 12 got a boost this past season with Oklahoma in the CFP and Texas in the Sugar Bowl, thus adding several million to the pool for payouts. More teams advancing further in the NCAA Basketball Tournament also boost revenues to conferences, albeit less than equivalent football success. However, there’s no sign of any decline in payouts on the horizon, even with numbers in the stadium dipping slightly. That’s because the appetite to lock up football broadcasts or streaming continues. Last year, 24 “major” outlets, not including the many regional networks or school-produced and -owned entities, had college football available. The top 10 outlets in that group showed 366 games in 2018, pulling in 1.8 million viewers per game and reaching more than 163 million unique viewers.
Even the bowl games, often maligned for being played in front of thousands of vacant seats, showed a modest increase. The 39 FBS bowl games, including the national championship contest, yielded an increase of 507 fans per game, while eight bowl games saw an attendance uptick of more than 3,000 attendees.
Overall, despite the scare headlines put out by some outlets, college football isn’t facing a crisis of attendance. Without question, in-person attendance remains a goal for all, but engagement in any form is becoming more important, especially as more ways are figured out to monetize the watching of games on line. Attendance matters, but viewership will continue to increase in importance as the next round of rights negotiations approaches.
Some additional items from the NFF of WVU/Big 12 interest:
Troy, the former home of new WVU head coach Neal Brown, set a single-season attendance record for the third consecutive year in 2018, averaging 24,527 fans during its six home games. The home opener between Troy and Boise State drew a record crowd of 29,612, and the season saw a record 147,160 fans attend games at Veterans Memorial Stadium.
ESPN produced one of its top-three regular season Friday games ever, dating back to 1993, on Nov. 23 with the Oklahoma at West Virginia game, delivering a total live audience of 5,630,000 viewers and growing ESPN’s audience year-over-year for the same window by 160 percent.
ABC’s presentation of the Big 12 Championship between Oklahoma and Texas delivered a total live audience of 10,299,000 viewers, a top four most-watched game of the season.
ESPN’s Digital Platforms produced more than 16.5 billion minutes of viewing time during the regular season on Saturdays this year, up 15 percent over the previous year.