The College Football Attendance Problem

On Monday, I wrote about declining student attendance at college football games, and the apparently misguided efforts of colleges to reverse that trend. I received a few emails and tweets in response, so I thought I would address some of the issues and concerns raised.

The main one that I heard was pretty simple: Most games are now on television, so it makes absolutely zero sense to waste money to go to the game where the seating will be uncomfortable, the food will be really expensive, there will be lines for the restrooms and there’s no control of the weather. This is perhaps one of the biggest things colleges should focus on, and it’s something that has struck me in the past.

Attending football games is boring. Plays take a matter of seconds, there’s an endless amount of time between plays when nothing happens, and the replays are limited. You can’t change the channel if the game’s lousy. The weather conditions are usually crappy, and the seating sucks unless you’re in a suite. You’re often clueless about injuries. I sit in a press box with replays and constant players updates and I get bored, so I can’t really blame students for staying home and watching on TV under greater/cheaper conditions.

Then there’s the issue, as someone else mentioned, of games not always being on Saturday night. UH plays games on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. They play morning games, noon games (and during September at these noon games, sitting in the stands must give an idea of what it’s like to be sentenced to time in Hell) and night games. The night games can start so late they run into the next day. Colleges are now so dependent on TV money that if they were told to play a game on Monday morning at 3:37 a.m., they’d do so, despite the fact that most fans couldn’t make the game. So if colleges are going to show such contempt for the fans, why should the fans want to pony up cash for tickets?

This isn’t going to change, not while ESPN and Fox Sports are still able to shell out millions upon millions of dollars for the right to televise college football. And ESPN and Fox Sports don’t care about traditions; they care about filling television time slots. Now the networks aren't as contemptuous of the college football fans as they are of college basketball fans with the even more insane programming demands placed on college basketball scheduling, but, dudes, if you’re a college student, are you going to drag yourself out of bed for an early morning Saturday kickoff after partying all of Friday night, or are you just going to sleep it off with the game on the television?

Somebody else suggested the lack of traditional rivalries is the problem with some schools. That could especially be the case for schools like Houston or Rice that have found themselves shoved into conferences with heretofore unknown schools like Marshall and East Carolina and ODU and UCF. The destruction of the UT rivalry has seemed to harm the Aggies, but then again, the Aggies have added teams from the SEC to the schedule, and that’s got to be better than having teams like Baylor and Texas Tech coming to Kyle Field.

And while all those are probably factors that have hurt student attendance, none of this probably matters if the team starts to win games. Winning, after all, supposedly cures lots of ills — though the inability to consistently win games has never harmed the Texans' attendance. So if the Cougars suddenly start to go undefeated every season, even playing in the American Athletic Conference on Saturday mornings, then the students will start to show up time and time again (who really knows what’ll work at Rice since the team plays in a huge stadium yet the school has such a small student population).

So maybe it’s just that the games are better to watch from home, or that the strange game times make it inconvenient to attend games. Maybe it’s the lack of rivalries. Or maybe it’s all of those things discussed Monday, like the ticket prices and bad seats and horrendous restrooms. But despite whatever attendance problems college football teams might have, it’s more than likely it’ll all be fixed if the teams just start winning games. 

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