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Schools’ Greed Damaging The Future Of College Football

empty-bleachersIf a college football game were played and there was no one on hand to see it, would it actually be played?  That’s the somewhat discouraging outlook for college football as fewer and fewer students are attending games.

Watching the Georgia/North Texas game last Saturday on television, it was alarmingly clear that Sanford Stadium had large swaths of empty seats.  Interestingly, The Wall Street Journal picked that game — and its lack of attendance — as a launch point into the obstacles now popping up between schools and their students when it comes to college football attendance.

According to The Journal, the major problems are (and you’ve heard these all before):

 

*  Cellular reception at the stadium is bad and 18- to 22-year-olds can’t watch a game without texting, tweeting or communicating in some other cell/internet fashion.

*  Students have lost interest in seeing their school’s team beat up on sub-par opponents.

*  High-definition television has made watching games from homes and bars infinitely more enjoyable.  (We at MrSEC.com would add that the explosion in the number of games now televised also plays a factor.  Not only do the games look better on TV, but now students and adult fans can watch their school’s game as well as dozens of others from their couches and bar stools.)

 

The Journal quotes Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin as saying, “We can’t afford to lose a generation.”  That’s frighteningly true.  If the students of today aren’t the hardcore fans of tomorrow, who’ll be making donations for facility upgrades or purchasing season-tickets in the years to come?

The Southeastern Conference is — like just about every other college conference or professional league out there — trying to get in front of the problem.  As noted during SEC Media Days in July, the league has hired a market-research firm that will “spend this season traveling to SEC stadiums, visiting fans watching at home to gather their opinions before presenting its findings after the regular season.”

Another problem in terms of student attendance is ticket price.  As in “there is a price.”  Though most schools charge only a small amount for student tickets, they are charging something.  And while many SEC schools offer up more than 10,000 seats for students (and charge a small activities fee as well as discounted ticket prices), it might be a better idea to offer fewer seats (a trend that’s spreading across the country) to students for free.  That’s right, let the students in free.  In other words, lure them in and then hook them for the future.

The issue of student attendance is a large one to be sure, but attendance is dropping seat by seat across the Southeastern Conference and the nation.  Aside from winning programs playing against name opponents or schools hosting games in small stadiums (Scott Field at Mississippi State, for example), you don’t see many sell-outs in college football anymore.  And that reflects only the number of tickets sold.  Check the upper decks of SEC stadiums while watching on TV (from your couch or bar stool) this Saturday and you’ll likely see plenty of empty seats.  Even those tickets that have been purchased aren’t always used.  Which cuts down on the amount of concessions sold on gameday.

In a sluggish economy, schools are looking to make every dollar they can.  This is where ticket pricing becomes more than just a student issue.  Most schools are increasing the amount of cash you have to spend to procure a ticket.  Concession costs are consistently on the rise as well.  Where they’re not going up, they’re flat-lining.  Good luck finding a school out there that is actually cutting down on its ticket and concession prices.

Unfortunately, this has more to do with greed than it does with the aforementioned sluggish economy.

Think of college football attendance as a circle of life.  At one point, stadiums were built bigger and bigger and ticket prices were set higher and higher.  Schools made the majority of their cash from the tens of thousands of fans who made the trek and paid the fees to enjoy the in-stadium experience.

But then came the television tidal wave.  High-def finally hit a price point that made sense to consumers.  New sets were gobbled up by the millions.  At the same time, television networks — ABC, CBS, ESPN and others — decided that the best way to connect viewers with advertisers was by providing live coverage of sporting events.  College football in particular became must-get programming for the networks.

Then, as the boom in HDTV and televised games went up, attendance began to go down in stadiums.  But colleges — through their conferences — had inked deals with the television networks that brought in billions of dollars in new revenue.  The biggest schools enjoy a cascade of cash compliments of eye-popping contracts.  In 2008, the SEC cut deals with ESPN and CBS worth a combined $3 billion.  Those deals have now been surpassed.  A new wave of conference-owned channels — including in the SEC — have become the next big money-maker.

Make no mistake, schools are making more money than ever from television.  In fact, in most cases TV money should easily offset any decline in ticket sales and attendance.  But are schools cutting prices or even keeping them level as they rake in billions from the networks?

Of course not.

We’ve all seen the numbers that show athletic departments running in the red.  That’s due to an increase in spending (check out some of the new football facilities/palaces that have gone up in recent years).  There’s also some amount of creative accounting taking place.  Unless, that is, if you believe an SEC athletic department like Ole Miss can spend right to the penny exactly what it brings in.  We think that’s a bit too coincidental.

Put simply, many schools are attempting to double dip.  Yes, attendance has fallen some, but that decrease in revenue should more than be covered by the increase in cash brought in via television contracts.  Yet many schools continue to raise ticket prices and concession prices and donation levels for season-ticket packages.

We’ve written on numerous occasions that with attendance dropping, colleges might be wise to decrease stadium size.  The majority of NFL stadiums are 60- to 70-thousand-seat venues.  If SEC schools cut their capacity from 90- and 100-thousand down to 70- or 80-thousand — while adding more club and box seats as well as chair-back seats — attending a college football game might become the “it” thing to do again.  What good is a country club if everyone can get in?  If the powers-that-be throw up their hands, admit that they’re losing the little guy already, and start catering specifically to a smaller but wealthier crowd, then they might be able to make game attendance a status-symbol type of activity again.

There was a time when owning season-tickets to an SEC program’s games was something to be celebrated, you know.

But there is another option.  Instead of increasing prices while offering little more in return — as is the case now — schools could actually cut prices for students and non-students alike in an attempt to lure fans back to their games.

Without attendees, college football’s future looks bleak.  Grabbing fans, donors, and season-ticket-holders for future decades is therefore an obvious must.  The schools should either cut capacity and make the in-game experience otherworldly for the rich or cut ticket prices and lure back the little guys who’ve been fans for years.

The current model — raising ticket prices, charging students, all while making more money than ever from television — is simply the greediest thing to do.  And if colleges aren’t careful, their greed could seriously damage the future of college football, their #1 cash cow.

 


11 comments
vol66
vol66

I try to go to a game once a year, maybe two. A family of 3 for one of the good games, just the tix, is between two and three hundred dollars, face value with no donation. I guess there are folks that can do that every weekend, good for them.

BillRauhuff
BillRauhuff

I really think we are seeing a SLOW decline in college football because it is just overexposed. You watch your favorite singer or actor or whatever all of the time and you get tired of them. There are many things to blame but ESPN with a half dozen channels, higher ticket prices, coaches making 3-6 million a year, assistant coaches making 1-3 million a year, conference schools spread out over 1500 miles or more not to mention 35 bowl games and counting. It is overkill and in 10 years the whole thing will come falling down. The biggest thing is 75 or more percent of the kids playing football do not even belong in college. Just because you are a great athlete does not make you a college student. College is not for everybody and unless you are sleeping under a rock you know most of the kids playing football are not there for a education.

bigreb
bigreb

Scott Stricklin is "losing this generation" because he is allowing a non competitive coach to continue to coach his team. MSU hasn't competed against the big boys in quite some time. Mr Stricklin, get you a coach that will field a competitive team, and you won't lose this generation.

DanHogan
DanHogan

A quick note about cell coverage in stadiums.  You haven't done it here, but kids are made fun of for needing cell coverage in some places.  That's the wrong view.  Those kids who want to text, post to Facebook, and tweet are walking/talking/breathing marketing machines.  Schools should be looking to expand that cell coverage not just to get kids into the seats but to harness the raw marketing power of tweets and posts of pictures and even video of gameday.  Talk about great advertising!

HoustonVol
HoustonVol

The second note is the time of the games. This is hurting a lot of schools that are not in/near major markets. Early and late games end up requiring an overnight stay for people that live more than a couple of hours away. This weeks game is at noon. If you live in Nashville or Atlanta, you would have to leave at 5am in order to drive, park, walk to make the game on time. If it is a night game, you would have to stay overnight and drive back the next day. I am sure other programs have this same issue. This adds $100's to the cost of attending the game when you factor in hotel and meals. This cost is on top of the actual cost of attending the game. Wonder why people are not driving in to watch USA/UT? Thankfully CBS gave up their lock on the mid-afternoon games with the new TV contracts, and hopefully this will help with some fans.

WillFry
WillFry

1. Make student tickets "free" again.    (the activities fee was supposed to include tickets)

2. Improve cell phone reception AND add wifi  (I don't use my phone nearly as much as an 18 year old but I sill want to send a text during a game sometimes or check other scores)

3. Serve BEER!    make it somewhat reasonably priced too.  most people might only have 1 each half.  That 1 in the second half though is crucial, if you are ready for one in the third quarter but can't get one, you are likely to leave early if playing an uninteresting game.  Serving beer would also solve another problem (this is where the price comes in), younger fans.  Students and recent graduates, tend to binge a few right before going in the game to try and get them through the game.  If they know they can have some during the game they may cut back on the binge just before. I know I would have. 

HoustonVol
HoustonVol

I know that there are many issues with TN filling Neyland. First - they started charging students for tickets. When I attended, we got sports tickets for free (well included as part of the student activity fee). Football and Men's basketball you had to get tickets in advance, Woman's BB we just had to show up. I loved the student section, and did not miss a game my four years in school. Now they charge $10 a student. $70 most seasons. Which is more than season tickets to Houston or Rice, just FYI. The renovation of TBA, where they removed 4k seats has been a huge success. It is now one of the best BB arenas in the nation. Plus the last renovation of Neyland actually removed a couple of thousands of seats. A good team that you want to root for helps, but even Bama, UF, OSU, Texas, etc. are having issues filling the stadium for every game. If I was a coach, AD, etc. I would rather have 20k students getting rowdy in the endzone making the stadium active instead of a bunch of wine and cheese boosters. It looks better on TV, and for recruits. When you have 100k seats, you can appeal to both.

johnvines21
johnvines21

@MrSEC The problem is that the students would rather have fun destroying their livers than watching the game in person.

the_voice
the_voice

I wouldn't go see a Georgia/North Texas game for free. It really isn't a game. Large swaths of seats are empty for NFL exhibition (excuse me, I meant "preseason") games as well. Sports fans have become more sophisticated than in the past. It's kind of like offering me a tofu burger rather than a hamburger (for the same price). I'll pass on that as well, even if it's free.

the_voice
the_voice

@HoustonVolYou're right Vol, but there will be no relief regarding game times. Stadiums aren't full of fans, but instead are full of props, just like studio audiences for TV shows. Your convenience or inconvenience matters not to the powers that be. Good games are a doable request, and so are fan comfort amenities. We'll have to deal with TV driven start times.

Tusk
Tusk

@WillFry I remember attending the Alabama/FSU game at Jacksonville in '07 and beer was sold.  I saw three fights during the game and the overall environment/vibe at that game was the worst I've ever experienced.  I love a cold one as much as anyone but I'm afraid this would create way too many problems (JMHO).

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