Declining Attendance Reflects Soaring Ticket Prices, Increase in Televised Games
Aug. 27, 2014 9:10 p.m. ET
Football stadiums will be packed this weekend for the kickoff of the college season. But many of the student sections are likely to have empty seats.
Average student attendance at college football games is down 7.1% since 2009, according to an analysis by The Wall Street Journal of stadium turnstile records from about 50 public colleges with top-division football teams. The decline was 5.6% at colleges in the five richest conferences.
The decrease even at schools with entrenched football traditions and national championships stands in contrast to college football's overall popularity. Total turnout at home games of top-tier teams hit a record in 2013, while average attendance has slipped just 0.8% since 2009.
The growing number of empty seats in student sections across the U.S. is a sign of soaring ticket prices, more lopsided games and fewer matchups against longtime rivals, and the proliferation of televised games that make it easier than ever for students to keep tailgating long after kickoff. (Explore the interactive on college football attendance since 2009.)
Declining attendance by students at college football games reflects soaring ticket prices, more lopsided matches and the proliferation of televised games. Ben Cohen joins MoneyBeat.
Some college administrators and coaches are alarmed by the attendance declines because noisy students help give their team a home-field advantage that often is bigger in football than other sports. Colleges also depend on football to create bonds that will keep students connected after graduation, including as season-ticket buyers and donors.
Colleges and athletic conferences are scrambling to lure students back, but it is a daunting challenge. "There are so many other things they can do that maybe going to the game that day isn't the most important thing on their agenda," says Louisiana State University athletic director Joe Alleva. Student attendance fell 5.5% to 8,508 in 2013 from 9,000 in 2012.
"Nothing can unify a community and alumni base of a university like college football can," says Kirby Hocutt, athletic director at Texas Tech University. An average of 11,365 students attended the college's six home games last year, up 16% from 2012 and 25% higher than 2009. The college hired a new coach before the 2013 season.
(Read more from The Wall Street Journal: Five Things To Know Today .)
Colleges don't report student attendance in game box scores. To tally student attendance, the Journal requested stadium-turnstile figures from public institutions that are subject to state public-records laws.
About 80 colleges provided data to the Journal, including 38 in the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern conferences, collectively known as the Big 5. The NCAA recently granted those conferences more power to govern themselves.
Some schools don't track how many students actually used tickets they bought, and other colleges say the attendance figures they provided might not be accurate because of faulty ticket scanners at football stadiums.
The Journal's percentage calculations exclude colleges that didn't provide student-attendance numbers for every year between 2009 and 2013.
Among college football's heavyweights, student attendance was lower in 2013 than 2009 at Ohio State University, Michigan State University, University of Florida and Florida State University. It also declined at the University of Michigan and LSU, though the schools didn't provide five years of data to the Journal.
Schools can't even rely on students who buy tickets to show up at games—or they trickle into their seats late and leave early. At the University of Kansas, which had a 3-9 record last season, 74% of student tickets went unused.
At Michigan, an average of 14,749 students showed up at the college's home games last season, an 11% decline from 2011. The team won just
seven games in 2013, down from 11 in 2011.
The attendance slide also was blamed on an increase in student ticket prices, which jumped to $295 from $205 last year, as Michigan replaced a long-standing policy that rewarded seniority with a plan that gave students general-admission access. A midseason survey by the college's student government showed that 76% of student season-ticket holders disapproved of the new plan.
"There are students who are being priced out," says Michael Proppe, a 22-year-old Michigan business student who was the student-body president last year. "People are looking to trim costs, and for a lot of folks, football is an easy thing to cut. It's not essential to going to college."
Student dissatisfaction led to another change that takes effect at Michigan's home opener against Appalachian State University on Saturday. Michigan students are now assigned seats based on how many sports games they attended the previous school year. The athletic department, which formed a student council for advice on ticketing issues, also decided to offer discounted, single-game student tickets.
Michigan has another problem. Because of the Big Ten's expansion, Michigan's home schedule doesn't include either Michigan State or Ohio State, Michigan's two biggest rivals, for the first time since 1966. Football ticket sales to Michigan students are down 40% from last year.
For schools in college football's top division, football revenues soared 99% in the last decade, with much of the growth coming from TV networks battling to broadcast games.
Those lucrative media deals are now seen as a threat to the live-game experience. Of the 85 games involving at least one of the 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams this week, almost all can be seen on TV or streamed online, giving students more reason to watch from home.
In response, the Southeastern Conference, home to seven of college football's last eight champions and some of the sport's most passionate fans, formed a committee in 2012 to study fans' experiences. All 14 schools in the conference made improvements this season, the SEC said last week.
The changes range from better cellular reception at the University of Georgia to new stadium video boards, cleaner restrooms and an enhanced sound system at LSU's Tiger Stadium.
At Michigan, an average of 14,749 students showed up at the college's home games last season, an 11% decline from 2011. Sports Illustrated/Getty Images
Many of the tweaks are aimed at students. "The goal is to make sure they come to the games and then stay at the games," says Mr. Alleva, the athletic director at LSU.
Alabama saw an uptick in attendance last season after Crimson Tide football coach Nick Saban urged students to come to games and stay for all 60 minutes regardless of the score. "We're just asking them to do the same thing we ask our players to do," he said at the time.
One college that has bucked the downward trend is University of California, Los Angeles, where student attendance has climbed 58% since 2009. UCLA's football team improved its record to 19-8 since the 2011 hiring of coach Jim Mora.
Dan Guerrero, UCLA's athletic director, says the gains also reflect years of effort to overcome the 30-mile distance from campus to home games and competition for attention with other big-city attractions.
In 2012, Mr. Guerrero rode the bus with students and sat with them at the Rose Bowl. That led to changes at a student tailgating area and a "Football 101" crash course, he says.
"We needed to do more," Mr. Guerrero says. "The fact that we have to persuade and convince and cajole and provide special types of activities shows how much things have changed."
—Rachel Bachman contributed to this article.