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Cleveland on the Drop of Attendance at College Football

Television is college football’s goose that lays golden eggs. And now, at least in my opinion, that goose has turned and is biting the game in the butt.

College football attendance is down and going lower. Last year, attendance dropped to the lowest level in 22 years. Not even the mighty SEC was immune, with attendance dropping 1.4 percent last year to its lowest level since 2004. Remember, stadiums have expanded during that time frame. It follows that attendance should have grown, not dropped – but that’s not the case.

Conference USA dropped to the lowest level in its short history. Attendance at all levels of college football is down.

You don’t have to look far to find the reason. I can glance up and look at the reason where I am typing. It is a 70-inch, high definition, flatscreen smart TV. When college football season begins, the pregame shows will begin early Saturday morning, followed by games from 11 in the morning until after midnight.

It never rains in my living room. It never gets hot or cold. The coffee is always hot. The beer is always cold. If the game is boring or gets out of hand, I can change the channel. If I need a restroom break, I can hit the pause button. If I want slow-motion, stop-action replays, I get them.

I don’t have to drive two and a half hours and fight traffic to get to the game. I don’t have to pay to park. I don’t have to pay to get in. I don’t have the insurance salesman or lawyer sitting next to me shouting at the $4-million-a-year head coach to change quarterbacks.

Furthermore, I do not have to sit in the sun for two to three minutes while the officials await the signal that TV has returned from a commercial so they can start playing again. At home, if there’s a play that goes to the replay booth, they show it over and over on my TV. At the stadium, they don’t. You just sit there and listen to the people scream.

And yes, I know the TV goose is still producing golden eggs for the elite conference teams. Each SEC team received approximately $43.7 million from the league office. With that kind of money coming in, mostly from TV, you can afford a few more empty seats.

And that’s why TV dictates what times games start. That’s why TV can wait until a week before the games to tell us what times the games will start. That’s why those commercials last so long.

What TV wants, TV gets. The networks, including ESPN’s 1, 2, 3 and Classic, own the games. The rest of us are along for the ride.

Power 5 administrators, especially those receiving the $43.7 million checks are not especially worried yet. (The mid-majors and smaller conferences are worried sick).

But even the big schools are trying to come up with ways to retain fans. You may have seen the news last week Ole Miss is adding eight party decks in its student sections, hoping to entice students to come – and stay through – the games.

Student sections emptying during games is another common occurrence we see in college football these days. Four hours is apparently longer than a lot of students want to invest in a sporting event. You even see gaping holes in the student sections in the second halves at Alabama and Georgia.

Maybe party decks will help.

But I don’t know that there’s an answer for falling ticket revenue at the lower levels of college football. The goose’s eggs were never that golden at that level anyway.


Email syndicated columnist Rick Cleveland at rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

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Adam Brown
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