The revelation brought plenty of condemnation. College football attendance was down in 2017 — not just down but the second biggest drop in the sport’s history — and the reasons why were almost too numerous to count.
Blame it on the millennials.
Blame it on ticket prices.
Blame it on the TV that dictates game times and the TV in your sports room that has a bathroom and a refrigerator close by.
There are a multitude of reasons why fewer people went to college football games in 2017 than 2016. Now what are you going to do about it?
That’s the question that athletic directors and their staffs are wrestling with after the latest numbers were revealed and met with a gasp by fans who thought their sport has never been healthier.
The college football attendance drop was an average of 1,409 per program in Division I. Most alarming is that the conference with what is annually the best attendance — the SEC — had the biggest drop by losing 2,433 fans per program.
While administrators are looking for ways to make the fan experience better, there’s one obvious one that they can’t control.
In theory, the more fans go to games, the more likely the home team will win, right? But the teams that struggle to win always have to deal with a drop in attendance.
The biggest drop in the SEC came at Arkansas, which went 4-8 and fired its coach and lost an average of 6,357 fans per game. Ole Miss, which is on probation, dropped 6,229, but played its three biggest games — Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State — on the road. Tennessee, which went 4-8 and fired its coach, dropped 4,809.
“There are multiple components to it and winning is certainly a huge component,” Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin said.
Florida dropped 1,131 fans in attendance — from 87,846 to 86,715 — despite an attractive home schedule that included Tennessee, LSU, Texas A&M and Florida State. Florida also went 4-7 and fired its coach with four games to go. This year’s home schedule includes three softies and no rivals at home.
“We’re on track with last year’s season ticket sales (last year Florida sold about 49,000 season tickets),” Stricklin said. “With the excitement of a new coach I think we’ll be stable or even see a bump.”
A month ago, Stricklin talked about improvements at The Swamp, but any massive upgrades will have to wait until projects with baseball, softball and a football-only building are complete.
“We’re not going to sit back and not improve where we can,” he said. “But we don’t want to rush into those other major improvements because they are all important.
“I look at this as a 5-to-7-to-10 year facility plan and The Swamp is probably 5-to-7 and may be 5-to-10. It’s not just one fell swoop. It’s really a 5-to-10 year facility plan.”
Nobody likes sitting in the metal stands for a noon game in September. Especially in Florida. But television networks control the times and don’t release most of them until 10 days before the game, sometimes six days when they decide to hold them waiting on results.
Florida, as most schools do, polls its season ticket holders often about what their biggest concerns are with the game-day experience. One that always comes back as an issue is the time of the games.
The ideal spot is 3:30 p.m. because it allows for ample tailgating and either an enjoyable evening afterward or a trip home for out-of-town fans.
But everybody can’t play every game at 3:30. The networks want to spread games throughout the day.
“It’s a challenge,” Stricklin said. “It’s hard to fix that. What we’d like to see in our next contract is for the networks to set the times before the season. I think our fans would appreciate that.”
TRAFFIC AND PARKING
This is an area where you can only do so much because of limited space on the campus. Parking is at a premium and leaving a game after it’s over can mean a sea of hardly-moving tail lights can be seen from the sky.
“We’re in a better situation than a lot of campuses,” Stricklin said. “Traffic and parking are always something we’re trying to improve on. But if you’re stuck in traffic, you’re stuck in traffic.”
This is one of the main complaints of season-ticket holders.
This is the slipperiest of slopes.
On the one hand, everybody is looking for ways to make the game experience better and what would be better for many of those fans on a hot day than to drink a cold beer?
Almost 40 schools have introduced alcohol sales to the general public. The revenue is an added plus — as much as $3 million for Texas — but do administrators want to turn the stands into a keg party?
The SEC has a policy set by the presidents that alcohol can only be offered in designated areas where the most expensive seats are sold. Florida began offering beer and wine in its Champions Club and Touchdown Terrace two years ago.
The revenue from those sales is almost insignificant and the goal was never to add a major revenue stream. Last football season, UF’s royalties from alcohol sales were $54,577.92.
But the alcohol sales in this conference are more about customer service to the biggest contributors than making money.
Don’t look for that SEC policy to change any time soon.
Noting that SEC stadiums were at 98 percent capacity annually, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said in a recent interview that he wondered if it would ever be worth it to bump that number up to 99 percent at the expense of selling alcohol to the masses.
“So is that one-percent margin a trade that we’re going to make?” he asked.
In an email reply, Florida president Dr. Kent Fuchs said, “The consumption of alcohol before and during football games is a periodic topic of discussion among the SEC presidents. I hope the SEC retains its current policy regarding sale of alcohol in stadiums.”
THE DISNEY FACTOR
In the end, you want people to want to come back for another game.
“Investing in bathrooms and concessions and parking are a little bit of insurance that even if you lose a game by a field goal, people are still going to want to have something they don’t get to experience every day,” Stricklin said. “They don’t want to miss it.”
Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte likened it to going to Disney recently on a radio show in Texas.
“If you look at Disney, the experience of your children going to Disney starts when they receive that ticket,” Del Conte said. “They fly to Orlando, you get in the hotel and you get all of the experience until you get to the gate. Then you wait in line for three hours to get on the Matterhorn.
“You get on the ride for 40 seconds and then you do it again. But what happens when you get back to the hotel? Your kids say, ‘Dad, that was awesome! Can we do it again?’ We’ve got to create that same experience all around our venues.”
Florida has taken it a step further. The University Athletic Association has spent time with Disney personnel to collect ideas on how to make the customer experience better.
“The destination is worth the journey and we want to make the destination worth the journey,” Stricklin said. “Our staff has been down there a couple of times to meet with their people and get some ideas about how to produce the level of service we want to provide.”
Laird Veatch, who came to Florida from Kansas State in May as the executive associate AD for internal affairs, took his first tour of The Swamp, and he was impressed by the structure of the stadium.
“The bones of The Swamp are pretty incredible,” he said. “It’s more about the finishing touches.”
He is one of the UAA members who has met with Disney officials.
“The way the culture is established is pretty incredible,” he said. “They have a unique and thoughtful way of doing things. There’s another level we can get to.”
Several years ago, Florida administrators journeyed to Kansas City to see how the soccer stadium there did such a good job with several customer-friendly services, including improved wireless.
It’s still an issue.
“They couldn’t make it work,” Stricklin said. “Connectability is a bigger issue for the student body. We’re trying to accelerate that and not wait for the major renovation.
“We’re selling all of our student tickets. It doesn’t mean they are going to get there at the start of the game and stay for the whole game if the score gets out of hand.”
A recent Wall Street Journal survey showed a drop of 7.1 percent in student attendance since 2009, 5.6 percent among Power Five schools. Florida makes approximately 19,500 tickets available for students at a reduced cost.
“I think nationally, that’s a big concern,” Veatch said, “because that is the future of your fanbase.”
You hear all the time that tickets have become too expensive with the added contributions required to purchase the premium seats.
Florida did not raise ticket prices for the upcoming season. UF’s average ticket price ranked fifth in the SEC in 2016 at $69 per ticket and two of the least expensive tickets to an SEC game were at UF that year ($26 for Kentucky and Missouri.)
“It’s commonly used, but we still have more than 85,000 people buying tickets,” said Mike Hill, the UAA executive director for external affairs. “But the reality is that people have more choices.
“We know if we’re competing at a quality level, we’re going to sell tickets.”
Just look at the SEC Championship Game this year where fans were paying an average of $725 per seat to watch Auburn and Georgia play and packed the stadium in Atlanta.
Because, in the end, there’s nothing like being there.
“You might have seen the Tennessee game on TV this year, but if you were there it’s something you’ll never forget,” Hill said.
If there is a bottom line here it is that throughout the country, athletic departments know that filling stadiums is getting more difficult and are working to solve the issue.
But in the end, it still comes back to putting a product on the field that makes you want to be in the stadium.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.