TV deals partly at fault in college sports' attendance dip


Published: Sunday, April 1, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 31, 2012 at 8:31 p.m.

Throughout the three-week journey into madness, it was there. In New Orleans, Omaha and Phoenix, it was lurking. It is there in New Orleans again this weekend, not quite grown up but starting to become a real pain.

The gorilla in the room.

Actually, it's still just a baby, fresh and new and leaving banana peels on the floor, hoping to make administrators of college athletics slip and fall.

Because they, after all, gave it birth.

After three weeks of covering the Florida basketball team on the road, there was one topic that came up at every stop at media lunches and bar stools. It's not a dirty little secret because it's public knowledge.

College football and basketball are seeing a dip in attendance. According to USA Today, basketball attendance has dropped by 6 percent over the last four years. Eight of the 11 major conferences saw attendance drops last football season, including the fanatical SEC.

Certainly, the economy gets some of the blame. But there is much more to it than disposable income.

The conferences have made these obscene deals to televise not only their games but their practices, pro days, locker room speeches and pep rallies.

“Up next on the Longhorn Network: Watch Texas players eat lunch.”

The financial windfall has been enormous. In its last fiscal year as a 12-team conference, 11 of the SEC teams made net profits (Ole Miss was the lone school in red ink), and those combined profits were right around $96.5 million.

But there has been a consequence to having all of your games on TV, especially when the technology has become so precise that the view is better from your couch than the cheap seats.

Why go?

There is something special about being at an Auburn-Alabama football game or a Florida-Kentucky basketball game. But how about Auburn-Kentucky? Or Florida-South Carolina?

We saw plenty of empty seats in the upper deck for Florida basketball games against conference opponents. But this is part of the issue the league has created. You can go to a 9 p.m. Tuesday game, deal with inadequate parking, fight the traffic, pay for tickets to sit in the upper deck, then struggle to get out of the parking lot.

Or you can turn the game on in HD, not wait in line for overpriced drinks and the bathroom and turn over to another game during commercials. And when the game is over, you turn it off and go to bed at a reasonable time.

I know people who love the experience of the tailgate at Florida football games, but once everyone starts heading into The Swamp, they head home to watch it in comfort. Let's see, sweat on a September Saturday in a seat too small for your behind or watch the game in air conditioning and continue your assault on the Budweiser family of brews?

During my many conversations with different officials, both from conference offices and individual schools, nobody really had an answer. We have seen around the conference that the media seats that are among the best in the house have been taken over for boosters and the media sent to the kids' table up in the stands. At Florida, half of press row is occupied by boosters.

When they show up.

I'm convinced that we are about 10 years away from football press boxes being sold to boosters in an effort to bring in more money. We in the media will watch on TV and be instructed to go to the school's website for coaches' and players' quotes.

It's coming because athletic departments know they have to think outside the box to stop this slight downturn from becoming a bigger issue.

To keep the gorilla from growing up.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at dooleyp@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

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