Ahead of its annual rivalry game against Ole Miss, Mississippi State sold fewer than 2,000 tickets to the Egg Bowl in Oxford, about half as many as from just two years prior.
Already this year, the University Florida ticket office has been informed that South Carolina is releasing 2,500 tickets of the 5,000 its fans could purchase for the game in the Swamp.
Even Alabama, where national championships grow on trees and fans traditionally have rolled into visiting towns like a tide, couldn’t sell more than 1,200 of its 2016 allotment of tickets to a game at Arkansas.
It just means more tickets for the home crowd, the SEC likes to tell us. Although lately, it has meant less when it comes to attendance from visiting fans.
A Gainesville Sun survey showed a marked decrease in attendance at games from visiting fans over the last five years. It’s a trend the league acknowledges — but without any apparent interest in changing it.
“It’s not like we’re going to start marketing to opposing fans,” Florida Athletic Director Scott Stricklin said. “It would make no sense. We just have to accept that people aren’t traveling the way they used to.”
The league has encouraged schools to move more quickly in releasing unwanted tickets — and teams seem to be obliging. Alongside South Carolina, LSU has asked for 1,000 fewer tickets for its game in Gainesville on Oct. 6 than they got last year.
“We’ve talked about it,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said. “The timing of notice.”
The commissioner believes a combination of factors has contributed to the decline in travel for games.
“I’ve heard that observation that it’s familiarity with the opponents, but I don’t think it can be reduced to one factor,” Sankey said. “Geography can be a factor, but I’ve been in places that are hard to get to and they were sold out.”
Sankey also pointed to the immersive experience of today’s televisions, and the feeling of remoteness when watching the game from the distant rows of seats that now more often are allotted to visiting fans.
The conference has the highest attendance per game in the country, averaging 75,074 fans per game. But recent NCAA statistics show a drop at SEC stadiums of 2,433 fans per game — also the largest in the country.
This was part of a national trend that saw average attendance in all FBS stadiums drop by more than 3 percent, the largest decrease in 34 years.
Immediately, technology received most of the blame. Every game is on TV and the theory is that fans would rather watch multiple games in the comfort of their HD and AC than sweat it out at the stadiums.
But there’s another trend that is a major reason why attendance numbers are down in the SEC and it has to do with road travel.
“I see the attendance issue at every stadium we play,” said Lee McGriff, the former Gator receiver who serves today as UF’s radio color analyst. “It boils down to comfort with fans these days. They can see most any game wherever they are, especially the students. They don’t want to sweat or be cold or be in an uncomfortable seat AND they want to be able to eat and drink whatever they want.”
The Sun reached out to the ticket offices at SEC schools and received feedback from more than half of them for the last five years. The numbers showed significant drops in the numbers of people who purchased tickets for away games and administrators are asking for fewer tickets for their fan bases to travel.
Mississippi State, for example, returned 7,307 tickets last year for four SEC road games, up from 4,833 two years ago. The Bulldogs played three of the same teams on the road, but got an upgrade in swapping Missouri for Georgia.
In 2015, Tennessee sold 5,339 tickets to the UF game. Two years later, the Vols sent 3,705 fans to Gainesville, a drop of 31 percent.
For the LSU game, the numbers dropped from 5,220 in 2014 to 2,956 last year. LSU asked for only 2,000 tickets for this year’s game.
In the case of Florida road games, the UF ticket office sold 7,736 tickets in 2013 for the South Carolina game and only 2,281 last year. Two years prior for the game in Columbia, South Carolina the number of tickets sold to UF fans was 4,636.
Gator fans going to Kentucky in 2013 numbered 2,607 and that number dropped to 1,666 last year. The Missouri trip was a new thing in 2013 and UF sold 4,618 tickets. Last year, the Saturday after Jim McElwain was fired, the number was 758.
“We are already asking for smaller blocks of seats for road games,” Stricklin said. “Where it can really have an effect is on the open market when teams are sending back tickets which makes for a soft market.
“But it’s an opportunity. For one thing, we’re able to have a larger percentage of home crowds be your fans. I think you’re going to see an adjustment around the country where stadiums are going to reduce capacity to make the seating better for their fans.”
It’s certainly not just a Florida issue.
At Arkansas, there were 16,569 tickets returned out of the allotment available for visiting fans in 2017 for four SEC home games. Four years earlier, 11,255 tickets were returned for the same number of SEC games.
For South Carolina home SEC games in 2014, opposing teams returned 5,081 of 29,500 available tickets. Just two years later, there were 12,400 tickets returned out of 27,000 available.
The University of Kentucky is a perfect example of this trend.
In seven SEC annual home games (six division games plus the one partner from the West) in 2017 and ’16, the total number of tickets sold to the opposing fans was 12,944.
In 2015 and ’14, the same teams purchased 16,991 tickets. So the drop in opponent sales was more than 4,000 over that span.
“I get it,” Stricklin said. “Some people want to take a road trip and some people just want a weekend off to take a breath and watch the game on TV.”
Then there is this: schools aren’t always making as many tickets available as in the past.
“I know each school handles their road seats or visiting seats a little differently, but there is somewhat of a trend of lowering the visiting team allotments around the league,” said Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne. “When we have opportunities here at Bryant-Denny (Stadium) to sell more seats to Alabama fans, we want to do that.”
Alabama has had its allotment for games at Mississippi and Mississippi State drop by 2,000 seats in the last two years. The Iron Bowl game used to be contracted for 9,500 opposing fans at both sites but that number has dropped to 8,000.
“There’s somewhat a softening of the demand, but we’re still able to sell all of our tickets that we have allocated for us to the games (except Arkansas),” Byrne said. “(As far as opposing fans returning tickets) there has been a softening there. I think it’s a changing culture as far as how people consume athletics.”
And then there is Georgia, where the Bulldog fans showed up in great numbers for road games in part because of a rare trip to Notre Dame and also because of the success of the 2017 team. But at home, the stark reality of the situation hit when South Carolina returned 3,000 tickets for the game in Athens.
“That was a rarity,” Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity said. “But you have to understand that SEC schools have an agreement for 2,000 seats to go to the opposing fans in the lower level. The rest are the worst seats in the house.
“You have your boosters and families and administrative people and then a band of 500 people. That doesn’t leave a lot of good seats. Fans are seeing exorbitant costs to sit in bad seats on the road.”
As a result of the trend, schools in the conference are adjusting how many seats they are asking for when playing traditional SEC foes. In 2016, Alabama asked for 2,000 fewer tickets for their game at Ole Miss and 2,000 fewer in 2017 than it asked for in 2013 for the game at Mississippi State.
“You look at our game at Tennessee, if you’re not one of the lucky few to get the good seats, you’re going to be in the rafters,” McGarity said. “We’re starting to adjust our requests down.”
One answer, McGarity said, is to reduce the sizes of the bands who get the best seats, something Florida has already done for some road games.
“More and more, you’re going to see pep bands on the road instead of full bands,” he said.
And you also have the fact that road games are basically the same road games every year because of the way the SEC schedules. Only one game per year is played on a rotating basis, so Florida fans know they will go to Tennessee and Vanderbilt every other year, LSU, South Carolina, Kentucky and Missouri the other (barring any rescheduling for hurricanes).
“The lack of variety is a reason for it,” Stricklin said. “If we played at Auburn every five years instead of every 12 years, I think it would give fans a little boost. But I don’t see that changing any time soon.”
Instead, the decline in visiting fans will probably continue. The days of a team’s fans taking over a couple of downtown restaurants the night before a game may be a thing of the past.
“I certainly have seen it,” said Ryan Prodesky, partner/owner of The Swamp Restaurant in Gainesville’s midtown. “I don’t see fans from Tennessee, South Carolina and others coming through as much.
“Personally, I think they need to get rid of the (SEC) divisions. You saw how Texas A&M fans showed up last year (the 5,280 sold were the most to any opposing fan base at a Florida home game last year). That was unique for those fans, but we get the same teams over and over. It definitely means an economic impact on not only the university but the city. Those events are the biggest draws Gainesville has.”
The number of tickets sold for the opposing teams in the annual Florida-Florida State rivalry game, according to the University of Florida ticket office:
2013 — 9,512
2014 — 8,080
2015 — 6,888
2016 — 7,254
2017 — 5,622
The numbers of tickets sold for Florida’s road games in the last five seasons against the East and its partner from the West LSU:
2013 — 2,607
2015 — 2,543
2017 — 1,666
2014 — 999
2016 — 1,161
2013 — 4,618
2015 — 1,729
2017 — 758
2014 — 2,060
2016 — 779
2013 — 7,376
2015 — 4,636
2017 — 2,281
2014 — 7,376
2016 — 4,636
2014 — 3,989
2016 — 4,737
2013 — 4,433
2015 — 5,399
2017 — 3,705
2014 — 4,599
2016 — 4,486
2013 — 697
2015 — 439
2017 — 438
2013 — 6,958
2015 — 4,804
2016 — 4,377
2014 — 5,220
2017 — 2,956