Across the SEC, football fans opting not to travel with their team

34
3004
Home field advantange in The Swamp is growing as visiting teams are bringing along fewer of their own fans, a trend seen across the Southeastern Conference in a survey by The Gainesville Sun. [Alan Youngblood/Staff photographer/File]

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.”


Sunshine slowdown
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

Dwindling returns
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:
Kentucky
Road
2013 — 2,607
2015 — 2,543
2017 — 1,666
Home
2014 — 999
2016 — 1,161

Missouri
Road
2013 — 4,618
2015 — 1,729
2017 — 758
Home
2014 — 2,060
2016 — 779

South Carolina
Road
2013 — 7,376
2015 — 4,636
2017 — 2,281
Home
2014 — 7,376
2016 — 4,636

Tennessee
Road
2014 — 3,989
2016 — 4,737
Home
2013 — 4,433
2015 — 5,399
2017 — 3,705

Vanderbilt
Road
2014 — 4,599
2016 — 4,486
Home
2013 — 697
2015 — 439
2017 — 438

LSU
Road
2013 — 6,958
2015 — 4,804
2016 — 4,377
Home
2014 — 5,220
2017 — 2,956

34 COMMENTS

  1. I agree with the logical Vulcan. Show graphs comparing total cost per game per fan vs total attendance over the past decade or two and you will likely find the major culprit. Total cost includes tickets, travel (gas or airline), hotel, food/drinks, parking, concessions, programs, etc. The alternative is to stay home and watch it in an air conditioned facility on a big screen and eat+drink like a king for relatively cheap without enduring all the hassles (lines, traffic, heat, etc.) of travel. Seems like a no brainer.

  2. Beginning with Chuck Pell running through 2010 our core group of 6 traveled to all away games including bowl games. We stopped due to several factors: our connection to great to good seats dried up then we got old.

  3. I wonder how the Gator-Nole numbers look. Rivalries really seem to be less intense. During the Spurrier days, every game against Tennessee, Georgia, Auburn, LSU, Alabama, etc. seemed huge. But other than a very weird relationship with LSU and the tradition with GA, which seems to have died down since Meyer left, the other games feel like shrugs now. Let’s hope Mullen can bring back the intensity. Without it, why travel?

  4. I don’t think fans want to travel to see their 7-5 or even 8-4 team play. The SEC has just settled into a rut of predictable outcomes. Maybe all the new coaches can change that. If I’m a “Bama” fan lets just get to the SEC championship game and see how it plays out. I also think there is a new generation of students that just aren’t as interested as their parents were.

  5. My recollection is that this started in the aftermath of the 2008-early 2009 financial crisis. Unemployment soared, adult children moved in with aging parents, and people couldn’t afford the tickets, travel and accommodations. They discovered that you can see much better on a wide screen tv at home or nearby.

    • I’ve been thinking about this for the better part of a day now — I suspect you’re absolutely correct about that geneses time frame, but the trend wasn’t but barely noticeable at the time. That was, however, a sustained recession that didn’t really start to crack, despite relatively low inflation numbers through the entire interval, until about halfway thru 2017. What’s visible now is probably all types of related enterprises recovering their losses….we may have the will to travel, we may have the funds now…..but the cost has gone up so much so as to prevent most discretionary travel. Add in the delayed inflation that will surely come, and we fans are going to be glued to our tv sets for quite a while. Makes sense to me anyway, just took me awhile to plod thru your premise. AKA, we may be in recovery or fully recovered perhaps, but it ain’t gonna be all grins and giggles like it used to be, for quite a while yet! We’ll probably be in another recession by then anyway.

  6. Season tickets have been ridiculous to purchase. I had 4 North End Zone nosebleeds which cost me $2700 annually…coupled with a poor product on the field…I would rather watch on TV. And the tickets continue to go up…although league TV revenue is at an all time high. No thanks…I wish my team the best, but corporations are becoming the only entities that can afford this.

  7. Pat: You didn’t mention THE obvious factor: $$$Costs$$$ to travel. I was a three seat season ticket holder for 19 seasons with great seats, top row in the shade SE corner. Travel costs more than it use to, period. Example, we easily attended the first 5 SEC Championship games with friends and went to KY& TN, affordable in the 1990s. Now, it cost as much to go to Atlanta as those 5 trips combined! Most fans don’t have $2-3K to take a family on the road for a single game. You had plenty of numbers, but forgot the real reason for rises and falls in secular life entertainment: MONEY.

  8. Been to many UF road games through the years. All it takes is one drunken idiot fan of the home team to ruin the experience the road experience. Couple that with time and expense of travel and the decision is easy, stay home and watch in peace and comfort.

  9. Watching a UF game on my 80 inch samsung with a sound system, accompanied by plenty of cold beer, burgers, and wings v. traveling to another city, paying outrageous prices for tickets, hotels, meals, and parking, and sitting in terrible seats?? Hello?? Easy decision–stay home!

  10. We all seem to agree on the reasons for the poor road attendance. I don’t go to away games because of the cost (lodging, food, gas, etc.). Also, if you are not used to the city, there is a lack of familiarity with where to park, where to eat, traffic patterns, etc. and yes, who wants to go one or two states away, spend a small fortune, possibly get lost or park in a bad part of town to see their team perform badly?

    Most of the teams mentioned in this article have had less than desirable seasons the last several years and if you are Alabama, why spend big money to watch your team crush a bad one? The younger generations also are more concerned with sending a selfie of them sitting at the game than they are enjoying the game. All these lead up to the lack of attendance. I don’t see the trend changing down the road.

  11. Traveling takes a day or two, and that along with the several other things mentioned here matters as well. if you travel, and then the gators play like they did at Arkansas a few years ago, and you are in a place you wouldn’t want to go anyway, and the crowd isn’t really with you, and as the fan base ages, traveling to away games loses its place on the things that are better being there than watching on TV.
    I did find the nosebleed section discussion interesting. in time, there may need to be augmentation of combining the Virtual reality of a better view with the crowd noise etc. to make those seats more valuable.
    The SEC’s decision years ago allow Atlanta and New Orleans to leave the conference (tech and Tulane) which have been replaced by towns no one has any interest in, such as Columbia, SC etc. is also a factor.
    hopefully in the future the SEC will have wiser leaders who can reverse the poor decisions of the past.

    • Columbia does throw a pretty good Elvis birthday bash each year, so there is that. Oh, and you can drive down to New Ellington from there to get some the best mustard based BBQ and hash you ever tasted.

      Otherwise, your point is well taken, mveal.

  12. ConnGator hit it on the head. It’s not that opposing fans are not at the stadium they are just sitting in better seats. Internet ticket companies have made this possible. Why spend $100 per ticket from the school ticket office sitting in the end zone or at the goal line (one of those great “2,000 lower level seats”) when you can spend a little more (like $150) for 30 to 50 yard line seats in the lower level from an online vendor.
    I also agree that cost, time necessary to travel and other factors greatly influence going to away games and the fact that you can sit home and watch the game on the SEC network or ESPN makes it a no brainer.

  13. I would think the growing hostility to visiting fans would play a large part in the lower numbers. Damned if I’m going to drive 8 or 10 hours, rent an overpriced room and then be threatened, or even possibly harmed, at a football game.

  14. I live in North Carolina, so every game would be a road trip for us. That said, with my 65″ HD TV in my upstairs man-cave and the SEC network on my satellite package showing EVERY game these days, I really have no incentive to travel to any of the games. Besides, as my wife will tell you, I can still scream and throw my Gator hats across the room at the TV when the Gators are playing poorly ( a common occurrence these past few seasons). Oh,also the beer is colder and cheaper and I have lot of hats here.

    • My man-cave, Dan, is in the garage. I park my car in the barn accordingly, leaving half of it for gun safes, gun bench, Gator memorabilia and DirecTv set up. It is hot in the fall, but until recently that’s the only place I was allowed to smoke cigars while I watch the Gators. I also throw Gator hats at the TV and weave a tapestry of profanity that lingers until sometime in March-April when they are playing like bone heads. Can’t smoke cigars at all now, still hotter than hell till November, but I do expect the hat throwing and cussing part to taper off right nicely this year!

      • Well said “6”! You truly personify what a Gator living in Texas should be. I am sure your “car” is really a pickup, or at least a Suburban. As I recall during my 5 year exile to the Texas division of my company, they called big SUV’s “Texas station wagons”. I am also confident that the coming season for the Gators will permit me to reduce my swearing and save wear and tear on my Gator hat collection. Not completely of course, but still better. But then basketball season will start and it will be back to the hat throwing! But I really do like Coach White. Go Gators!

        • Well, I’m gonna admit something I never thought I’d have to admit to, Dan, but up to a week ago the “car” really was a truck, had always been a truck, and was always set up with a big lift and 33×12.50 mud grips, likewise plastered with every Gator sticker known to man and then some, the latest iteration of which was a beautiful 2016 Tundra that was better than Viagra. Much to my chagrin, after the CVA in February, I couldn’t easily get in and out of it and noticed a distinct tendency to be running over stuff that really didn’t need runned over.

          Now it’s a 2019 BMW X3. But it still has Gator stickers plastered all over it, the tackier the better, and the tag still reads Gator 6. I plan to put a lift kit on it just as soon as I can find out who makes one, and I figure that my wife, who is at least pleased that I won’t be running over anybody with the Tundra now, will be speaking to me again well before the bowl games.

  15. Here are the FSU numbers from a chart that they didn’t have room for:
    Sunshine slowdown
    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

  16. Thanks very much for the stats, Pat. Interesting to see the FSU numbers sliding as well, though as others have mentioned online ticket brokers could account for dome of this. I haven’t bought a ticket for any game in my part of the country through whatever the official site is in years. But the difference between the Nole games and others is the lack of a need for a hotel room or even an extra tank of gas.

    I will always remember as a student in ’93 the moment before Charlie Ward found Warrick Dunn for a stunning 80-yard touchdown catch and run as the loudest experience of my life. I was in the end zone, sitting next to a Nole fan whom I didn’t know. As the noise built during the pass rush that forced Ward out of the pocket, he and I glanced at each other, sharing looks of both extreme ear pain and absolute amazement at the exciting game we were witnessing. However much I like comfort and hate crowds, experiencing moments like that can never come while sitting in front of my screen.

  17. Gator fans will travel more when there is a better product on the field. Other than that I agree with the rest of the article. We traveled relentlessly in the 90s and early 2000s but there is a different brand of fan these days. The technology part is a big thing too. Time will tell.

  18. Everyone one of these comments are factors in the decrease in road travel in my opinion. In addition, I’d submit that this affects the home crowds as well. Here in Knoxville, you hear the discussion often about how to fill Neyland. Students aren’t as interested…at least in the game. And the seating is uncomfortable at best. I’ll go to the Gator-UT game every other year and I have great seats 14 rows from the field, in the shade, but they are tiny and you literally cannot move for 3 plus hours.

    I wear Gator blue and I gotta tell you, I’m a US Marine and I hear things at the games that would make both me and Gator-6 blush. The home fans (not just at UT…I’ve experienced it at Auburn, LSU, Georgia, and Clemson, can be downright brutal to the visitors. This mean-spirited behaviour is just a sign of the times I think. I can get free tickets to any UT game and I usually just opt to stay home in the man cave (the little missus makes a mean green onion dip…..). I used to love the game day atmosphere but I guess I’m just getting old.

    I’ll probably travel to one Gator home game this year and maybe one away game but I, like most of you, find the price tag almost too steep for my liking.