College football attendance isn't down as much as it appears

(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Expect to hear a lot about lagging attendance — and plenty of images on social media from the media poking fun at half-empty stadiums — at college football games this season. A growing concern among FBS college football administrators has been the difficulty in filling stadiums for every contest.

At the start of the 2014 season we’re already seeing this trend continue, as several athletic departments are scrambling to sell tickets for even their home opener. Michigan is selling a package deal via Living Social for its game against Appalachian State. Washington State dumped over 1,000 discounted tickets on Groupon for its opener against Rutgers tonight in Seattle. There will be plenty more examples to point to throughout the season.

If major conference programs can’t sell tickets for a home opener, something needs to change. But is the situation as bleak as it appears?

According to the NCAA, not really. NCAA data shows college football attendance has been flat for several years. Last season, as the poor attendance cries grew louder, there was even a slight uptick. While the lack of growth is concerning, a downward trend hasn’t occurred.

FBS Football Attendance

This data is encouraging because it speaks to the overall health of the live college football experience. But reported attendance figures must be taken with a grain of salt, since most teams tally up tickets sold rather than turnstile count. Those numbers can easily be manipulated.

Either way, if students aren’t showing up to games, it’s a cause for concern. Students are the future season-ticket holders and major donors to their alma mater. USA TODAY Sports hit on this very concern for athletic directors, “if schools are struggling to get their millennials to come to the stadium now – when tickets are plentiful and cheap – how can they reasonably expect to convert them into ticket buyers and donors down the road?”

In the short term, an athletic department such as Michigan, with its abundance of major revenue streams, can make up for the ticket sales loss in other ways. Michigan generated $144 million in revenue during 2012-13, and $37 million came from football home games. If that figure starts to drop severely at Michigan and elsewhere, you can expect measures to be taken to improve not only the in-venue experience, but the non-conference schedule.

When you consider the money that cable networks are pouring into rights fees and the increased programming around college football, the product is as popular as ever. However, athletic departments must work tirelessly to ensure that the at-home experience doesn’t continue to cut into their bottom line.

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