Looking at Issues in College Football

Rounding up some thoughts on the general state of intercollegiate athletics right now. Empty seats such as this photo of Marshall at FIU screen grab shows is my big topic but before I get there….


If the CFP Selection Committee were to follow the AP Poll, three out of four playoff slots would go to the SEC. Since the four SEC teams in the top five still have games against each other that will shake up, but I think this going to color the thinking as the Power 5 start working on the rules.

Stipend is coming. Stipends used to be part of the scholarship package. It went away because administrators were concerned about a combination of issues. The recession of the early 70’s, falling enrollment as baby boomers moved out the college years coupled with the loss of people enrolling for draft deferments, and the potential impact of the newly adopted Title IX increasing the number of scholarship athletes. The stipends should have returned as revenue began growing in the mid-80’s but no one bothered addressing the issue.

What will be interesting with autonomy will be the SEC’s push for more deregulation in recruiting both in frequency and time of contact but also allowing people other than the limited on-field coaching staff contacting players. While the Big 10 is the richest of the leagues and likely to get much richer with their next TV contract, they use their money quite differently than the SEC. Most Big 10 schools sponsor more sports. The SEC offers championships in 21 sports, the Big Ten offers 28. The Pac-12 offers 30 sports and the ACC offers 27. Of the so-called power five, the Big XII with only 23 sports is most similar to the SEC.

When you consider that the Big 10, Pac-12, and ACC tend to offer more sports and have less available money to plow into football and with that the SEC’s strength it is unlikely those conferences are going to support the changes the SEC is seeking because they can’t match the SEC unless they start allocating their money differently.


A few things I’ve been meaning to deal with on the issue of TV.

First, the MAC’s TV deal. The MAC received a nice bump from ESPN by turning all of there content over to ESPN. Now any local or regional deals require getting the rights from ESPN. As I had noted in a prior piece about Major League Soccer’s deal, ESPN is really amping up their content for ESPN3 presumably to set the stage for charging internet providers more for ESPN3. That push for more online content seems to be the main factor in the extra dollars for the MAC just as it drove the MLS contract up.

Second, it was interesting on Saturday to see CUSA fans complaining about their contract with Sinclair’s over-the-air syndication network. The “missing” games were available if you have a sports package like the one Direct TV offers but fans in some markets expecting to see their game were greeted in one case by an infomercial and in another by an ACC syndicated game. I believe in the potential of over-the-air syndication but stations dropping out 8 weeks into the season would indicate advertiser support just isn’t there or the stations did not want to devote the effort sales because they were unable to charge enough premium to make it worthwhile.

Final TV thought. It was very interesting seeing fans from former Sun Belt schools complaining that they cannot get their games on ESPN3. Between Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, and Chromecast watching ESPN3 has become much easier. The popularity of Netflix, Hulu and other streaming services has increased the use of these devices and the expectation of streaking access to games not on conventional TV.


In many of the games on Saturday it was notable how many empty seats were visible.

That trend seems to increase each year, part of it is we are seeing teams that have not been staples of regular TV coverage because they have smaller fan bases, but there seems to be more at play.

Conventional wisdom has been that the home TV experience is so good that people no longer want to go to games. However if you look at the movie industry, attendance is falling a bit but when you consider that the major studios are releasing fewer movies, the attendance for major studio movies has remained fairly constant despite the fact that home viewers can nearly match the theater experience with a large screen TV.

I think we are seeing a shift where attending college football games at many schools is no longer considered a viable entertainment option for the casual fan. Prices at so many places have pushed the casual fan out. I’ve broken down some changes in casual entertainment option prices. In 1990 the average movie ticket cost $4.22 adjusted for inflation that would $7.68 roughly equal to the cost of a regular movie today (not 3d or IMAX). To purchase an album on CD in 1990 cost around $12, adjusted for inflation that would be $21.84 which is about double what an album costs at the iTunes store or from Amazon in digital format. The sales of ebooks have made books generally cheaper. A best-seller list work of fiction in ebook format when adjusted for inflation is about the same price as the paperback version (generally released a year after the hardback version) released in 2000 and even without adjusting for inflation sells for about half the price commanded in 2000 for a hardback best-seller fiction book.

College ticket prices haven’t followed the price trend of other casual entertainment options by remaining the same price when adjusted for inflation or even costing less when inflation is taken into account. For example a ticket at Michigan that cost $35 dollars in 1990 and would cost $63.69 if it kept pace with inflation now costs $115 for the Indiana game and $85 for Maryland. Looking at old sports ticket stubs on eBay, the SWC match-up of Arkansas vs. Houston in Little Rock in 1981 with both teams coming off bowls had a face price of $10. Adjusted for inflation that would be $26.17 today. Georgia charged $27 for Arkansas in 2001 or $36.26 today except that wasn’t the price in Little Rock last Saturday. The face ticket price was $65 before a required donation of $35.

The casual fan has been pushed out at many places. Following @EmptySeatPics on twitter I noticed that Portland State had sold few sideline tickets. The person who had sent the photo in reported that Portland State was charging $30 for those seats. The supply of tickets is exceeding demand and for the most part prices are not adjusting to get back in line with demand with the exception of varying prices for different games. Premium and ultra-premium seating areas seem to be priced in line with demand with few exception (most notable was Maryland who built additional suites and club seating several years ago and struggled to sell those seats creating a financial crisis).

Administrators are going to have to rethink either their pricing strategy or alter their stadiums to reflect the decreased demand for tickets at current prices. They can remove seats, tarp over seats, or change pricing strategy leaving prices alone or raising prices for seats that sell easily around midfield and dropping prices for less desired seats to make games more attractive casual fans.

Some photos from Saturday.

Michigan State at Indiana

Cincinnati at SMU

UTSA at La.Tech

Tulane at UCF