College Football and the Choke Point

Attendance in college football declined again in 2014. Another blip on the radar? Or a sign of troubling times to come?

Are you surprised that Stanford Football attendance declined 6 percent from the 2013 season?

That news shouldn’t come as a shock. Weak home schedule, wonky kickoff times…and, yeah, that whole not-a-Rose-Bowl-contender thing, too. That combination will probably have an adverse effect on anyone’s gate.

That decline merely looks at the official numbers. It would be even steeper based on the number of folks that actually showed up to Stanford Stadium. I wasn’t standing at the gates with a clicker, but I know 44,135 people didn’t actually walk through the gates to watch Stanford beat Washington State back in October.

Stanford wasn’t the only school to suffer a decline at the gate from last year. Far from it. From coast to coast, empty seats have become a larger part of the in-person college football experience of late.

The other parts of the college football experience these days seem to be less about marching bands, tailgates, and rivalries. Now, it’s more about higher prices for tickets and concessions, insane traffic, lackluster opponents, fans who don’t know how to act, and not knowing when the kickoff is going to be until six days before the game. It’s hard to actually invest the time, energy, and money into going to a college football game, and it’s getting harder by the year.

All of those things seem to be reflected in the attendance numbers. According to CBSSports.com, Football Bowl Subdivision schools averaged 43,483 fans per home game this season. That’s down 4 percent from 2013. That mark is down over 6 percent from its peak in 2008. It’s also the lowest average since 2000.

This flies in the face of all the money that is flying around the sport. College football has become one big cash grab for the schools, the conferences, the coaches, the television networks, all the people who matter. Well, except the players. But that’s a different conversation.

But if more people are staying home, does this mean the bubble has burst? Is this the latest sign that college football is reaching the choke point where fans say it’s not worth it anymore? What does the choke point actually even look like?

I don’t know the answers to the first two questions. But I have an idea about the third answer. For that, let’s go to Ann Arbor. The Michigan Wolverines are one of college football’s traditional programs, but it’s been hell for the victors lately. Especially for those who actually want to see the Wolverines in person.

In a 2013 survey, Michigan students said the most important factor in buying football season tickets was the ability to sit with their friends. The Michigan athletic department responded by changing the student seating arrangements and removing that option. Although that policy was revised for the 2014 season, 6,000 students still dropped their season tickets, and student attendance at Michigan was down 10 percent this year. It was jarring to see all the empty seats at the Big House.

Having alienated the students, Michigan proceeded to tick everyone else off who wanted to buy a ticket for a football game. Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon wanted to give the fans a show. Accordingly, football was accompanied by fireworks. And flyovers. And a barrage of in-game ads and promotions on the video board. TV timeouts no longer featured the Michigan band; loud rock music blared over the speakers instead. Brandon wanted to turn Michigan football into a spectacle. And he did.

One problem. Michigan fans don’t want spectacle. They want to see the maize and blue take the field, and they want to sing “Hail To The Victors” at the top of their lungs at every opportunity. To most Michigan fans, the football game is the show, and it’s all the show they’ll ever need. All the other bells and whistles are unnecessary and unwelcome.

The result? Michigan football attendance—once highest in the nation—is down 7 percent since 2012.

Of course, all this ignores what Michigan really did to turn fans off: lose football games. Now, Dave Brandon is the ex-Michigan athletic director. Brady Hoke is the ex-Michigan head coach. And now, depending upon whom you believe, the school may be willing to shell out almost $50 million to bring in some guy named Jim Harbaugh to put out the dumpster fire. That’s an eye-popping amount for a public university, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed among college football’s biggest critics.

It’s like Michigan found the checklist of how to reach college football’s choke point. And so far, every box has been marked off. Alienate the students? Forget what your fan base really wants? Upset everyone else in the community by throwing even more money at the problem? Oh, and lose games? Check, check, check, and check. If Michigan hit its choke point, much of it was self-inflicted.

Ann Arbor is just one version of what things could look like when college football goes wrong, gets too corporate, and forgets the fans. But it’s not farfetched to suggest that many other schools are headed down the same path to the choke point. And they seem to have plenty of help from the television networks that are really running the show.

(By the way, the NFL is having an even bigger struggle with many of these same problems. And while television ratings for college football this year have been mixed, they’ve gone down for the NFL, in many cases significantly. Monday Night Football was losing out to The Walking Dead on AMC. Repeatedly. Think about that.)

College football is all about ritual and pageantry. The sights, the sounds, the good times tailgating with friends, the great times rooting for the dear old alma mater. In my view, it is still the best spectator sport in the country. And while evolution in sport is inevitable, many of the new directions college football seems to be heading in don’t make it a better product for the fans to consume in person.

The choke point is out there. And if college football isn’t careful, everyone involved could pay the price. That could merely mean emptier stadiums and disgruntled fans, like it does in Michigan. Or, it could mean paying the ultimate price, like it did at UAB.

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