We were a bit surprised to learn that college football students are showing up in fewer numbers at home games. Many colleges have record enrollments, such as the University of Missouri, but the home fall football games aren’t attracting them.
What’s the source of that news? A recent issue of The Wall Street Journal carried a report, “College Football, Minus the Students.”
“Declining student attendance is an illness that has been spreading for years nationwide. But now it has hit the Southeastern Conference, home to college football’s best teams and supposedly its most fervent fans, giving athletic officials reason to fret about future ticket sales and fund-raising,” Ben Cohen wrote.
MU is one of the new members of the SEC, playing its second season in that conference. We attend most of the MU home games. Over the years what we have noticed about student attendance is that a number of students leave the game at halftime and by the end of the third quarter attendance really drops. If it’s a very close game against one of the major opponents, attendance holds up well during the game.
This observation is not new. That’s the way it was at MU ten or 20 years ago.
The Journal story centered on the University of Georgia at Athens. The sudents there left 39 percent of their designated sections empty over the last four years. Students are allocated 18,000 tickets a game. Between 2009 and 2012, never more than 15,000 tickets were sold.
Even at the hotbed of college football, Alabama, 32 percent of the student allocation of seats were unused between 2009 and 2012. Even though Alabama ranked at the top or near the top of all college football, student seats were not in demand that much. Georgia has reassigned 2,000 of the student seats to other fans. The Journal said students focus on the big games to be in the stadium at many colleges.
Since most games of the major schools are televised, students are comfortable watching games in frat houses, lounges on campus and at campus hangouts where they can party while viewing the game. While the colleges depend on television for the money it generates, it is a factor in student attendance at game. Television coverage has improved so much with the advance in technology that you can see the game better on the screen than sitting in the stadium.
Tailgating by adults at college football games is at an all-time high.The picnics on asphalt or grass have become quite elaborate. Many “fans” go just for the tailgating. Many never enter the game. Some exit the stadium at halftime and never return. At SEC games, if you leave at the half, you can’t get back in the stadium. Don’t understand that rule. We hear reports that some SEC fans arrive at away games days in advance. That certainly helps the local economies.
We attended the MU game at Tennessee last season. Since the university and stadium are at riverside, people were tailgating on boats, some of which appeared to be capable of ocean travel. Others were tailgating on the river’s banks and in parking garages. The old downtown section of Knoxville was overflowing with fans. We did notice there were empty seats in the huge stadium and the student section was not filled.
Another factor is that most colleges play weak opponents in nonconference games. Usually the games are runaway scores and student interest just isn’t there. There are exceptions to all of this. MU’s recent conference warmup game with Arkansas State proved to be a real challenge for the Tigers, who did not play well. The 41-19 victory was much closer than the score indicated.
There is no question that weather affects attendance by students. Many will not sit in the rain, cold or real hot weather. The quality of the home team also affects attendance by students and adults. One thing we have noticed at MU home games is the number of older adults who never miss a game. That was true 50 or 60 years ago and is true today.
There are college students who simply aren’t interested in football or other sports. We knew students when we were at MU who never attended a game in any sport. They just were not interested.
MU is adding seating to its stadium. Other schools are doing the same thing. Many of these additions to stadiums are for the more affluent fans who can afford the seating prices, which keep going up. Then there are other charges that were unheard of in past years. Donations are expected for choice parking. Point systems based on donations are being used to qualify for the best parking lots. Surcharges are being placed on regular season ticket holders — donate or lose your seat. It doesn’t matter if you have had the seats for decades. Generally, much of the new seating is called luxury suites or boxes.
We don’t know if MU is going to be able to fill all of the added seating. Certainly it will allow, we would think, more seats for visitors. As for the students, they have many other options today than going to the stadium. Students can be bored with too many winning seasons, or with too many losing seasons.
College football has a tradition that isn’t matched by many other options for students. For many of us, it was a big part of attending college. But the times change. Football will survive but it’s going to take some more hits. The one option of watching games on TV may be the most danaging to student attendance.