Bowl attendance continues to fall across major college football, raising questions about the number of postseason games, the overall amount of fan interest in postseason play and the ways that schools and games market and sell tickets.
Through the first 19 games of the postseason, attendance is down an average of 3,138 fans per game from the 2011-12 bowl slate, according to a USA TODAY Sports analysis. Only three bowl games have drawn 5,000 or more fans than a year ago; six games have drawn 5,000 or fewer, including three, the Meineke Car Care, Belk and Little Caesars Bowl, that drew at least 18,000 fewer fans compared to last season.
USA TODAY Sports has tracked bowl attendance since 2004-05, and average attendance has declined each year since 2008-09. At an announced 17,835, Thursday’s Military Bowl at RFK Stadium in Washington was the lowest attended bowl game since USA TODAY Sports has tracked attendance.
Economic pressures are the primary reason behind declining fan attendance during bowl play, said Paul Swangard, the managing director of the University of Oregon’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. Beyond the economics of being able to buy tickets and travel to games, however, Swangard says “alarm bells” should be ringing for many postseason games.
“I think for a lot of the major conferences, the teams are all playing a 13th game whether they’re good or not,” Swangard said. “Those fan bases that have been sort of the dedicated nomads that would always follow are probably speaking with their pocketbook – ‘I’m not willing to travel every year.’ And some of those teams have to rely on the same fans to go year-in and year-out.”
The growth in the number of bowl games, now up to 35, can create postseason overload for some fan bases, especially those which were hoping for a different bowl berth – like Oregon, which was ranked No. 1 in the USA TODAY Sports Coaches Poll in November but fell to the Fiesta Bowl after a loss to Stanford.
“It’s fun to say that you’ve been to these games,” Swangard said, “but I think as more and more fans have gone through that experience, they realize to have the kind of premium experience they would want to have at some of these games, they’d have to pony up.”
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