A long time ago, college football scoreboards were fairly simple and comparable to this. They showed the teams, the clock, the quarter, field position, and the score. And that was all you needed. Some fancier scoreboards might have even shown the down and yards to go for a first down. The public address announcer didn’t have to hype the crowd, and if you wanted music, you waited to see the band at halftime. I know. I was there.
Compared to that era, today’s college football stadiums are self-contained, multimedia universes. The giant video scoreboards show the games in real-time as well as replays, highlights, hype videos, advanced statistics, out-of-town scores, crowd shots, and more. If you want to watch another game, you can stream to your phone via the stadium wifi. Any dead air left by the stadium announcer is filled with music spun by a DJ and blasted through a state-of-the-art sound system. And home team scores are often celebrated with July 4th-worthy pyrotechnic displays.
But somehow, all of that still isn’t enough to keep fans engaged and in the stadium. That was driven home recently when University of Mississippi head football coach Lane Kiffin called out his school’s fan base for their lack of engagement with the team at games. More specifically, Kiffin wasn’t happy with fans showing up late before the game, then leaving at halftime and returning late in the third quarter, if they return at all. And the problem isn’t only at Ole Miss.
College football has a built-in, constantly replenishing fan base, and thanks to lucrative TV revenues and generous alumni donations, stadiums to hold them keep getting bigger. But fewer fans are filling those stadiums. The average attendance for a college football game nationally has declined for each of the last seven years. While the pandemic may get the blame for some of that, the attendance average of 39,848 was the lowest number since 1981. And the fans that do show up aren’t always staying for the whole game.
So what’s keeping college football fans away from the stadium? The experience might be unique on each campus, but some things are common at every school.
It’s no secret that plenty of alcohol is consumed before, during, and after college football games. But, since many schools have shied away from alcohol sales for a variety of reasons, enjoying a beer during the game meant leaving and coming back or sneaking it in. Both of those options became more difficult after 9/11, but as the example at Ole Miss shows, leaving the game to grab a beer is still pretty easy.
As game days have become bigger events, the parties surrounding the game have grown exponentially. Campus bars host tent parties offering cheap beer while also showing the game on huge big screens. Tailgate parties, which were once as primitive as hot dogs grilled on a hibachi in the parking lot and a cooler of beer in the trunk, are now set up to feed hundreds in designated areas on campus with a spread that would rival any game day buffet. And thanks to portable generators and smart, flat-screen TVs, one can enjoy a full, on-campus game day experience, a great meal, and watch the game while having a beer without even going to, or returning to, the game. And, it seems more people are doing just that.
Whether it’s via broadcast, streaming, or pay-per-view, just about every college football game is available on television now. Those game broadcasts have better views of the game, better camera angles, and better analysis and replay options than you’ll ever get sitting in the stadium. And for those reasons, many fans no longer feel the need to watch the entire game from their stadium seats.
The number of televised games may also be the reason for declining attendance overall. Today’s fans can park in their media cave, watch their alma mater on a 100”, high-definition, view a second game simultaneously, and stream a third on their phone, tablet, or laptop without the hassle or expense of a day spent on campus. Throw in texting and FaceTime, and fans can even interact with friends and family wherever they might be.
As noted above, thanks to the Internet, satellite TVs, streaming, and smartphones, people have more opportunities to be distracted. That’s also created a shorter consumer attention span. Add in a more diversified broadcast menu, a more diversified student body, and the tradition of college game day rituals may no longer be enough to keep fans glued to their stadium seats.
Is There A Solution?
At many stadiums, the privileged few with access to stadium suites do enjoy all the perks that most others seek outside the stadium. Some schools are beginning to offer alcohol at games, and others are installing big screens, party decks, beer gardens, and food court areas. Will that be enough to keep college football fans engaged and in the stadium? Only time will tell.