Bowl attendance continues to lag

Advocate staff photo by HEATHER McCLELLAND -- Banners hang above fans attending the Sugar Bowl in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013.
Advocate staff photo by HEATHER McCLELLAND -- Banners hang above fans attending the Sugar Bowl in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013.

The scene at this year’s BCS national championship game in Miami was typical for what you would expect for the season’s ultimate contest.

In the parking lot among tailgaters, crimson-bedecked Alabama rooters and the occasional Notre Dame bagpiper, fans held up outstretched fingers, straining their necks above the milling crowd to seek out ticket scalpers. Here and there, buyer would find seller, come to an agreeable price in a hushed huddle and complete the transaction with numerous $100 bills involved.

Inside the stadium, the stands were packed, the announced attendance of 80,120 the largest for any sporting event ever at Sun Life Stadium. Notre Dame fans, eager to see their team play for its first national title in nearly a quarter-century, appeared to slightly outnumber Alabama fans watching their team play for its third championship in four years.

By the second half of the Crimson Tide’s 42-14 rout of the Fighting Irish, most of those Notre Dame fans had melted away, many of them surely wondering why they had parted with so much cash for a seat to a game that was over by halftime.

There was something else about the second-half remnants of that record crowd: It resembled the way sparsely filled stands looked at many bowl games this year. According to the Birmingham News, bowl attendance reached its lowest average in more than 30 years for the second straight season.

Average attendance for the 35 2012-13 bowl games was 49,222, down 2 percent from the year before and the lowest average since 48,404 in 1978-79. That year, there were 15 bowl games.

Overall, 18 bowls had attendance increases from the year before. Some, like the Cotton Bowl matchup between Texas A&M and Oklahoma, had no problem selling out, including the allotments of 12,500 tickets each school was required to purchase. Ole Miss fans, emboldened by a 6-6 regular season after two straight losing ones, snapped up more than 30,000 tickets for the typically attendance-challenged BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala., against Pittsburgh.

But other bowls struggled to sell tickets. The Sugar Bowl drew only 54,178 for Florida/Louisville, the game’s lowest attendance since 1939, when it was played in old Tulane Stadium.

The Chick-fil-A Bowl, despite being the most-watched non-BCS bowl in ESPN history, was played in a Georgia Dome that was only about two-thirds full. LSU and Clemson were unable to sell a combined 14,500 tickets from their allotments.

As college football looks ahead to its final season under the BCS system and the arrival of the four-team playoff, one of the pressing issues will be how to determine bowl alignments, matchups and ticket allotments.

“As all of us look at our bowl relationships, they all come due” for 2014, Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive said Jan. 8 at the BCS playoff meetings in Key Biscayne, Fla. “I know in our league we’re going to sit down and have a serious conversation about ticketing and issues. Since we’ve made such a significant change with the playoff, it’s a good time to look at the bowls and how they work.”

Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said he would like to see conference partnerships to create more varied bowl possibilities. He said his conference has been focused on bowls in Florida and Texas and on the West Coast, but he would like to see his teams be involved in more bowls nationally.

“We’ve had 20 years of bowl tie-ins and 10 years or close to it with a 12th (regular-season) game,” he said. “I think the new cycle should reflect a different set of priorities.”

He cited Wisconsin’s three consecutive trips to the Rose Bowl and the kind of “fatigue” that can affect fan attendance.

“The first time they went, they sold 30,000-plus tickets,” Delany said. “The second time they went, they sold (22,000) or 23,000, and the third time they sold (16,000) or 17,000. So every time a fan base goes back to the same area, unless it’s for the national championship game, there’s going to be a little bit of fatigue.”

Though not advocating a reduction in bowls, Delany questioned whether teams should be allowed to be bowl-eligible with a 6-6 record as they have since the arrival of the 12-game regular season.

“When you see Vanderbilt or Duke hasn’t been in a while or one of our schools that hasn’t been in a while, it’s nice,” he said. “But does it do much good when Ohio State plays Florida, and both teams are 6-6 (as in the 2012 Gator Bowl)? There’s a fatigue factor. You want the fan bases to be excited. But if you don’t stay home occasionally, if you have ice cream after every meal, it’s not as appealing as if you have it sometimes.”

Despite that sentiment, Delany said he believes 6-6 bowl-eligible teams are here to stay.

Chick-fil-A Bowl President/CEO Gary Stokan said he thought his game’s attendance was affected by the secondary ticket market — tickets sold locally that were then re-sold on websites such as StubHub.com or VividSeats.com.

Stokan said he thought those tickets, in sections along the sidelines, were snapped up by Clemson and LSU fans who wanted them instead of seats in the teams’ designated end zone sections.

The other issue facing all sports, not just college football, is the erosive effect television has had on attendance. Again according to the Birmingham News, college football’s overall attendance dipped to 45,274 fans per game, its lowest average since 2003.

Like his fellow commissioners, Delany is acutely aware of the impact TV has had in his time with the Big Ten.

“When I came in 1989, we had 16 games on television,” he said. “The only game that was national was Michigan/Ohio State. Now all the games are televised.

“There’s an incredible challenge that the NFL and colleges have that’s about the stadium experience compared to the experience at home. Home is really good. You have HD TV, couches, 50-inch screens. The stadium experience has to be good.”

Good and, perhaps, better to reverse a troubling attendance trend.