In 1984, when the Oklahoma University won a landmark antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA at the Supreme Court that gave schools and conferences the right to handle their own television rights packages, NCAA officials argued that allowing teams to play more than one game on television each year would kill college football attendance. It wasn’t true then — if anything, more college football on television made the sport even more popular nationally — but it might be starting to come true now.
According to an al.com analysis, college football attendance was down 3 percent over the first month of the season from a year ago. And a year ago, college football attendance was down 3 percent from the year before. Judging college football attendance is notoriously difficult mid-season, since the number of fans often fluctuates with the strength of the schedule, but the declines appear to be turning into somewhat of a trend. People are still going to football games — the average attendance is still above 45,000 — but fewer are going than have in recent years. In 2012, full-season attendance hit its lowest point since 2003.
Why is that? Theories abound. Students aren’t turning out in droves, according to the Wall Street Journal, which blamed terrible WiFi at stadiums as one cause. Fans don’t like the weakness of non-conference schedules, others propose. Others blame rising ticket prices. And all of those may be factors. But take a look at the numbers, and it seems like television may be the root of it.
There are more college football games on TV now than ever before, and by early indications, more people are watching them. The ESPN family is experiencing huge gains on Saturdays. ESPN’s Saturday night football games are drawing nearly 3.9 million viewers a week, a 33 percent increase over 2012, according to TV By The Numbers. ABC, ESPN’s parent, is averaging more than 6.3 million viewers, a 17 percent increase from 2012. CBS drew its highest rating in 23 years for its telecast of Alabama-Texas A&M in September (that game still managed to sell out). On September 10, the second week of the season, ESPN posted its most-viewed Saturday of college football ever.
Those networks focus primarily on marquee games. But the growth is across the board. On ESPNU, a network that broadcasts less-popular games, ESPN’s growth is still strong: its Saturday night games are averaging 651,000 viewers through five weeks, up 30 percent from a year ago. And it isn’t just TV: according to ESPN, it averaged 271,000 viewers on its digital platforms through the first two weeks of the season, a nine percent increase from 2012. The total number of minutes viewed — 86,700,000 — is up 51 percent from a year ago.
When I was a student at the University of Kentucky, and even when I first moved to Washington, it wasn’t uncommon to not be able to watch games live. Kentucky isn’t a marquee football school, and its early season games were often played only on a local network, sometimes on pay-per-view or in a delayed telecast. But the Southeastern Conference, of which Kentucky is a member, signed a billion-dollar deal with ESPN to go along with its existing contract with CBS. Every Kentucky game this season has been available on television or through ESPN’s live-streaming services (Kentucky’s attendance is, incidentally, up so far this season, but that can be attributed to three factors: its home schedule is stronger than last year’s, it has a new coach that brought excitement to the program, and last season’s attendance was so low it’d be nearly impossible to get worse).
At other schools and in other conferences, the same can be said. The Big XII, Big Ten, ACC, and Pac-12 have all signed new television rights packages that put most of their games on regional or national television, and leagues are now starting their own networks too. It is those schools that make up the biggest piece of college football attendance, and few of their games aren’t accessible through television or live-streaming. The games that aren’t viewable are most likely to be low-attendance games (those against much smaller schools) anyway. At the same time, high-definition television and improved live-streaming services are only improving the viewing experience.
The other factors surely matter: social media participation is becoming an increasing part of the viewing experience, and bad WiFi makes that hard to do in stadiums. Ticket prices, at least to top games, have been rising. The cost of food, drinks, and beer (at least at games where it is served — it is not at SEC stadiums) is rising too. But the ability to stay at home and watch the game on television — along with no fewer than a half-dozen others played at the same time — has only increased the importance of those factors. Why would fans trek to games if they can get an excellent viewing experience at home, all with cheaper food and beer, no ticket or parking costs, and no gameday hassles.
Is this bad for schools and college football’s power-brokers? They certainly think it is, worrying as they are about attendance declines becoming ingrained, particularly among students, who could represent a lost generation of in-person attendees. But for fans, the increase of television is clear win: they get more football and more viewing options, and a viewing experience that is only going to keep improving as networks like ESPN, Fox, CBS, and NBC keep battling for viewers both on television and on other platforms. At the same time, that competition will only fuel schools and the NCAA to get more creative in how they improve the viewing experience in the stadium in an effort to keep people coming back.