Bowl attendance lags 2.1 percent
NEW ORLEANS -- When Nevada and Southern Mississippi met in the Hawaii Bowl, the crowd -- if you can call it that -- at the 50,000-seat Aloha Stadium made it look as if a high school game was in progress.
That might not even be fair. The Hawaii state championship actually outdrew the Hawaii Bowl this season by 1,000.
Bowl attendance was down 2.1 percent overall this season through the first 31 games of the 35-game postseason.
Bowl officials point toward a struggling economy as the reason for the dip in fans attending games, but the luck of the draw also plays heavily into how well a postseason game does at the gate. One thing you can count on: The solution for those unsightly rows of empty seats won't be a big reduction in the full, some would say bloated, calendar of 35 bowl games.
The Hawaii Bowl had its attendance drop by about 22,000 to 19,411, mostly because Hawaii didn't make it back to the game this season.
The Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tenn., had a drop of about 14,000 from last season's game, which matched up Tennessee and North Carolina. This season, Mississippi State played Wake Forest.
On the plus-side was The Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl, which had an increase of 14,000 at Ford Field in Detroit to see Western Michigan play Purdue.
"We're not down a ton, I think we're down a notch," said Tina Kunzler-Murphy, the executive director of the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas and the chairwoman of the Football Bowl Association. She said the average overall attendance for bowl season has been more than 50,000 -- that's with a sellout crowd expected for Monday's BCS title game at the Superdome between No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama.
"I think historically the FBA has supported keeping a top on the number of bowl games," Kunzler-Murphy said. "I think we've watched the numbers with the NCAA. If you talked to most people those numbers are probably where they need to be."
Dennie Poppe, NCAA vice president for Division I baseball and football, said the bowl licensing subcommittee will review the postseason in February, and that it is too soon speculate why attendance is down. "It could be a mix of several factors such as the pairings, economy, proximity of the bowls for some fans, etc.," he said in an email.
Bowls rely on the participating schools to buy an allotment of tickets to distribute to their fans. Those allotments can range from around 3,000 to a game such as the Humanitarian Bowl in Boise, Idaho, to 17,500 for one of the top-tier BCS games. So even if it looks as if there are plenty of good seats available, it's possible that those empties have been paid for by universities.
As the bowl schedule has expanded over the years, organizers have placed a greater emphasis on placing teams relatively close to home to give fans a more manageable trip to the game. It's not just the price of a game ticket that can scare fans away, but the price of a plane ticket.
So when Georgia Tech ends up in the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, against Utah, it helps explain why that game's attendance dipped to 48,123, from last year's 54,021 when Notre Dame's large and motivated fanbase gobbled up tickets to see the Fighting Irish play old rival Miami.
Sometimes even having a team from nearby doesn't help, particularly if that team isn't very good.
The Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco drew 29,878 to AT&T Park to watch UCLA play Illinois, down from the 41,063 for last season's game between Nevada and Boston College.
Few Bruins fans ventured up the coast to watch their 6-7 team.
Still, bowls need to be able tap into their local market to sell tickets.
Andrew Bagnato, a spokesman for the Fiesta Bowl, said No. 3 Oklahoma State and No. 4 Stanford each sold their allotments to the BCS game in Glendale, Ariz., but the attendance of 69,927 was still about 3,000 short of a sellout.
"Phoenix has had a terrible economy with the housing crunch," he said. "The sports teams in Phoenix have struggled.
"We had to be creative to sell what would normally be considered our season tickets. We had to use a lot of social media this year. The Fiesta Bowl generally is sold out. But this year you could get good seats."
The Insight Bowl, which is also run by the Fiesta Bowl, did better with a sellout crowd of 54,247 to watch a couple of name-brand programs in Oklahoma and Iowa. Though Bagnato also said that bowl organizers have to be more careful than ever about making sure tickets are affordable.
"One thing we've seen with the Insight Bowl is the tickets are priced right," he said. "Upper deck seats were $25."
The cost of taking her family of five to the Fight Hunger Bowl was too much for Illinois alum Gina Raith, even though she lives in nearby San Anselmo, Calif., and loved the idea of watching her beloved Illini on a sunny and mild San Francisco day.
"It just wasn't in the cards financially," said the 45-year attorney and yoga instructor.
Raith said she was looking at paying about $50 per ticket, though the price was going down on the secondary market. Still, she and her husband couldn't justify plunking down the several hundred dollars it would have cost to pay for tickets, transportation and parking, plus food and drinks for their three daughters.
"It felt too discretionary," she said.
No matter the cost, a poor matchup is hard to overcome, and bowl organizers only have so much control as far as that goes.
Kunzler-Murphy and her bowl organization found that out this year.
The Las Vegas-based bowl paired No. 8 Boise State -- generally a good draw, though its fans were disappointed to be left out of the BCS -- against an Arizona State team the sputtered to the finish of the with four straight losses and fired its coach after the regular season.
Attendance for the MAACO Bowl was down 14.8 percent from 41,923 to 35,720 this season, and Sun Devils fans were smart to pass on the long drive (about 5½ hours) or short flight from Tempe, Ariz., to Las Vegas.
Boise State won 56-24.
"We thought we were going to have a pretty good matchup," she said. "We can't play the game for the teams."
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press