- Darren Rovell, ESPN.com Sports Business reporter
- 0 Shares
It was a game that, in the recent past, would have filled the student section.
No. 5 Oregon was in Tucson to take on Arizona and, despite consecutive home losses and a 6-4 record for the Wildcats, the Ducks and their lightning-quick offense were a pretty attractive draw.
But come kickoff, Arizona's 9,000-seat student section -- which provides seats from endzone to endzone along the home team's sideline -- was looking anemic. At the start of the third quarter, Arizona had built a 28-9 halftime lead in a huge upset bid over Oregon, which had only lost four of its last 42 conference games.
By the time Arizona officials stopped scanning student tickets into the game after the second-half kickoff, only 3,773 were accounted for, in a home game featuring a Heisman Trophy candidate, Ka'Deem Carey, against a rival.
The students finally came. By the time Arizona pulled off the 42-16 stunner, 5,000 more students had made the short walk from their dorms, ensured of being entertained. Sororities and fraternities joined the crowd, ready to storm the field and dismantle the goalposts. But if there's lack of interest for a game like this one, what does that say about the rest of the schedule?
Arizona sold 10,376 student season tickets this year. But 47.6 percent of those students, for an average game, didn't even show up.
It's not just happening at Arizona. It's an issue everywhere. Despite the NCAA celebrating an overall attendance record due to an increased number of programs, crowds topped out at an average of 46,456 fans per game in 2008, with attendance for FBS schools dropping below 46,000 per game for the past five seasons. But even more alarming: In analyzing the demographics of the college football crowd, athletic directors and marketers alike have been most baffled by the student population.
ESPN.com approached some of the biggest college football programs and asked them to volunteer their ticket data. How many tickets did programs sell? How many students actually showed up? And why didn't students feel like showing up?
"We have to solve this because we are talking about the season ticket-holders of tomorrow," said Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione. "But interests and attitudes are changing so rapidly it's not easy to quickly identify what we need to do."
Oklahoma is in the midst of the longest sellout streak in history. Its 92-game streak has easily surpassed the stretch from 1971-1984 when the school sold out 69 consecutive games. Its stadium seats 10,000 more fans today than when that streak began.
But a look at the student section tells a different story. Oklahoma sells more than 8,000 student season tickets each year, which represents roughly a third of its student population in Norman. The school gives students time to claim their tickets -- which come at a 76 percent discount to the regular price -- during the week leading up to a home game, and if they aren't claimed by that Friday, they go back into a pool and are sold to the general population.
The average number of students that showed up to its home games on Saturday this season was 5,752, meaning that, on average, 28 percent of the student tickets weren't used on gameday. And that's for a team that was 10-2 this season.
For students, there wasn't just one issue.
The most common complaints included restrictions on tailgating at the stadium, or the quality of presentation of the games on television compared to the sight lines and breaks in the action at the stadium. Fans of the worst teams complained that the games weren't competitive enough, yet so did did fans of the best teams. One thing that wasn't an issue? Ticket prices, as most are either free or heavily subsidized.
This year, the University of Michigan drew the most fans of any school for the 16th year in a row. But 26 percent of students who paid for their tickets didn't show up at an average home game this season. That's an increase from 25 percent last year and 21 percent in 2011.
Not only did Michigan have more no-shows, they also only sold 19,850 student season tickets, about a 10 percent drop from the year before. Michigan added a $7.50 fee to each ticket this season to support student programs and also took away senior reserved seating in favor of a general admission policy which contributed to fewer people buying tickets.
Hoping to slow the slide, Michigan sent out a questionnaire to students at season's end, asking them why they might not have been happy with the stadium experience.
Adam Stillman, a senior at Michigan who attended all but one of the team's home games this year, shared his answers with ESPN.com. How he prioritized his answers might scare administrators, many of whom have looked to Wi-Fi connectivity as the answer to attracting younger fans. Stillman ranked sitting with friends, sitting close to the field, the outcome of the game, tailgating, the student section atmosphere, food specials and entertainment before the importance of Wi-Fi.
"I've kind of accepted that I'm not getting reception in and around Michigan Stadium," Stillman said. "The problem is in all the other areas. There's nothing to do while I'm waiting on line for an hour to get into the stadium, and there's little added value from being in the stands watching the game."
As the business of college football grew, many schools began moving student sections into some of the worst seats in order to make boosters happy in prime seats. But as student crowds at some schools started to fade, athletic department officials at those schools began to understand that if they didn't get the students in the building while they were at school, they might not get their money in the future.
Perhaps no school understands this more than the University of Miami. Faced with the challenge of playing at a stadium located 20 miles from its campus, the school this year elected to give the students better seats, moving them from behind the endzone to behind the visiting bench. How does that make financial sense when student tickets are free?
"If the seats are filled, our product looks better on television and the coordination effect within the marketplace and PR perception within recruiting will eventually make our game-day product more attractive to consumers," said Chris Freet, the school's senior associate athletic director for communications, marketing and sales.
Freet said the school is working harder than ever before to make coming to games an important part of going to the school.
"We spend a great amount of time in the summer and the fall working on the freshman," Freet said. "We want them to understand that athletics is a big part of college life at Miami and make sure that their first experiences are entertaining. If you get off on the right foot, hopefully they become a fan and matriculate to a season-ticket-holder after graduation."
Success, or lack thereof, on the field obviously plays an important role. For years, Iowa's student section capacity was steady at 10,400 students per game. But this year after going 19-19 in games from 2010-2012, the school only sold 7,500 tickets and an average of 30 percent of those students didn't show up for the games. In the middle of the season, Iowa closed off two sections of the stadium previously occupied by students and began selling those tickets to the general public. Only half the student tickets purchased for the game against Michigan, which happened during the school's Thanksgiving break, were used.
Missing one out of every fifth student who bought a ticket has become pretty common these days. Michigan State has sold out its 13,500 student tickets since 2007, but the school says its no-show rate for home games this year still was about 20 percent. That's for a season in which the Spartans went 13-1, won the Big Ten title and ended the season with a victory over Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
Penn State's overall attendance has been on a five-year decline that represents a total drop of almost 10 percent. The students are actually seen as a bright spot, as the school sold almost 1,000 more full season tickets this year (21,368). An 18.1 percent student no-show rate is actually among the best in the Big Ten.
"While game time, opponent, promotion and record all had some effect, weather had the most direct effect on our student crowd," said Jeff Garner, Penn State's assistant athletic director for ticketing sales and service.
For Penn State, that means cold, wind, rain and snow. For Georgia, heat certainly plays a role, though the exact reason for the school's precipitous decline in student attendance still seems to be a mystery. This year, the University of Georgia cut its student section capacity from 18,026 to 16,200. Despite overselling on purpose (17,212), the school's scanners revealed this sad fact: An average of 28.8 percent of those who bought tickets didn't show up to home games.
Benjamin Wolk, a senior at the school who is a football beat writer for the student newspaper The Red & Black, says one of the reasons for the no-shows is because of a stale game atmosphere that caters to the old money that wants the traditions of decades ago.
"One thing Clemson, Vanderbilt and Auburn all had in common was a crazy stadium atmosphere," Wolk said. "At Georgia? Traditional music and a PA announcer barely yelling 'Let's make some noise 'on third down."
The greater numbers show the SEC can't do any wrong. Per game attendance (75,674) was the highest of any conference for the 16th straight season, with the conference setting an all-time record of 7.56 million fans this season. But many schools within the conference aren't relaxing given the challenge the student fan has presented them.
In an effort to better pin down reasons for no-shows, the University of Tennessee keeps some of the most detailed data. Percentage of tickets scanned for each game is matched up against weather, kickoff time and which network the game is on. The conclusion? The highest percentage of tickets used in each of the last four seasons came at night games, including a 6 p.m. kickoff against Tennessee-Martin in Sept. 2010, which had only a 7 percent no-show rate, the best over the last four years of home games.
Athletic directors and school marketers used to just watch students flow into the game before kickoff and out of the game when it was over, but now they're working harder than ever to affect the process.
Since taking the job in 2010, Arizona's athletic director Greg Byrne says he actively has to push students to not only get to the game, but also stay there once they arrive. After he saw defections at halftime, the message on the back of shirts given to the students called the Zona Zoo this year was as blatant as he could make it: "Zona Zoo STAYS the entire game."
He moved the band closer to the student section, brought in a group of people called the Zona Zoo Crew to keep people at the game and then actually decided to give away cash prizes, which students could only claim their prize after the game ended.
For its first two home games, the school gave away a total of $5,000 that was to be equally split among 10 student fans. Even that wasn't a complete success, as three of the $500 prizes went unclaimed.
"We're not going to just sit there and say that's the way it is," said Byrne, who says he often can be found in the student section thanking fans for coming to the game.
Keeping the students at the game is the latest challenge for schools who don't have a no-show problem.
Only 4.7 percent of the 15,700 student tickets to each game went unused at the University of Alabama this year. But showing up wasn't good enough for the school's head football coach, Nick Saban.
"I've talked about players playing for 60 minutes in the game and competing for 60 minutes in the game," Saban said in the week after his team beat Arkansas 52-0 in October. "And, in some kind of way, everybody that chooses to go to the game should stay there and support the team for the game."
The next day, the school suspended the priority block seating of 20 student organizations, usually reserved for fraternities and other powerful student groups, citing its guidelines which mention that those in the reserved sections can have their privileges revoked due to "early departure from the stadium."
And while many students nodded their head and stayed for the team's 45-10 thrashing of Tennessee the next week, some students didn't think Saban understood the plight of the fan.
Sometimes, your team is too good to be entertaining.
"Of course I want the team to win, but it can be difficult to get myself to go when we're just going to be blowing teams out by 30 or more," Griffin Smith, a sophomore at the school. "The problem is when we can check off home games as wins three or four months before they happen, we all lose interest in attending."
Despite cheap tickets, student no-shows at football games are a concern for colleges, who worry about losing the next generation of boosters.