Attendance Plateau Changes Colleges’ View
January 2, 2012
By Michael Smith, Sports Business Journal
Bernie Mullin, whose firm assists universities with ticket sales and marketing, says you don’t build a church for Easter. The sports equivalent is that you don’t build a stadium for your largest crowd.
But after years of an unabated arms race in college football that has seen stadiums expand to massive sizes, some schools are on the verge of outgrowing their ticket demand.
The average home crowd for the 120 FBS schools in 2011 was 45,523, the lowest attendance figure since 2004. College football had enjoyed unprecedented attendance growth through the 2000s, peaking at more than 46,000 on average in 2007 and ’08. Those numbers have receded to fewer than 46,000 in the last three years, suggesting that attendance has reached a plateau.
The most obvious drops in attendance came at some of college football’s premium brands — Penn State, Tennessee and Southern California. Each of those schools saw their home crowds fall by 3 percent to 6 percent.
“With the economy down now for an extended period of time and predictions saying that it will continue for another couple of years, this is a serious issue that a lot of schools have to look at,” said Mullin, a veteran sports executive who formerly ran the Atlanta Hawks and founded The Aspire Group, which markets and sells tickets for schools such as Georgia Tech, Maryland and Rutgers. “There’s no doubt that the support will bounce back when the economy comes back, but you have to be careful because empty seats create a perception that your brand isn’t as strong as it used to be. And that becomes problematic.”
That’s not to say that alarms are going off around the country. In fact, the opposite is true after yet another compelling regular season that produced both drama and controversy. College football has never been hotter, in terms of attracting billions in media dollars and keen interest from marketers.
But college football’s momentum isn’t without limits. TV ratings in 2011 were down across all of the major networks, including a 7.6 percent drop on college football’s most prolific platform, ESPN.
“What we’ve got to understand is that the sky is not the limit,” said Jeff Long, athletic director at the University of Arkansas. “We’re past the point of adding seats and growing just for the
sake of growth. I do think you’re seeing some places that have overbuilt their stadiums at the expense of demand.”
Mississippi State is one of the schools that has enjoyed attendance growth each of the last three seasons, including 16 straight sellouts, increasing the pressure on the school to expand Davis Wade Stadium again.
“You always try to take a long-term view,” said Mississippi State Athletic Director Scott Stricklin. “What we’ve seen is that demand seems to keep up with enrollment growth. Our enrollment is over 20,000 now, and 20 years ago it was half that. You produce more graduates and that’s more people going into the pool of potential ticket holders. So now, based on demand, you have to look at adding more seats. Will we? I don’t know.”
Louisville decided to expand Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium two years ago from 42,000 to 54,000 and demand has kept up, with average attendance growing 56 percent in the first year from 32,450 to 50,648. It leveled off a bit in 2011 at 48,538.
“You really have to look hard at how big is too big,” said Louisville Athletic Director Tom Jurich. “Something at 80,000 scared me to death, but we thought we were well-postured for the expansion we made, with all chairback seating to keep the comfort there.
“At the time, there was risk associated with it. We were losing, fans were disappointed, but to their credit they’ve come back. I think a lot of that has to do with what we did to improve the experience. We added 33 suites, we added 2,000 club seats. We really tried to turn it into an incredible experience and fans have responded to that.”
There remain successful expansion stories at schools such as Louisville and Alabama, which filled up all of its 101,821 seats for each game this season, but “I don’t think you’re going to see schools looking to build 100,000-seat stadiums anymore,” said Matt DiFebo, who runs ticketing solutions for IMG College. “What you will see is schools analyzing their capacity and looking at more premium seat options to make the fan experience more inviting.”
Mike Holleman, vice president and director of sports facilities and design at Atlanta-based Heery International, doesn’t hear administrators pushing to expand their stadiums much anymore. Instead the focus is on installing premium areas that will increase the revenue per fan.
“Most people are correct to be cautious about adding capacity,” Holleman said. “There’s more of a focus on improving the facility and making the game-day experience better, so that fans come back even when they have a losing season. We’re not seeing a lot of big expansion right now.”
But, Holleman added, while the focus might have shifted a bit, there’s no shortage of projects that are under way. The arms race, even in difficult economic times, is alive and well.
“You’re still competing, you’re still recruiting,” Jurich said. “If a school has it and you don’t, that can be a big difference. You can always say you’re not going to be part of the arms race, but it’s easier to talk about than to do it.”
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