Through 30 games of the 2012-13 postseason slate, bowl attendance is down five percent from a year ago and eight percent from two years ago, the Birmingham News is reporting. And nowhere is that dip in attendance more personified than in last night’s bowl offering.
The announced attendance for last night Sugar Bowl matchup between Louisville and Florida — won 33-23 in stunning fashion by the Cardinals — was just 54,178, down over 10,000 (64,512) from the announced attendance of last year’s Virginia Tech-Michigan game. Not only that, the News notes, it’s the smallest crowd for the Sugar Bowl since 44,308 managed to show up for TCU-Carnegie Mellon way back in 1939.
Prior to 2009, just twice in a 35-year span had Sugar Bowl attendance dropped below 70,000; last night marked the third time in the past four years attendance had fallen short of that mark.
This is not a problem specific to the Sugar Bowl, or college football in general. NFL attendance has been in a steady decline in recent years, so much so that the league and its clubs are leaving no stone unturned to improve the in-game experience for fans in an attempt to get them back to the stadium on Sundays and away from man caves and sports bars and the like.
It is, though, a problem for college football.
Of the 30 bowl games played thus far, attendance has dropped in 16 of them from the same time a year ago, with the per-game average coming in at just over 46,000. Six games, including the Sugar Bowl, have had 10,000-plus fewer fans come through the turnstiles than in 2011-12 — the Belk, Meineke Car Care, Gator, Little Caesars and Russell Athletics Bowls. The latter two actually realized attendance drops of more than 20,000 each. On the flip side, just two games — the Poinsettia and Armed Forces Bowls — had attendance figures that increased by more than 10,000.
Of course, matchups certainly play a role in attendance. The Gator Bowl went from Florida-Ohio State (61,312) to Northwestern-Mississippi State (48,612) this year, while Florida State-Notre Dame (68,305) in the Russell Athletics Bowl gave way to Rutgers-Virginia Tech (48,127).
Unlike the NFL, though, college football’s attendance problems aren’t necessarily related to the at-home experience being of a higher-quality — and cheaper — than the in-stadium one and the complex issue of flipping a collective fantasy mindset. Rather, the reasons behind college football’s postseason attendance woes are relatively simple and straightforward: at 35, there are too many damn bowl games.
Water down the postseason with the likes of San Jose State-Bowling Green (17,835, Military Bowl), Ball State-UCF (21,759, Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl) and Central Michigan-Western Kentucky (23,310, Little Caesars Bowl), and attendance will continue to be an issue. Continue to invite nearly 60 percent of FBS schools to fill all available bowl slots — including 6-6 teams and, in one case (Georgia Tech), a 6-7 team — and bowl attendance articles will be an annual rite of winter.
Pare down the number of bowl games, though, and you’ll create better matchups and increase per-game attendance. Thanks to the plethora of made-for-TV bowl games, though, don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.