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Nation, World Sports

College football attendance sees second-largest decline in history

| Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018, 5:45 p.m.
Miami fans cheer during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Notre Dame, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017, in Miami Gardens, Fla. Miami won 41-8.
Miami fans cheer during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Notre Dame, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017, in Miami Gardens, Fla. Miami won 41-8.

The NFL saw attendance drop 3 percent this past season, but that decline can be explained in great part by two teams that recently relocated to the Los Angeles area: the Rams, who saw their attendance fall from 83,164 per game at the cavernous L.A. Coliseum in 2016 to 63,392 per game this past season, and the Chargers, who played last season in a stadium that seats only 27,000 people after playing for decades in a San Diego stadium with a capacity of around 70,000.

Of that 3 percent total decline in year-over-year NFL attendance, 77 percent can be attributed to those two teams.

College football has no such excuse, and the NCAA team that shares the Coliseum with the Rams — USC — saw its attendance rise by 4,224 per game in 2017. Yet according to numbers recently released by the NCAA, attendance at games played by FBS teams as a whole also dropped 3 percent in 2017, from 43,612 in 2016 to 42,203 this past season. As told by Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports, it's college football's largest per-game attendance drop in 34 years and second-largest decrease ever, behind only 1982-83. For the first time in history, Dodd notes, college football attendance has now declined in four straight years. Since 2008, when a record 46,971 watched live college football games on average, attendance has declined 10.1 percent.

The attendance at bowl games was also down for the seventh straight season with an average of 40,506 fans taking in games in 2017. That's down 1,200 people compared to last season's average of 41,718.

The Southeastern Conference saw its average attendance drop to its lowest since expanding from 12 teams to 14 in 2012 with SEC games averaging just over 75,074 in 2017, down from 77,507 in 2016.

But the SEC didn't see the biggest decline.

That honor would go to the American Athletic Conference, which saw its attendance from the previous season drop nearly 3,000 fans per game from 31,611 to 28,669. It was the second straight season in which the AAC saw a decline.

The Big Ten was the only Power 5 conference to see an increase in attendance, going from 66,151 fans in 2016 to 66,227 in 2017. It was the second straight season in which the league saw an increase.

The reasons are varied and have been discussed at length in recent years. Better television quality and presentation of the games by the TV networks have made staying at home or watching at a sports bar a much more enticing proposition; why would you pay top dollar to fight traffic and crowds to watch a game out in the elements when you could simply stay home and have a much better view at a much lower price? Other observers point to today's students, fewer of whom see going to football games as an important element of college life.

"The simple exercise of going to a sporting event has changed significantly, especially for millennials," Patrick Chun, then athletic director at Florida Atlantic, told Bloomberg News in January 2017. "I hope it's cyclical, but there's not really an answer out there right now."

The Owls actually were one of the FBS teams to buck the national trend in 2017, nearly doubling their average attendance from 10,073 to 18,948 thanks in part to an 11-3 season engineered by first-year coach Lane Kiffin. It was the third-largest increase in per-game attendance in the country behind Purdue (13,433) and Akron (9,232).

Fewer people seem to be watching college football, both at stadiums and at home. As examined by Sports Business Daily's Austin Karp, the sport's TV ratings declined this past regular season on ABC (down 18 percent), CBS (down 10 percent), ESPN (down 6 percent) and NBC (down 3 percent). Only Fox (up 23 percent) and Fox Sports 1 (up 4 percent) showed increases among the major networks, and that was because they were in their first year of a new deal with the Big Ten. (Likewise, ABC's and ESPN's ratings declines can be explained in part by having fewer marquee Big Ten games under the conference's new TV deals).

The NFL's TV ratings, meanwhile, declined 9.7 percent this past season.

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