The 2011-12 bowl season hasn’t been a gem in terms of attendance, even with four games yet to play. Nearly 3 percent fewer people -- 42,959 overall -- have attended games this season than last year.
Yet college football profits topped $1 billion last year, attendance during the regular season increased for the fourth time in five years last year, and big matchups like the LSU-Alabama game this November were huge on TV -- that game alone drew almost 6.5 million more viewers than 2010’s highest-rated matchup. So what gives with the bowl attendance?
Bowl executives list a number of reasons for the decline. Tina Kunzer-Murphy, an ESPN executive who is also executive director of the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas and chairwoman of the Football Bowl Association, says factors include public disenchantment with football’s postseason system, the tough economy and games that feature teams which haven’t been able to draw fans. (ESPN owns seven non-BCS bowl games and the BCS broadcast rights through 2014.)
Seven bowls thus far have seen a decrease in attendance of 10,000 or more from last year. With the exception of the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl, all have one thing in common: last year’s game featured a team whose campus was less than 300 miles from the bowl. In the cases of the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl, Sheraton Hawaii Bowl and Military Bowl Presented by Northrop Grumman, last year’s matchup featured a team within just 10 miles.
After posting its highest attendance ever last year at 48,049 with San Diego State playing, the Poinsettia Bowl saw attendance slashed in half this year with a TCU-Louisiana Tech matchup. The Sheraton Hawaii Bowl saw a decline of more than 10,000 this year with its Southern Miss-Nevada matchup, with Nevada distributing less than 1,000 tickets to its fans.
The Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl, Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl and Outback Bowl each featured a team located less than 300 miles away last year, and each saw at least 11,000 fewer tickets sold this year. The local-school-tie-in anomaly: the Gator Bowl, which despite having a matchup between Urban Meyer’s former team and the team he’ll coach in 2012 -- and Florida’s close proximity to Jacksonville -- saw a decline of 16,185 fans this year.
Bowls that saw increases of 10,000 or more fans this year similarly saw their fortunes tied to fan base proximity.
The Chick-fil-A Bowl, which saw its 15th straight sellout in 2011, benefits from its proximity to the fan bases of the ACC and SEC, but that’s not the key to success, says bowl president and CEO Gary Stokan.
“Every bowl has the opportunity if they work diligently to sell tickets to local people and businesses before the teams are announced," he says. Stokan says his bowl sells approximately 38,000 tickets each year before teams are announced, leaving essentially only the team ticket allotments available.
While he says some of the bowl’s success is due to Atlanta being the “capital of college football” and home to the first- or second-largest segment of each ACC and SEC school’s alumni base, he believes the true secret to attendance success is in selling to locals, not waiting until schools are announced to sell to fans.
Will Webb, executive director of the Belk Bowl in Charlotte, says his bowl looks at fan interest level, not just proximity.
He says in addition to attending games and paying close attention to a team’s record for the second half of the season, bowl officials also monitor Internet message boards. A lot of fans calling for a coach’s head? Then the fan base probably isn’t excited enough about a bowl game to pack the house. Last year, Louisville looked like a good choice until the bowl committee noted the Cardinals’ basketball schedule. Officials saw a basketball game against rival Kentucky scheduled for the same time as the bowl game. Needless to say, the bowl passed on Louisville.
Kunzer-Murphy echoed some of Webb’s sentiments with regard to the MAACO Las Vegas Bowl. Down to Arizona State or UCLA, bowl officials had to weigh UCLA’s two big losses at the end of the season and firing of head coach Rick Neuheisel. Meanwhile, Arizona State had never been selected for the bowl, had never played in Nevada, and traveling to Las Vegas would be easy.
When asked about potential changes in light of the down attendance this year, each bowl executive had a somewhat different answer, but all were open to change. Kunzer-Murphy believes change is inevitable once conference realignment is settled. Stokan likes a playoff idea that keeps the BCS bowls but also boosts the importance of the other bowls.