College Football Encounters Its Biggest Rival: The Couch

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The new reality is that some of the biggest, most popular college football programs in the country can’t jack up ticket prices annually, put a decent team on the field, and expect fans to happily pack the stadium week in, week out.

Orlando Sentinel columnist Beth Kassab, a University of Florida grad, recently published excerpts of a message sent by the university’s athletic director to former Gator season ticketholders. The note pointed out there are “more affordable tickets” lately, and pleaded with them to come out for at least a home game or two—ideally for matchups against lesser opponents like Toledo and Georgia Southern, which have been selling particularly poorly.

But Florida is not the only popular college football program facing the previously unheard-of problem of having to woo fans into the stadium. The Chattanooga Times Free Press earlier reported that 9 of the 14 teams in the Southeastern Conference—the richest and most successful conference in college football in recent years—saw home attendance decline last year. The University of Florida’s streak of 137 home game sellouts ended in 2011, and its even more successful sister in the SEC, the University of Alabama, winner of two recent national championships, didn’t sell out all of its home games last season.

(MORE: How the SEC Became the Richest Conference in College Sports)

Season ticket sales are also on the decline at institutions such as the West Virginia University and Virginia Tech, which has seen sales among upper classmen fall by 20% compared to last year.

During the mid-00s, when college football stadium expansions, multi-million-dollar contracts for coaches, and soaring demand for tickets all became routine, it became commonplace for universities to demand “donations” from fans who wanted the right to purchase season tickets. A 2006 ESPN article noted that a fan purchasing season tickets for the 50-yard line at the University of Tennessee had to pay $5,000 per seat above the face value. Late last year, after experiencing its third consecutive losing season, Tennessee announced it would start selling certain season tickets without the usual required donation.

Penn State, which was subject to a four-year-postseason ban related to the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal, has also eased up on its required-donation rules, recently offering season ticketholders the opportunity to buy more season tickets (for friends and family) “without any further donation.” (At the same time, Penn State has annoyed fans by requiring them to buy pairs of tickets that include one less-exciting opponent—Michigan and Eastern Michigan, Nebraska and Kent State—rather than allowing purchases of seats to a single game.) Corn Nation, a blog that covers University of Nebraska sports, estimated that the required donation levels for 2013 season tickets to Cornhuskers games has dropped 25% to 80% compared to last year.

Rising prices and the ease of purchasing tickets at the last minute on the secondary market—many times for below face value—are often named as explanations for declining interest in season tickets. But probably what hurts ticket sales the most is how the in-stadium experience compares to in-living-room viewing. “It’s easy to sit on that couch and watch a 70-inch or 80-inch, high-def television; that feels pretty good,” Ross Bjork, athletic direct at Ole’ Miss, admitted to the Orlando Sentinel earlier this summer. “You have your refrigerator right there, you have your couch, you have your high def, you’re in the huddle with these camera angles.”

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“The economy factors into this as well, but the technology of television has made that an appealing option,” SEC executive associate commissioner Mark Womack said to the Chattanooga Times Free Press. “We have to try to make the in-game experience in the stadium as good as it can be.”

One improvement has been allowing stadiums to show multiple replays of controversial or impressive plays on the jumbotron. “Before you weren’t permitted to do that,” said University of Florida associate athletics director of external affairs Mike Hill, according to the Gainesvill Sun. “The idea is that the in-stadium experience is something that is competing now with the living room experience, and you get a million replays at home. So we need to do a better job at the stadium with that.”

For many fans, however, that’s just not enough to draw them out to the stadium, where they’ll cough up big bucks for parking, food, and refreshments on top ticket (and donation) prices, while also putting up with traffic and crowds. “There’s a point where it just doesn’t make sense to sit in the sweltering sun and watch your team demolish a cupcake because you paid for the tickets and don’t want them to go to waste,” the Sentinel’s Kassab wrote. “And a lot of fans have reached that point. The hassle simply isn’t worth the price of admission.”

Don’t feel bad for Florida, or the SEC, or college football in general for that matter. The popularity of watching the games on TV has led to phenomenally lucrative TV rights deals, which trickle down to the programs putting teams on the field. Average attendance at SEC games stood at 75,444 last year, which is down—but not that far down—from the all-time high of 2008, 76,844. And teams on the upswing don’t seem to be having any trouble selling tickets; Stanford, for instance, sold out its season tickets for the first time in history this year, after a season when it won the Pac-12 and the Rose Bowl.

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But increasingly, all signs indicate that more sports fans will be torn between the in-stadium experience—which is thrilling, but also expensive and laden with headaches—and the ease and comfort of watching from the couch, where there’s chips and dip on the coffee table, reliable Wi-Fi, and a bathroom with no lines down the hall.

The TV factor is arguably even more of an issue for sports with longer seasons like basketball and baseball because the individual season game seems to matter less, so there’s less urgency to see the game in person. NBA teams sometimes even struggle to sell tickets when the “cheap” seats are $1 (or free). Lee Igel, a professor of sports management at NYU, told CNBC that the drop-off in attendance of baseball, basketball, and football games is “getting worse,” and that while the economy and ticket pricing play a role, “even more important is the experience of watching games in the comfort of your home on a big screen without the hassle at a stadium,” he said. “That keeps a lot of people away.”