Thursday, October 9, 2014

College Football's Student Problem

Just before the 2014 college football season kicked off, Wall Street Journal writer Ben Cohen penned an article about the precipitous decline among college students across the country who are choosing to attend their school's football games. Specifically, that student attendance is down 7.1% overall since 2009, and 5.6% at schools in the Power Five conferences.

These numbers represent a stark downturn at the turnstiles for a sport that continues to rise in popularity based on television ratings, merchandise sales and even overall attendance, which is down just .8% over that same time frame.

Reasons behind the decline in student attendance are numerous -- rising prices, the desire to prolong tailgates, big screen televisions that provide arguably better viewing experiences, the lack of efficient networks for mobile phones -- and examples can be seen at schools across the country.

At Michigan (this blogger's alma mater), which has been in the news for all the wrong reasons over the last few weeks, student ticket purchases in 2014 were down by 6,000 from last season.  And while Michigan's win-loss record has been trending down over the last three years, the ticket prices have continued to increase, so much so that Michigan's student tickets are the most expensive in the Big Ten.  Combined with a schedule that doesn't include rivals Michigan State or Ohio State, and a failed foray into a General Admission policy for students in 2013 that enraged so many students it was rescinded after just one year, and it equals such a big decline that Michigan won't lead the nation in overall attendance this year, a perch it's held for 39 of the last 40 years.

But student attendance isn't just a problem at schools whose programs are struggling.  Michigan State is ranked in the Top 10, and is coming off its first Rose Bowl win since 1988, and earlier this week Athletic Director Mark Hollis and head coach Mark Dantonio both expressed disappointment and disbelief that their student section never filled up for this past Saturday's night game against Nebraska.  Even Alabama, the sport's shining beacon over the past six years, saw 17% of it's student tickets go unused in 2013.

The decline in student attendance is one that's obviously being looked by athletic departments and school administrations across the country, and it's one that marketers are focused on as well. Certainly, lowering ticket prices across the board could be a step in the right direction.  Cohen quotes a Michigan student who says that students are being priced out, and as the most expensive public school in the country with the most expensive student tickets in the Big Ten, that notion isn't hard to imagine.  The student goes on to say that attending football games is not essential to going to college, and on a basic level he's right.  There are hundreds of outstanding universities across the country that don't even offer college football.  But for students who attend schools that feature D-1 football programs, and especially for those at schools in the Power Five, football should be an essential part of the college experience.

I attended Michigan with tens of thousands of other students, and no two of us had exactly the same college experience.  But going to the Big House on fall Saturday was a singular experience that unified us as a student body and that cultivated our love not just for our football team, but for the university proudly displayed on the front of the jerseys.  Clearly, reengaging students is key not just for keeping athletic department budgets healthy, but for ensuring that the next generation of alumni remain passionate about college football and maintaining the sport's growth.

At FishBait, we're actively discussing ideas and examining ways to bring students back to the stadium through targeted sponsor outreach and programming.  We invite and encourage our current partners, as well as those who want access to the young adult demographic via a partnership with college football, to join us as we focus on this important initiative.