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January 12, 2015

Bowl attendance shows College Football Playoff not a final solution

New format seems like a success, but most bowl games look - and feel - empty

On Monday night, the 2014-15 college football season will come to an end when Oregon and Ohio State face off at Jerry's World in Dallas to decide the national champion. For the first time in its history, the NCAA tossed aside its love for arbitrary decision making and allowed merit - not a computer or a flawed system of human voters or a hybrid of the two - to determine the king of college football. 

Four teams. Three games. One champion.

"[Declining attendance is] not just a bowl problem. It's a college football problem that we've got to deal with."

Sure, it’s a far cry from the 68 teams that get to hear their names called by the selection committee in March, but it’s a start. Now, it’s only a matter of time before the College Football Playoff expands from four to eight teams. Not because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s what fans want.

Don’t get too excited. It’s not actually for you. It’s for advertisers.

The NCAA Basketball Tournament has expanded from 32 to 64 to 68 teams. Not because this allowed for more teams to have a chance to win*, but simply because it creates more games. More games means a larger viewing audience - at the arena, but more importantly on television - and more advertising revenue.

*No team ranked outside of the top 32, or lower than a No. 8 seed, has ever won the NCAA Tournament.

Not buying it? Still think it’s all about the fans?

What if I told you that ESPN (or ABC) not only airs nearly every bowl game, but actually owns and operates 11 of them?

Brent Schrotenboer of USA Today believes ESPN is the only reason many of these bowls exist:

If not for ESPN, many of these games might not exist. ESPN Events, a subsidiary of ESPN, owns and operates 11 bowl games, including two new ones this year.

All but one of the 39 postseason games this season will be broadcast by ESPN or ABC networks, both owned by The Walt Disney Co.

By owning the games, Charlotte-based ESPN Events can sell tickets and sponsorships to the games and not have to pay an unaffiliated company for TV broadcast rights. It's an investment that usually pays off with a big live TV audience attractive to sponsors. [via]

Furthermore, all but two of the bowl games - the Sugar Bowl and Rose Bowl this year - don't mean all that much … unless you're a gambler.

Just look at the television ratings vs. the attendance numbers.

Attendance for the 38 bowl games this season is down 9.2 percent, with an average announced crowd of 43,285. Last season, the 34 bowl games averaged 47,659 fans leading up to the final BCS National Championship

Packing 'em in for the Idaho Bowl.

Even worse - and perhaps more indicative of the downward trend - is the fact that all four bowls added to the 2014-15 schedule drew fewer than 30,000 fans for their inaugural games. If you’re worried those games may skew the overall results, that's fine. Throw those four games out, and the average attendance for the remaining 34 bowls is 45,904, down 3.7 percent from last season.

Television ratings, on the other hand, continue to rise. 

According to ESPN, this year's bowl games are averaging a 3.4 rating, up from 3.2 last season.

The semifinals (the Sugar and Rose Bowls) drew over 28 million viewers each, more than any of the four BCS championship games broadcast by ESPN. The next closest bowl game this year, the Cotton Bowl between Mississippi State and Georgia Tech, attracted just under 9 million viewers.

Declining attendance is a concern across sports, however, and not specific to bowl games.

Wright Waters, the executive director for the Football Bowl Association, notes that the attendance drops reflect regular-season trends. A study showed that the average regular-season attendance for home games this year was 43,483, down 4 percent from last season and the lowest figure since 2000.

"It's not just a bowl problem," Waters told the Associated Press. "It's a college football problem that we've got to deal with."

And while that may be true, there are clearly still flaws with the college bowl system. The move to a playoff format is a start, but that only fixes on of the problems and only affects a trio of games.

As a Miami fan, what incentive do I have to travel to Shreveport, La. to watch the Hurricanes play South Carolina with absolutely nothing on the line?


If the NCAA, the Football Bowl Association and ESPN care about the fans at all, there are fixes, if not solutions, out there.

What about expanding the playoff to eight teams (the five power conference champions and three at-large picks)?

What about picking the bowl matchups with fans in mind? Get rid of the format that does things like pit the third-place ACC team against the fourth-place PAC-12 team. Instead, why not make them more interesting or inviting? 

You could have in-state rivals face off; a coach could return to face his old team; they could be played in attractive locations.* Something. Anything.

*And what about making the games closer to one or both of the universities involved?

The basketball selection committee does a better job of this, and the matchups they're creating have an actual impact on the final results of the tournament.

Until then, the millions of people watching the games from home can expect to see more stadiums like this:

And that's not a good look for anyone.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this story.