The headlining story from Sprints this morning was about the change to the SEC's rules that allows multiple replays of the same play to be shown on video boards. Here's a big reason why the change got made:
The SEC working group that is changing in-stadium replay rules a response to falling ticket sales in NFL and college. Schools concerned— Josh Kendall (@JoshatTheState) August 27, 2012
Making sure stadiums and arenas themselves, and not just the action that goes on inside them, attract fans has been a concern for years. It's why so many professional teams have built new facilities over the past 10-15 years; they wedge in kids play areas, luxury boxes, bars, and restaurants to try to get people in the building. Many places now even offer WiFi, although getting that to work on the stadium scale is extremely difficult.
Home media setups are really nice these days, with HDTV delivering crisp pictures to those willing to pay for it. Competing with large flat panels is one part of the drive behind ever larger video boards like the new ones going in at Arkansas and South Carolina this year. The press release for the new Cowboys Stadium even boasted that its humongous screen "is better than watching a 60 inch HDTV in your living room."
Both Mike Slive and Auburn AD Jay Jacobs are worried about attendance. So is Steve Spurrier. Oregon's sellout streak is in danger of falling despite having a small stadium and a top five team, so they're running a Groupon to try to keep it going. Florida's much longer streak has already been snapped in the post-Tebow era despite it surviving the Zook era intact. Duke can't even get its famed student section full of students anymore. The concern is real.
It's difficult to say on a macro level how much attendance is possibly declining. Regular season attendance declined in most conferences last year. However, I looked it up in the NCAA stat archive, and the number of schools reporting an average capacity of over 90% has remained in the 39-42% range consistently from 2003 to the present. Schools are also notorious for fudging their numbers with tricks like counting tickets sold rather than butts in seats, so who knows where things really are at? Perhaps declining attendance is only a problem at schools that don't win. Perhaps it's far worse than we know because of those fake attendance numbers. I don't know for 100% certain.
Ultimately if there's anything exerting downward pressure on attendance, it's the rising face value prices and mandatory donation costs associated with tickets in the worst economic environment since the Great Depression. I don't really believe any of these guys when they say they're only concerned about keeping attendance figures high. There's a very easy way to ensure every seat is occupied: cut the price of admission. Dropping prices to increase demand is Economics 101.
What they're really concerned about is keeping attendance high while being able to sustain and, over time, increase their revenue levels. Especially during bouts of conference realignment talk, we tend to focus on the incredible value of television rights deals. Well, get this: the SEC paid out an average $13 million per school in 2010-11 from TV rights (remember, these deals are backloaded). Now take a look at the USA Today's college athletics financial database. Every SEC school took in more than that in combined ticket sales and contributions, and it's barely more than 10% of the total revenue that the two richest programs, Alabama and Florida, took in for the year. The real money is in people like you and me opening up our wallets for our schools' athletics program to rifle through.
Maybe these attendance concerns will dissipate when the economy turns around. Maybe they will only get worse as good home theater equipment gets better and less expensive. Realistically, I doubt this move by the SEC does anything one way or the other. Is a lack of instant replays in the stadium anyone's tipping point between shelling out for a game or staying home? Probably not.
If it's high attendance that admins are truly after, we'll see eventually have to see falling prices and required donation amounts if the current trends continue. Me, I'm not holding my breath.