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College Football's Success Might Bring Its Decline

Student attendance and engagement in college football is fading. Here's one idea as to why.

Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week, ESPN's Darren Rovell posted a good article on how student attendance has been falling in college football. I know Rovell has a bad reputation online—and he's earned it—but this is a good piece (broken clocks, etc.). Check it out if you haven't read it yet.

I have a hypothesis on what might be a primary cause of flagging student interest in showing up to games. There's not one single reason; I'm sure there are plenty of them. However, I think college football's success might have set itself up for disaster.

Interest in college football has exploded over the past couple of decades. In dry economics terms, demand is way up. Supply is up too, as most schools have expanded their stadiums to accommodate more fans. Overall though, demand has far outstripped supply in a lot of places. When demand rises faster than supply does, Econ 101 tells us that prices will rise.

Rising prices are exactly what we've seen. Everything about college football is a lot more expensive: ticket prices, seat licenses, parking fees, merchandise, concessions, etc. Things outside schools' control have gotten more expensive too, like transportation to games and hotels.

Nearly as importantly, the opportunity cost of attending games has gone way up too as more and more games are available to watch on TV and online. When you attend a game on a Saturday, you give up the chance to watch any of dozens of other games. That's especially true if the game you go to is not in the town where you live. Several of the anecdotes in Rovell's piece have students confessing that they'd prefer not to miss the chance to watch other games by attending their school's game.

What I am thinking of, though, is the longer term effect of the rising price of college football. At some point, the total cost of attending games had to start pricing out a lot of families with children. Statistically speaking, older people tend to have more money than younger people do. It makes complete sense, as they've had more time to accumulate wealth.

I suspect that over the years, the non-student portion of crowds at games have gotten considerably older with fewer and fewer children. As a result fewer children would have grown up with the game day experience, making it less of a big deal to them when they arrive on campus. One of Rovell's anecdotes covers this:

Greg Licht, Iowa: "There are students here who have been Hawkeye fans since birth and will show up every game. Others would rather drink away their fall Saturdays."

What I'm laying out here is college football's equivalent of the argument that's been used against baseball since at least the late '80s. World Series games start in prime time on the east coast for TV, which means a lot of the nation's youth can't or won't stay up for the end of the games. That fact presumably discourages kids' interest in the game, which means the future of the baseball fan base is in doubt. As it happens, the viewership for last year's World Series was significantly older than that of other sports and also past rounds of the World Series. The prophecy seems to be coming true.

The rise in cost is everything around college football is a symptom of the sport's success. If, however, that rising cost has resulted in a widespread reduction of children attending games, then that success is likely hurting the sport's future. It's a safe bet, after all, that many season ticket holders and boosters were avid fans of their teams while in and even before college. I would love to see if there's data on this out there somewhere, because a decline of child attendance could be an important factor in the decline of student interest in showing up to and staying through the end of games.