clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Has the sports attendance bubble burst?

New, 4 comments

Kevin Wilson’s comments on Monday were justified, but do they reflect a nationwide trend?

NCAA Football: Penn State at Indiana Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier tonight, I was watching the Boston Red Sox play the Baltimore Orioles on TV. It looks like a nice night in Baltimore - 79 degrees out, a little on the humid side, but overall not too bad. Both teams are in the hunt for the postseason. Great conditions for watching baseball in late September, I’d imagine.

Should be a packed crowd at Camden Yards, right? Well, not exactly.

The attendance problem in Baltimore has gotten so frustrating that star outfielder Adam Jones called out the fans when less than 20,000 people per game showed up for the first couple games of the series.

The Orioles have finished above .500 or better every year since 2012, and right now they’d make the playoffs for the third time in five years. After several years of post-Ripken futility, they’re finally winning games again. And yet - they’re still not drawing fans to a stadium that ushered in the modern era of MLB ballparks, even on a great night during a playoff push.

This example brings us back to Kevin Wilson’s attendance concerns at Memorial Stadium. As you can see, this isn’t just an issue limited to Bloomington. It’s happening nationwide, and thanks to better TV coverage, longer games, and conflicting priorities, live sporting events just aren’t always the draw that they used to be.

As Thomas wrote on Monday, Kevin Wilson has every right to encourage the fans to stay until the end of the game. From a coach’s perspective, it must be frustrating when your fanbase heads out early before the game ends. And if Wilson wants IU fans to stay for the fourth quarter, he is within his right to say so.

Indiana’s punter, kicker, and star linebacker have taken notice as well.

Not everyone is going to want to spend 4 hours sitting on bleachers at a stadium that can get really hot on a sunny day and really cold after Homecoming. I get it. But personally, my feeling is this. I was an IU football season ticket holder for four years. Wins have been scarce for this team throughout its history, so whenever I had the chance to stick around and see the victory flag get raised, I wanted to be there. If not having beer is the problem, then just start tailgating earlier, or head out to your tailgate setup at halftime and grab a couple cold ones then return for the second half. If you’ve braved Route 37 to get to Bloomington, you should stick around. And if you’re a student, there’s always other time to nap, or study, or party, or awkwardly flirt with that cute person in your sociology class. But that’s just me. I write for an IU sports blog, after all. We’re all different people, and our priorities vary.

However, even at schools with more of a winning tradition in football, there are issues with attendance. Last season, for the fifth straight year, college football attendance decreased among FBS teams. This happened despite the sport being as popular as ever, and even for the first time in its history, a fair system to implement a champion. Even Nick Saban has complained about fans not staying all game at Alabama, of all places. Other sports have seemed similar declines. NASCAR attendance is way down. Baseball games are seeing smaller crowds. Small crowds at Pacers games are often a cause of concern among Indy sports fans. Even the NFL, which is almost certainly the most popular sports league in the country, has seen its attendance go down overall in the past year too.

Funny enough, Indiana was one of the schools that bucked the trend of lower attendance last season, as average crowds were up 6 percent year over year. Home games against Ohio State and Michigan certainly helped with this, but people are starting to show up more as the program gets better. It’s the sticking around that’s still bothering Wilson.

So why is this happening? Well, the ascent of TV rights certainly helps. The B1G is about to enter a giant multi-year billion-dollar contract with both Fox and ESPN. They have to cater to their television partners, which means they want to make sure the TV viewing experience is a friendly one. And for a lot of fans, it’s easier to sit in front of the TV, with your own food and beer, at your own place or a bar, and watch. Plus, if the game you want to watch gets out of hand, you’ll have other options, and with smartphones or other games on you’ll always know what’s happening in these other contests. And while I’m definitely in favor of IU adding alcohol sales at its athletic events, that still won’t solve all problems of keeping fans in the stadium for the entire game. Transportation can also be an issue - for example, in cities with games at night, public transit may stop running before the end of the game, giving patrons one fewer way to get home. I remember going to a Maryland night game once when I lived in DC, and by the end of the game, the Metro had already closed.

In addition - and this may especially address Wilson’s point of sticking around all four quarters - games are getting longer in general. Indiana - along with many other college football teams - plays an entertaining up-tempo style of offense that scores a lot of touchdowns. In college, the clock stops after every first down, in addition to incomplete passes and going out of bounds. When a team scores, that adds to the clock stoppages. So as football becomes a higher-scoring game at both the college and pro levels, games will go for longer periods of time. Thus, as sporting events become a longer and longer time commitment, some attendees may forgo a day or night out at a game. But even some time-limit techniques that MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has put in - including a clock for between-inning pitching changes - have not helped to solve the problem of baseball attendance.

Ultimately, attendance at sporting events is a nationwide problem, and one that coaches, administrators, and anyone involved in planning them must face. This isn’t an isolated issue to Indiana football, and the frustration that Kevin Wilson faces at Indiana is happening all over the country, even to the most successful teams.