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Mighty SEC battling sagging football attendance

Edgar Thompson, Orlando Sentinel • Aug 10, 2013 at 8:27 PM

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Win and they will come, the adage goes.

But times have changed, even in the Southeastern Conference where the league’s streak of seven straight national championships has coincided with sagging attendance.

Take Alabama. Winners of the past two national titles, the Crimson Tide had single-game tickets available sale for some games in 2012. The school used to quickly sell out its allotment of 17,000 student tickets and packed the section, but 6,000 students attended each of Alabama’s final two home games last season.

While not entirely unexpected given the challenge selling tickets at all levels of sports, the dip has forced the nation’s top football conference to find ways to fill some of the game’s largest, most-celebrated stadiums.

“Winning helps. But winning is not the only answer in today’s market,” said Mike Hill, Florida’s executive associate athletic director of external affairs. “It’s a very different market and very different society than it was 10 years ago.”

Conferences coast to coast have felt the pinch at the gate caused by high-definition, big-screen televisions, poor Internet connectivity at stadiums and an unpredictable economy. Those factors, plus the long-standing game-day inconveniences of travel, traffic, parking and long lines, have kept some fans at home.

College football still remains king in the SEC, though, and the league has weathered the drop-off better than others.

In 2012, the SEC led the nation in attendance for the 15th straight year, with an average of 75,538 fans. But this was down from the 2008 peak of 76,844 fans. Nine of 14 SEC schools drew fewer fans last season than in 2011.

In response, the league formed the eight-person working group on fan experience to conduct market research on campuses this fall.

“We have a lot of anecdotes of so and so is staying at home or people aren’t coming for this reason,” Mississippi State athletic director Scott Strickland, the committee chairman, said. “We need some actual data so we know exactly what we’re looking at before we begin addressing problems.”

Some schools already have gone outside the SEC for answers.

With its attendance its lowest since Peyton Manning’s freshman season in 1995, Tennessee reached out a couple of years ago to the Disney Institute in Orlando for ideas to improve the fan experience. The Volunteers, just 1-7 in SEC play last season, reported an average of attendance of 89,965 at 102,455-seat Neyland Stadium.

Auburn currently works with the Disney Institute and drew an announced crowd of 83,401 for its spring game. Meanwhile, South Carolina hooked up with IMG Learfield Ticket Solutions, based in Winston Salem, N.C., and last week had sold more than 50,000 season tickets for the first time since 2008.

“I call it the next frontier for us,” Arkansas coach Jeff Long said. “Even in the SEC, television content has really changed the way we do things.”

Mississippi’s Russ Bjork, at 40 the youngest AD at a SEC school, said getting fans from the sofa to the stadium is a hot topic in Oxford.

“We really talk about that every day,” Bjork said. “It’s easy to sit on that couch and watch a 70-inch or 80-inch, high-def television; that feels pretty good. You have your refrigerator right there, you have your couch, you have your high def, you’re in the huddle with these camera angles.

“TV is important, that obviously pays a lot of our bills, but we have to make sure we have the best atmospheres on campus because that is our livelihoods in many ways.”

Last season, the SEC addressed one major sticking point for spectators glued to their HDTVs: the lack of instant replay. The league would allow just one replay, in real time. If the play was controversial, a school could show it once, from one angle, after officials had made a ruling.

While the SEC now allows multiple replays of all calls in slow motion, it is going to take more to energize a new generation of couch potatoes on Saturdays.

Hill said a focus group at Florida revealed the No. 1 reason students leave games is spotty Internet connectivity.

“After each play, they like to use their phone to text, to tweet or to Facebook,” said Hill, another member of the SEC committee.

Fans of all ages want to be wired into what is happening around the world of college football.

“So you’re going to be sitting in the stadium watching the Razorbacks game and at a timeout that’s two minutes, maybe three minutes,” Long said. “In this society you’re going to be pulling some device out. You’re going to be watching Auburn and Alabama. You’re going to be watching somebody else for that time period.

“So that’s key, because we got to provide something that gets that fan up off the couch who is watching three or four games at once.”

Michigan State recently spent $2 million to install WiFi at 75,005-seat Spartan Stadium. The Spartans’ stadium would be just the ninth largest stadium in the SEC.

Because of the price tag, schools have exercised caution amid the ever-changing world of technology. Some schools throughout the nation, Hill said, have installed WiFi or DAS (distributing antenna signal) with mixed results.

“If you’re spending 2 or 3 million dollars it had better work well,” Hill said. “And that’s a minimum. It can climb to 5 or 6 million.”

To attract younger fans, who could become future alumni, season-ticket holders and football boosters, a dependable Internet connection at games is a given. But a modernized game-day experience still might not stem dwindling ticket sales.

People have less disposable income to travel to games, especially out of state. Hill, who has been at Florida since 1993, said some visiting schools are allotted tickets, but these days routinely return thousands of tickets the host school then must sell.

Viable third-party vendors like StubHub pose another challenge. Rather than buy season tickets, and in many cases pay a seat licensing fee, a fan now can pay top dollar for the best one or two games. And if the mood strikes, fans often can hop online last minute and pay considerably less than face value for games that do not sell out.

“I had a friend go online recently to buy a ticket for a regular-season NBA game. There was a ticket online for $2 ... for an NBA game,” Hill said. “This isn’t unique to the Gators, college football or college sports. It’s happening everywhere.”

In 2011, the Gators’ string of 137 sellouts ended in the opener against Florida Atlantic — one of three times The Swamp would not sell out.

In 2012, Florida’s only two sellouts were LSU and South Carolina. This year, the Gators expect to sell out at least three games — Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Florida State.

Florida sold 53,000 season tickets last season. The Gators confirmed Monday they had sold 50,000 season tickets for the upcoming season, including 21,500 seats for the students and band.

“This is far from a crisis, but it is something we need to be paying attention to,” he said. “You have to stay ahead of it.”

Mississippi State’s Strickland, whose school has 23 straight sellouts in football, said SEC schools have “set a pretty high bar” when it comes to attendance. The key to staying there is to provide something people cannot get anywhere else.

“The tailgating, the energy in a stadium ... you can’t re-create that at home on your couch,” Strickland said. “Our TV partners do a great job of showing it, but it’s not the same as being there.


Distributed by MCT Information Services

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