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Why Is Attendance Down in College Football?

Note the packed student section and empty North Side before the Elon game last week.
Note the packed student section and empty North Side before the Elon game last week.

One of the complaints that kept bouncing around Twitter after last weeks game was the poor attendance in Kenan Statdium, especially for the second half, and particularly for the north (visitor's side). That was the side facing the press box and TV cameras, which allowed the media to quickly snap embarrassing photos of Carolina's fan support.

UNC was the only team suffering from attendance woes. Virginia had its worst home opener attendance since at least 2000. In fact six of the seven ACC schools had smaller crowds for their home opener than last year on Saturday, while teams such as Mississippi, Illinois, and Arizona had fewer fans for their new coaches' debut, just like Chapel Hill. And the N.C. State-Tennessee game to kickoff the season Friday night also had disappointing attendance numbers.

I have to say, I'm not surprised. College football has systematically made the college football opening week less and less appealing to attend, both by starting on Labor Day weekend and with the trend of scheduling FCS patsy schools that just aren't entertaining. And then you wonder why no one but students were willing to come out and spend their Saturday night watching Arizona play Toledo?

Then there's television. The box that Wilco's so fond of kicking has had a big effect on people's desire to see a game, in a couple of different ways. One is technological; with modern screens of unusual size and definition, you can come a lot closer to replicating a gameday experience. There's still a big difference — but that difference is entirely positive for live attendance. Traffic and costs become a big issue, especially if you have kids. Most colleges haven't priced themselves out of read to the extent that professional athletics have, but it still takes a bigger bite out of the wallet than it used to. People are having to make choices, and on a vacation weekend, college football isn't necessarily going to come out on top.

Then there's television's bigger effect, the scheduling of the game. West Virginia kicked off at noon on a brutally hot day of near 100%-humidity. Believe me, I know. I ran a race in that state that morning that nearly broke me.) UNC followed half an hour later, all for the benefits of television, so a full day could be programmed. Florida and Virginia were both 3:30 games, and the heat sure hadn't broken by the early afternoon. This has a tremendous benefit for the schools — I got to see UNC play Elon on local television in Charleston, WV — but not so much for the fans at the game. It's no coincidence that it was the north side of Kenan that was deserted by the second half last week. That's the side that faces the sun, and it can get just punishingly hot. No one in their right mind would schedule a summer game for noon in Kenan if the fans (and players) in Chapel Hill were the only consideration. But for television airtime, these folks will suffer.

I mention this because looking at this week's schedule, I'd expect more of the same. It will be a little cooler in most places in ACC country, but seven games start before two. And they're not great games. Sure, Virginia hosting Penn State should draw a crowd, and Manhattan, Kansas will pack them in for Miami to play KSU. But opponents like Maine (playing BC)? Or Ball State (Clemson)? Or Austin Peay (Va. Tech)? I don't think we'll be seeing too many sellouts this week. Pay special attention to the late games, where FSU faces Savannah State and Georgia Tech Presbyterian. Those will be routs, on a Saturday night when a lot of people will find better things to do. If either is a sellout, it means their fans are really pumped for the current season.

And then there's Wake Forest-UNC, the one game that should pack them in. Old ACC conference rivals that don't play often — this is UNC's second trip to Winston-Salem since 2004. A small stadium, though no longer the glorified high school one it was in the nineties. The visiting team s within easy traveling distance, and the home team has reason to be fired up. If there are empty seats here, college football may be in greater danger than we think.

(Oh, and at Forde's glib theory that fans deserted Chapel Hill because "We're protesting the academic stink hovering over the athletic department.?" Theres no evidence of that at al, unsurprisingly. It takes some self-confidence for criticizing folks for not paying to see the same events you get paid to watch though, doesn't it?)