RISE AND FALL
After peaking in 2008, attendance at SEC home football games has been in decline:
Source: SEC office
As an All-America defensive end for the Georgia Bulldogs a decade ago, David Pollack thrived on bringing more than 92,000 fans at Sanford Stadium to their feet.
Now Pollack travels to college football venues throughout the country as a commentator on ESPN's "GameDay" team. His focus has shifted from entertaining the thousands inside the stadium to the millions watching at home.
"I'm at the games because I have to be, but I spend a lot of my Sundays watching the NFL Ticket [on DirecTV], and that experience is pretty outstanding," Pollack said. "If I can stay in my living room and kick it and watch the game, I'm not going to leave. I just think that the experience at home has gotten so good."
Advances in technology in recent years have halted the advance of attendance numbers in college football, and Southeastern Conference officials as well as the league's athletic directors have taken notice. Nine of the 14 SEC schools suffered declines last season, with Tennessee's average home attendance dipping under 90,000 for the first time since 1979 and Kentucky's slipping under 50,000 for the first time since 1996.
Tennessee and Kentucky had disappointing seasons, but Florida went 11-1 during the regular season after going 6-6 in 2011 and still endured a drop of nearly 1,500 fans a game.
"It's at the top of our list of concerns, and we talk about it constantly," Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity said. "We talk about improving the experience and doing things in our stadium that people are doing at home. We provided look-ins this past year on our video board of other games going on, and I don't think that would have even been thought of 10 years ago.
"The majority of people are coming to the games to enjoy the team. There is a tradition here, but if we ever took the stance that people are just going to show up and the game will unfold, that's when problems will really escalate."
Average attendance at SEC games went from 63,870 in 1990 to 72,448 in 2000 to a peak of 76,844 in 2008. It has since backtracked, with last year's average at 75,444.
The reversal has coincided with the league in 2008 signing 15-year contracts with ESPN (for $2.25 billion) and CBS ($825 million). Those contracts went into effect in 2009, and the SEC recently extended its deal with ESPN through 2034.
POWER OF THE TUBE
The challenge of enhancing the stadium experience may not be at the forefront of the SEC spring meetings that run Tuesday through Friday in Destin, Fla., but it's hard to find a topic more ongoing.
"It is a concern to everybody and not just in our part of the country," SEC executive associate commissioner Mark Womack said. "We've got a subcommittee in our league now that is taking a look at what we can do to make the fan experience at the stadiums and the arenas better. We want there to be a continued demand for tickets and for people showing up at the stadiums and arenas around our sites.
"The economy factors into this as well, but the technology of television has made that an appealing option. We have to try to make the in-game experience in the stadium as good as it can be."
Womack has been SEC commissioner Mike Slive's point man for the lucrative television packages the league has landed. The recent announcement from Slive and ESPN that an SEC Network would be up and running by August 2014 only adds to the appeal of watching from the couch or recliner.
The SEC Network will have widespread distribution throughout the league's 11-state footprint and will televise up to 45 games each season. One of its games every Saturday will be opposite the CBS afternoon telecast, so league fans viewing from home can expect a couple of lunchtime games, a couple of mid-afternoon games and multiple evening games most weekends.
"This is not an issue that's unique to college football," said ESPN senior vice president Burke Magnus, who oversees college sports programming. "A lot of leagues, be it college or professional, are having to focus on the in-venue experience. It's a balancing act of being there in person and the experience you can get at home through technology.
"It's not only the beautiful picture you get on a 60-inch HD set, but there is the mobility of live streaming on phones and tablets and the ability to keep in touch. It's so easy now, and the fan experience via technology is spectacular."
FIGHTING THE TREND
Allowing fans inside Sanford Stadium the opportunity to watch other games during timeouts is just one step McGarity and his Georgia staff have taken.
"Our tickets continue to be less than $50," he said. "They're $40 if you're part of a season-ticket package and $45 if they're bought as a single ticket. We are very aware of that factor -- the family-of-four factor. This will be the fourth straight football season where our prices have remained constant."
Improving customer service and parking options also rank high on McGarity's priority list.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam stressed earlier this year that Volunteers fans "have to fill" Neyland Stadium. The Vols are just 28-34 the past five seasons, and the SportsBusiness Journal recently reported that Tennessee's athletic department reserves were at $1.95 million, while most of the other SEC institutions had reserves between $50 million and $100 million.
Television revenue is helping the SEC, Haslam pointed out, but a school must have stout stadium revenue as well.
"Live athletics are one of the few things people don't DVR," Haslam said, "so it becomes worth more to advertisers, so those TV contracts keep increasing whether it's college football, NFL or the NBA. There is a benefit to that, but you still have to get people in that stadium for it to work, and people are going to come to the stadium when they win."
Winning has long been a catalyst for large crowds, but Florida wasn't the only league power last season that experienced an attendance slide. Alabama, the national champion, LSU and Texas A&M suffered slight dips as well.
Womack said the SEC subcommittee is still in the working stage and has yet to disclose ways to negate the trend of fans choosing to avoid traveling to games. Magnus believes college football has an advantage over professional sports facing the same dilemma due to the tradition of fan bases going back to campus.
There still may be no substitute for being there in person, but television continues to narrow that gap at a lot less cost.
"I think the guys who oversee these leagues and sports are extremely focused on the issues that affect the fan experience in-venue," Magnus said, "whether it's rowdy fans or the connectivity in the stadium or just the ease of getting in and out."
Said McGarity: "It's a big melting pot of issues that we've got to address. Heck, if it was one thing, we would all be able to solve it."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...