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College Football Attendance is Down, Does that Matter?

The answer depends on who you ask

NCAA Football: Clemson Spring Game Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

After a 2020 football season playing home games in front of a max of 19,000 fans, Clemson University President Jim Clements expects to be able to have Death Valley operating at full capacity in 2021. Whether or not fans return to fill the stadium remains to be seen.

Some people will naturally be hesitant to go into crowded gatherings after a year spent socially distancing. Some will be quite eager to, but I can tell you that prior to the coronavirus upending our lives, college football attendance was down across the board. After 2019, FBS attendance had fallen for six straight years.

The concern isn’t quite so pressing locally. Clemson and South Carolina are both doing well for their conferences in terms of attendance. The Gamecocks actually managed to significantly increase their 2019 attendance despite a 4-8 season, making them an outlier in a positive way for once. But it’s not entirely an absent concern either. Clemson’s 2018 undefeated national championship team did not sell out a single home game. The three lowest turnouts for the Clemson-South Carolina rivalry all happened between 2010-2020. The SEC and ACC both had 2019 seasons with lower attendance than 1999.

There is a litany of theories about attendance being down. These range from the material: ticket costs are up, getting to and parking on campus is a nightmare, digital offerings have gotten better and faster relative to going to games in person. There are also more cultural explanations about “kids these days,” teams being less likely to schedule marquee games out of conference, and the idea (which seems more conjecture than reality to me) that football is waning in popularity. My guess is that a variety of factors have combined to drive down college football attendance, and no single fix is going to be able to turn this around.

This leads me to my question - does attendance being down at Clemson Tigers football games actually matter? I’m not asking does the difference between 19,000 open seats and 80,000+ matters, the differences there are obvious.

The reason I ask is that a slight decrease in attendance seems extremely unlikely to hit Clemson’s athletic department’s bottom line. While college football attendance is down, ratings have continued to increase, with only the NFL having better numbers. It seems extraordinarily likely given the astronomical media rights deals other pro leagues have been able to sign that Clemson is receiving good money from the recently re-upped ACC television rights deal. Money that dwarfs ticket revenue.

Paradoxically, season ticket sales have never been better. If there is still money coming in, a dedicated group of fans, and a successful program on the field, where does a marginal drop in attendance change anything? It’s not going to impact the athletic department financially, and I’m not sure how much it will matter to every fan.

I know that for many fans, students and not, the reason to attend a college football game is at least as much about the tailgate as it is about watching a football game. They may not lose much, if anything, from not actually setting foot in the stadium. The game may be the centerpiece of the weekend, but going to Death Valley in person is not what every fan turns out to Clemson for. Local businesses receive a windfall from tailgaters just the same as they do from fans who put their butts in the seats. If tailgating begins to tail off, there is a different discussion to be had, but I have seen nothing to indicate that that is the case.

Right now it seems to me that some marginal value from ticket sales has been lost, but overall support for the program remains high. Memorial Stadium is one of the 20 biggest stadiums on the continent, so let’s keep some perspective about what being unable to sell that out means. There were still tens of thousands of fans coming out and packing the stadium in those “down” years, Death Valley was still very loud. The Tigers aren’t going to experience a competitive disadvantage from lost attendance. If anything, it’s less bad here than in most of the rest of the country. So, in the meantime, athletic directors will work relentlessly to increase season ticket sales, but I’m not sounding the alarms about what this means for the program.