An average of 41,856 fans attended FBS games in 2018, according to NCAA data obtained by Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports, the lowest figure since 1996. Attendance fell less than one percent (just under 350 fans per game) from 2017, but 2017 represented the biggest year-to-year drop in 34 years.
The SEC once again led all conferences with an average attendance of 74,185, but that represented a 1.2 percent drop from 2017 and the league’s lowest average since 2003. The Big Ten (65,365) is at its lowest mark since 1993, the Big 12 (56,490) as its lowest since 2003, and the Pac-12 dropped 6.1 percent — the largest percentage in FBS — to 46,588 fans per game, its lowest since 1982. Conference USA (18,874) and the Mountain West (23,862) saw the lowest attendance averages in their (short) histories; C-USA was founded in 1995, the MW in 1999.
Only the ACC and the MAC saw attendance increases from 2017 to ’18, though national champion Clemson was down 373 fans per game.
To be sure, there are many factors to this.
Realignment is one of them. In the Big Ten, for example, Rutgers plays in a 52,000-seat stadium it does not come close to filling, which brings the league’s average down. The nature of realignment dictates that leagues fill downward; ten schools have moved from FCS to FBS since 2012.
Stadiums are getting smaller as well. USC is in the midst of dropping LA Coliseum’s capacity from 93,000 to 77,500, to pick an extreme example.
But the fact of the matter is fewer fans are attending college football games than previously did. An all-time high of 38,135,118 fans watched college football games in 2013, and 36.7 million did so in 2018, according to CBS Sports. A record 46,971 fans attended games in 2008, compared to the reported figure of 41,856 in 2018.
That isn’t to say interest in college football is going down, however. More than 25 million people watched the national championship game on TV.
“We’re competing more than ever before against the television product we helped create,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby told CBS Sports. “There’s no line at the restroom, the beer is always cold [at home]. You don’t have to invest 8 hours going to the stadium. There’s no parking fees. You don’t have to pay seat license, and on your 70-inch TV it’s a pretty good viewing experience.”
Given that the figures have gone one way for the past two years, it’s time for coaches and administrators to accept college football’s new normal if they haven’t done so already.