There’s a drastic difference when comparing the experiences of attending a college football game and an NFL game. For the college fan, a trip to a college campus not only offers the opportunity to tailgate and watch some football, it often provides a nostalgic trip down memory lane. For many alumni, a trip back to the campus to watch football is about as good as it gets with regards to recreational activity.

NFL attendance declineWith every fan in the country having an HDTV and with the introduction of television products like DirecTV’s Red Zone channel, the NFL is struggling to fill their stadiums. As the television product increases in quality, you could argue that the NFL in-stadium product has deteriorated. The crowds seem more rowdy, drunk and violent, meanwhile it will cost you hundreds of dollars to attend a game. As such, NFL attendance has been in decline since 2007.

The NFL is taking action to attempt to slow the decline by offering additional in-game features like free wifi, smartphone apps that allow you to watch instant replay on your phone and more. Call me skeptical, but I don’t think many of the NFL fans care about these features, but I guess it’s worth a shot. The NFL has also relaxed “black out” rules which prevent local fans from watching the game on television if certain attendance levels aren’t reached.

Meanwhile, college football is setting records in attendance. The National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame has said that college football set a record for live attendance during the 2011season , with a total of 4.7 million fans attending games at all NCAA levels. This attendance record has been set five of the last six years.  College football attendance has increased 32 percent since 1998.

It’s quite a pickle for the NFL in that despite building bigger and more sophisticated stadiums (subsidized by taxpayers), attendance is falling. The two recent stadiums to be built: MetLife Stadium (Giants) and Cowboy Stadium (Cowboys) each had a price tag of over $1 billion. Amazingly, Gillette stadium (which is a great stadium) only cost $325 million ten years ago. While new stadium construction has slowed compared to the previous decade, the Vikings and 49ers have both been given approval for new stadiums in the coming years.

I think it’s obvious that new stadiums, despite providing a short-term boost in fan excitement, don’t fix the problem of declining attendance for the NFL.

While television is a big part of attendance decline, it doesn’t tell the whole story since college football television numbers are holding up well (though down slightly last year). 2011 was an unusual year in that the focus of the entire SEC and much of the country was on just two teams. In fact, I would argue that 2011 was a down year in terms of overall fan interest – it definitely was in the SEC.

One area of college football not performing well is the bowls. Even the BCS bowls have had declining attendance numbers. Bowl season is a different animal from the regular season for a number of reasons. First, there isn’t the emotional tie to a city hosting a bowl game as there is to a college campus. Second, fans typically travel further for a bowl game which means it’s a larger allocation of cash to attend. Traveling to a bowl game is a larger trip more than just a day excursion to a college campus. As such, bowl attendance like all forms of leisure travel has been impacted by a weak economy.

Interestingly, this could be the main reason we don’t see a 4-team playoff expanded into an 8-team playoff. Even BCS bowls today find it hard to sell all their tickets with participating schools often left holding the bag on unused tickets (the biggest example being UConn with the Fiesta Bowl). Of course a national semi-final game and subsequent national championship game will be exciting and involve fan bases energized by the potential to win it all, but traveling across country twice in two weeks in January is not something that even the most die-hard fan is likely to do considering the economics of it. Imagine a three round playoff with 8 teams? The first round games would have terrible attendance. The solution of course is to put first round games on college campuses, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
NCAA Attendance vs NFL Attendance
College football is very healthy, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t changing. Obviously the BCS is nearing its end, and the postseason is moving towards a playoff. This is just the tip of the iceberg, however. It’s likely that the bowl system itself goes through massive change in the years ahead. As the bowls involved in the playoff grab more of our attention, the remainder of the bowls could easily be given a de facto NIT-like status.

If the decline continues for the majority of the bowls, we’re likely to see a number of them go away as they won’t be feasible for cash strapped athletic departments and uninterested fans. It’s a part of the continuous “contraction” trend we talk about frequently here on this site in that college football is strong at the top (let’s say the top 40 programs), but becoming increasingly unsustainable for the middle-tier programs on the outside looking in. Conference realignment and bowl changes are a reflection of this trend.

Regardless of the high level structural changes, the allure of returning year-after-year to your former college campus remains strong. Spending a day with your family on campus, tailgating with other fans, and experiencing the pageantry of a college football game in person is still very attractive even in a weaker economy. Iconic venues like The Grove at Ole Miss are a bit more appealing than the concrete jungles surrounding the NFL cathedrals.

Like the NFL, television options are becoming more abundant for the college football fan. As technology continues to penetrate the sports space, we will be able to consume football in ever increasing new ways. Unlike the NFL, however, college football fans – especially SEC fans – still work hard to supplement a Saturday on the couch with a Saturday on campus. This won’t change anytime soon.