College Football Has Looming Attendance Issues, Especially For Cupcake Games

NCAA Logo / Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

If you root for a successful, big-conference college football team, odds are there are several non-conference cupcake home games a year where they are favored by at least 25 and upwards of 50 points. They are a complete waste time -- not to mention within the scarcity of a 13-game regular season.

The incentives for scheduling cupcake games are that you get to tune your team up in something of a glorified live practice, and that you don't risk a loss that can hurt your status for postseason contention. However, there are beginning to be signs that fans are rejecting them, which will, at some point, cause more compelling non-conference games to be scheduled.

All sports inflate their attendance figures, but because most big college sports programs are public universities reporters can use FOIA tricks to uncover some real stats. The Wisconsin State Journal published a report today indicating that, on average this past season, over 10,500 sold tickets (or 14.4 percent) went unused. Unsurprisingly, there is a wide disparity between interesting games with meaningful stakes and games the Badgers had a 99.999 percent chance to win:

"The largest crowd of the 2019 home season was 71,563 for a 35-14 victory against Michigan on Sept. 21. That was the largest ticket scan count since a game against Nebraska in 2016. An Oct. 5 game against Kent State, meanwhile, produced the smallest gathering of the season. Only 51,286 showed up, meaning 26.7% of tickets distributed went unused. It was the fourth-smallest crowd in 14 years of data and smallest since a snowy game against Northwestern in 2015."

This particular story is obviously micro to Wisconsin, but it's a trend that is taking place throughout the upper echelons of college football. Nicole Auerbach wrote an exhaustive story for The Athletic about college football attendance last July, noting that it was coming off a season with its lowest attendance in 22 years and that the SEC had its lowest totals since 2004. Even mighty Alabama was grappling with ways to keep their stadium full. There are several things these universities and conferences can do to improve the fan experience.

  • These games are way too long -- many of them last four hours. Could they at least shorten the game a little bit by not stopping the clock on first down?
  • More and more schools are dabbling with selling alcohol at games; as anyone who has ever tailgated and been hungover by halftime can attest, this is not minor.
  • It probably wouldn't hurt if all these ginormous pre-war stadiums underwent renovations to convert the bleachers, which were built for a football viewing population that trended a bit smaller, into seats with backs.

But to me it keeps coming back to actually providing meaningful athletic competition. Why would you want to go to Wisconsin-Kent State when you could sit at home and watch (and bet on) dozens of other games at once? If and when the NCAA expands to an eight-team playoff, hopefully schools will be more willing to schedule more interesting out-of-conference games that are actually worth leaving the house for.