Just about every Saturday during the fall, it wasn’t hard to find pictures circulating on the internet showing empty college football stadiums across the United States.
The attendance average for regular-season college football games dropped for the third straight year, with the average mark of 45,274 the lowest since 2003.
Though the numbers aren’t falling precipitously – non-neutral-site attendance dropped just 528 fans per game – there does seem to be some reason to worry. Writers have pointed out just how easy it is to stay at home to watch football, especially with the economy still in recovery mode and high definition televisions offering replays from every angle and seemingly improving in picture quality by the day.
Any downturn in attendance is a huge problem in college sports, as just about every athletic department is dependent on the gate receipts from football to provide much of its budget. At Ohio State, an eight-game home slate means at least $40 million in revenue from ticket sales alone.
So it seems fair to ask, can what has happened at other schools happen at Ohio State?
It’s hard to imagine a Horseshoe with swaths of empty seats, especially after last year’s average of 105,330 fans per game – a total boosted by the largest home crowd ever, 106,102 vs. Nebraska – set a new stadium record.
In addition, the Buckeyes have done good business when it comes to ticket purchases for the 2013 season. Director of athletics Gene Smith told BSB in May that more than 97 percent of season tickets had been renewed despite a price increase, and the Ohio State Alumni Association confirmed it had seen a small increase in applicants for its ticket lottery, though the number is smaller than the 2011 total.
But in the big picture, an upset loss or two, a weak schedule and just plan economics can always wreak havoc on attendance.
For example, one week after Ohio State was crushed, 35-3, on the road at USC in 2008, the Buckeyes returned home to play in front of just 102,989 fans against Troy despite the fact ballyhooed quarterback Terrelle Pryor threw for four touchdowns in his starting debut.
More recently, the Buckeyes had single-game tickets for sale last year before six of eight games, and the 104,745 in attendance for the Central Florida game was the smallest crowd in the stadium since 2009 despite the fact that two-time national champion coach Urban Meyer was coaching just his second game. With Buffalo and Florida A&M on the home slate this year, a public sale seems likely again.
On the whole, Ryan Forgacs of the Main Event ticket service in Columbus said he just hasn’t seen the buzz return to the OSU ticket market that existed during the 2002 national championship season or the 2006 undefeated regular season.
“People who don’t know the ticket business, they go, ‘Oh, you must have had a great year last year, Ohio State went undefeated,’ ” Forgacs said. “I’m down there at my tailgate going, ‘Hey, anyone want to go to the game for free?’ because I have eight extra tickets I can’t sell (for some of the early games).”
“I was at games, and being in the ticket business, I’m watching the stadium as much as I’m watching the games. When you’re looking at those upper-level end zones, you could have laid down in seats.”
Another reason to wonder is that Ohio State is undertaking two propositions that could be risky when it comes to attendance. The first announcement came in February when the school’s plan to institute premium-game pricing was made public.
In addition to bumping regular game tickets from $70 to $79, the school instituted a “premium game” each year that could cost up to $175 per ticket. This year, that game is the Sept. 28 night contest vs. Wisconsin, though ducats are listed at only $110.
Smith said the department – which will use the extra money to fix its many deferred maintenance issues – heard some negative feedback about the plan, but he was encouraged by season ticket renewals. In addition, the ticket office did not seek to extend prices to the approved maximums this year.
“Initially there were some people who were upset about it, and I tried to respond to every email or call that I got. The ticket office got some calls and we responded,” he said.
“The numbers that the board (of trustees) passed are ceilings, so we don’t have to go to that $175 for the Michigan game. We have to be conscious of what the season is going to look like, and so we’ll be careful with that. Like this year, we did Wisconsin and we did it at a lower level than we could have done. We’re not going to just jump to that number because it is there.”
In addition, the school’s board of trustees last week approved funding for a $9 million expansion of the stadium that will take place early next year, adding more than 2,500 seats to the South Stands.
Smith remains unconcerned that his department will be able to sell the seats for a couple of reasons. First of all, he believes demand exists, and secondly, he hopes the switch to a nine-game Big Ten schedule and OSU’s commitment to high-quality nonconference games – with games scheduled vs. Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Cincinnati, TCU, Oregon, Boston College and Texas set for 2014-23 – will result in more attractive matchups for ticket buyers.
“What we’re doing in scheduling that is coming down the road with what I hope and anticipate Urban and the kids will do on the field and our growing community … I just think the constituencies are always there,” Smith said.
In other words, don’t expect Ohio Stadium to look empty any time soon, but it is a situation that bears monitoring.