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Ratings, Attendance Declines Cause Concern

Football is the No. 1 sport in America by any measure—attendance, television ratings and overall revenues, to name a few. But disappointing TV and attendance numbers are causing executives at both the pro and college level to search for answers. On balance, the ratings decline is more pronounced in the NFL, while crowd size (other than with the winless 49ers) is more of an NCAA problem.

The NFL’s TV viewership is down 7% this season and 18% from the same point two years ago. Despite attempts to gloss it over, the folks behind the shield in New York are quite concerned. Even more worrisome is the fact that the most important demo—the 18-34 year old demographic—is down 11% so far this season.

On the college side, after a slow start, TV ratings have picked up in recent weeks as the conference races have heated up and playoff speculation has intensified. But dwindling crowds are another matter entirely. College football attendance declined last year for the sixth straight season and is down again this year. Given the fact that many announced crowds are inflated by using a “tickets distributed” number (rather than an actual turnstile count), the situation is worse than the numbers might attest. Notably, the problem even extends to big-time programs like No. 1 rated Alabama, which has had pockets of empty seats this year, and Texas, which had 15,000 vacancies for a recent game against a (then) top 10 Oklahoma State team.

What’s causing the declines? NFL analysts have suggested over-saturation (too many games on TV on different days/nights), the concussion issue, players’ national anthem protests, and increases in cable news popularity as possible factors in the ratings drop.

When discussing attendance woes, college football officials have tended to focus more on the quality of the in-stadium experience—food, comfort, parking, wi-fi, and weather-related problems—as well as late kickoff times.

Arizona Athletic Director Dave Heeke, for example, was discouraged by the low turnout at Arizona Stadium for his team’s Oct. 28 game against nationally ranked WSU, a game the Wildcats won 58-37. Given the emergence of sensational quarterback Khalil Tate and the fact that it was homecoming weekend, the Arizona suits were expecting a full house of 55,675 rather than the announced crowd of 42,822.

“I have to say I’m a little disappointed,” Heeke told “It might be the hot dogs are cold. It might be that it’s hard to park. It might be the game isn’t what we want or the team isn’t where we want it to be. And it might be because of television—the late starts generally caused by TV selections.”

The problem is, as Heeke and other athletic directors throughout the country are learning, is that it’s getting tougher to compete with the home viewing experience. Watching the game on your 60” HD TV, (complete with multiple replays of every play), with your own parking spot in the garage, your bathroom down the hall, your beer in the refrig, and the ability to check out other games with a flick of the remote, is for many folks an increasingly attractive alternative to paying for expensive tickets, parking, and beer, standing in line for the bathroom, and sitting in an uncomfortable seat. Not to mention the added cost of buying a seat license or making a donation to the athletic scholarship fund, which is now required by many schools.

The other problem both pro and college football execs are facing is that a large percentage of the younger crowd simply isn’t interested in watching a 3½ hour football game, either on TV or in the stadium. Our 18-34 year olds have short attention spans, would rather just check out the exciting plays, and are more concerned with the quality of the stadium wi-fi than the quality of the football team.

“More and more they are getting satisfied by the alternatives of highlights and scores that are available during the game,” says Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBC Broadcasting and Sports. “That continues to train young viewers to follow our sports, not watch our sports.”

All these factors have been at play in the Bay Area. Cal had 25,000 empty seats for last Saturday’s win over Oregon State. And despite the presence of arguably the nation’s most exciting player, Bryce Love, Stanford has had disappointing crowds for all of its home games this season. Another one is likely in store for this Friday’s game against Washington, which starts at 7:30. Stanford fans are notoriously averse to late kickoffs, even more so on a weeknight.

Offensive Offense: Speaking of Stanford, the Cardinal gained only 198 total yards Saturday afternoon in a 24-21 loss to Washington State, the same team that had allowed 58 points and over 500 yards to Arizona a week earlier. Other than a 52-yard run by Love, the offense was virtually non-existent. Head coach David Shaw took the blame afterward for his conservative play-calling, which was a factor, but the biggest culprits (both literally and figuratively) were the Cardinal’s offensive linemen, who were constantly out-quicked by Cougar defenders who closed off running lanes and pressured QB K.J. Costello all day. Shaw needs to figure things out in a hurry, with two of the nation’s top defensive teams (Washington and Notre Dame) coming up on the schedule.

Heisman Update: Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield surged to the top of all the Heisman Trophy projections with an outstanding performance on Saturday. Mayfield passed for 598 yards and five touchdowns in his team’s 62-52 win over Oklahoma State. (They don’t play much defense in the Big 12). Meanwhile, all the other leading contenders had off days. Running backs Saquon Barkley of Penn State, Stanford’s Love, and Notre Dame’s Josh Adams rushed for 63, 69 and 22 yards, respectively, while Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett threw four interceptions in the Buckeye’s stunning 55-24 loss to Iowa.

Bad Pizza: The fallout from low TV ratings and anthem protests has extended to NFL sponsors. Papa John's, the official pizza company of the NFL, last week expressed disappointment about the league's ongoing player protests during the national anthem.

"The NFL has hurt us," company founder and CEO John Schnatter said. "We are disappointed the NFL and its leadership did not resolve this. Leadership starts at the top, and this is an example of poor leadership.”

Papa John’s released lower sales figures and blamed the NFL for the decline. Ironically, these same issues didn’t seem to affect another league sponsor, Anheuser-Busch, whose revenues climbed 3.6%.

One can only surmise that pizza lovers are more upset about anthem protests than beer drinkers.

Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//

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