College football's attendance problem: Which schools have dropped off the most?

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (John Steinbeck classics sold separately in Austin):

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A total of 40 Power Five teams hosted home openers over the weekend. In most of the locations attendance was down year-over-year — and way down compared to a decade ago.

Thirty out of 40 experienced a year-over-year decline, most of them minor. Twenty-six out of 40 experienced a decline from a decade ago, many of them major.

There are plenty of variables that could affect attendance without being a concrete indication that fans are less interested in coming out and supporting their favorite school. Weather, kickoff time and weeknight games all are factors.

But some elements that hurt attendance aren’t changing, at least not anytime soon: ticket cost, game length, quality of opponents and the comfort of the in-home viewing experience.

This is not breaking news to most observers of the sport. Tickets have become harder to sell for years, especially to students. But new or not, it’s a trend that has to concern administrators, coaches and those who make a living based on the game-day experience in college towns.

These are the biggest declines, from home opener 2008 to home opener 2018:

USC (21): From 93,607 watching the Trojans play Ohio State in ’08 to 58,708 watching them play UNLV. Decline: 34,899. Obviously, the level of opponent accounts for most of that difference. But program stature factors in as well — from the high rolling Pete Carroll Era of competing annually for national titles to the present level of good-not-great.

USC coach Clay Helton named true freshman JT Daniels the Trojans’ starting quarterback on Sunday night, one week before their season opener against UNLV. (Getty Images)
USC coach Clay Helton named true freshman JT Daniels the Trojans’ starting quarterback on Sunday night, one week before their season opener against UNLV. (Getty Images)

Illinois (22): From 60,131 watching Illinois play Eastern Illinois in ’08 to 31,898 watching the Illini play Kent State. Decline: 28,233. The program is coming off a sixth straight losing season, but a decline by nearly half is amazing. Illinois drew 42,505 for the opener last year.

Kansas: From 52,122 watching the Jayhawks play Florida International in ’08 to 24,305 watching them play Nicholls. Decline: 27,807. A decade ago, Kansas was at a peak, coming off an Orange Bowl victory. Now it is the worst Power Five program in America, and has been for some time.

Virginia (23): From 64,947 to see the Cavaliers play USC to 40,524 to see them play Richmond. Decline: 24,423. Clearly, a Trojans program in the midst of a golden era was a much bigger draw than the FCS Spiders. But the times when Virginia has even put 50,000 in the stands have been few and far between in recent years.

California (24): From 62,956 watching the Golden Bears play Michigan State to 42,168 watching them play North Carolina. Decline: 20,788. Cal was in the middle of a winning run under Jeff Tedford then. Today it is coming off a fifth losing season in the last six years — and given the athletic program’s red ink, desperately needs to put fans in seats.

Kentucky (25): From 69,118 watching the Wildcats play Norfolk State to 49,138 watching them play Central Michigan. Decline: 19,980. Kentucky fans used to reliably show up to watch a mediocre product — and in ’08, the program was coming off one of its better years (8-5). But the modest momentum of the Rich Brooks Era has been lost.

Deduction: If you have a program going through an extended malaise, fans are less likely to show up and stick it out through lean times and weak opponents than they used to be.

One exception to the general attendance decline appears to be the state of Texas. Stadiums keep getting larger, and fans keep showing up (a change in conference affiliation doesn’t hurt, either). Texas A&M had 17,164 more for its 2018 home opener than in ’08; TCU was up 15,145; Baylor up 14,697.


It’s not a great Week 2 schedule, but there are a quartet of games of importance in which one or both teams are trying to validate their credentials for having a special season. The list:

Clemson at Texas A&M (26). Team with some proving to do: the Aggies. They opened the Jimbo Fisher Era with a school-record 759 total yards, but Northwestern State’s defensive line is not to be confused with Clemson’s. Running back Trayveon Williams had his second annual season-opening 200-yard rushing game; last year there wasn’t much follow through, we’ll see about this year. Fisher is 4-4 against Clemson from his time at Florida State, but lost the last three as Dabo Swinney pushed his program into the elite echelon and FSU regressed. (The point spreads have been eerily accurate the last three years, with the outcome within 1½ points each time.) Line: Clemson favored by 12½. Dash pick: Clemson 35, Texas A&M 24.

Georgia at South Carolina (27). Team with some proving to do: the Gamecocks. There are signs of a ramped-up offense in Columbia — a team that averaged 12 gains of 10 or more yards per game last season produced 23 in the opening rout of Coastal Carolina. Quarterback Jake Bentley had a great opener in part because receiver Deebo Samuel is back from injury, making a team-high seven receptions last week. Is Georgia’s somewhat-rebuilt defense vulnerable? It wasn’t against Austin Peay, which threw for all of 61 yards and was shut out. The Gamecocks kept it close last year, but perhaps because of where the game fell on the schedule — after the Cocktail Party game vs. Florida and before a trip to Auburn. This time around, Georgia will have its full attention on South Carolina. Line: Georgia favored by 9½. Dash pick: Georgia 37, South Carolina 21.

USC at Stanford (28). Team with some proving to do: Both. Neither was brilliant in winning openers against Mountain West opponents. With Heisman Trophy candidate Bryce Love shut down, Stanford basically got a series of one-on-one wins from receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside to carry the offense against San Diego State. USC got a nice start against UNLV from its freshman pass-and-catch duo, J.T. Daniels and Amon-Ra St. Brown, connecting seven times for 98 yards and a TD. But its defense gave up a whopping 308 rushing yards and 7.2 yards per carry. The winner of this game will be thrust to the forefront of the Pac-12 — right or wrong, ready or not. Line: Stanford favored by 3½. Dash pick: Stanford 27, USC 21.

Michigan State at Arizona State (29). Team with some proving to do: Both. The Spartans’ considerable preseason hype nearly evaporated on opening night, before a late touchdown allowed them to escape Utah State. The Sun Devils, meanwhile, appear more practiced in the arts of blocking and tackling than recent previous editions. This may come down to which big wide receivers can make more plays on the outside (edge to ASU’s 6-4, 216-pound N’Keal Harry). Line: Michigan State favored by 7. Dash pick: Arizona State 28, Michigan State 27.


This weekend also features a rivalry game for one of the greatest trinkets: TCU at SMU with the winner taking home the Iron Skillet (30). The skillet was introduced as the winning totem in 1946, with the original apparently being presented at a postgame banquet for the student councils of the two schools. The idea of introducing a trophy came about as a way to stop postgame campus vandalism by rambunctious fans.

You can, of course, throw out the records when the Iron Skillet is on the line — except, well, not so much lately. TCU has won 15 of the last 17, including five in a row, and most of them have not been close. The Skillet has gotten comfortable in Forth Worth this century. Dash pick: TCU 44, SMU 17.

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