College football's attendance problem is secretly huge

College football attendance is dropping, but the problem is much bigger than most people know. (Getty)
College football attendance is dropping, but the problem is much bigger than most people know. (Getty)

Division I college football is big business. But according to the Wall Street Journal, that business is experiencing a problem: people aren’t showing up to college football games as much as they used to. Announced attendance has dropped for four straight years, but it’s even worse — schools commonly juice their attendance numbers, so their attendance drops are bigger than the public knows.

Low attendance is hidden by “fake” numbers

College football, even at the highest levels, are experiencing an attendance drop off. According to the Journal, attendance at Division I schools dropped 7.6 percent in four years, which is pretty alarming considering some of the most prestigious, popular, and successful programs are in Division I.

But the problem is actually much bigger than most people know. Since schools are allowed to use the number of tickets sold as their attendance count (and not the number of people who used those tickets), there can be enormous gaps between announced attendance and actual attendance. According to the Journal, the number of fans who actually show up to a game is 71 percent of the announced attendance. At schools with less prominent football programs, it drops to about 45 percent.

Individual numbers are even more stark. When Minnesota hosted Nebraska in 2017, the announced attendance was 39,933. The real number was far less.

Only 25,493 ticketed fans were counted at the gates, 36% lower than the announced attendance and about half of the stadium’s capacity. More than 14,000 people who bought tickets or got them free didn’t show up.

At a 2017 game between Arkansas and Auburn, the gap between announced and actual was a staggering 25,000 people. Florida State’s attendance was inflated by an average of 57%. For Nebraska, a school with a sellout streak that started in 1962, the average difference per game is 18,000.

Announced attendance vs. actual attendance

How are school allowed to get away with announcing numbers that don’t reflect the truth? The same way professional sports teams are. In baseball, for example, teams usually announce the number of tickets sold instead of the actual number of people who had their tickets scanned. That’s what’s happening in college football.

Out of the 100 schools the Journal surveyed, all but one announce the total tickets sold (or distributed, since schools often give out free tickets) as their attendance, as opposed to tickets scanned. Some schools even count stadium staff, the marching band, and the media among their attendance numbers.

There’s a simple reason why schools do it this way: money.

“Attendance drives recruiting, attendance drives donations, merchandise sales,” said Rob Sine, who until earlier this year was president of IMG Learfield Ticket Solutions, which works with dozens of colleges. If fans don’t use their tickets, he added, “they’re more likely to not come back.”

What’s driving the attendance issues?

It’s never just one thing. Among non-student fans, the Journal cited a number of reasons, like the ability to watch games at home on enormous flat-screen TVs. Or rising ticket costs, which is compounded by issues like changing game times, long games, and traffic issues. Why spend money on tickets and parking (not to mention the time it takes to get there and back) to see the players look like ants in the nosebleed section, when you could just relax in your own home and see everything up close on your 75-inch TV?

Student attendance has also become an issue. High prices are one reason why, but the increasing availability of games on TV has made it easier for students to buy tickets and just not show up. Spectator sports require people to sit and be engaged, which doesn’t always jive with how students want to experience games. Alabama, a college football powerhouse, is trying something to fix that.

As part of a recently announced renovation of Bryant-Denny Stadium, the school plans to add a student terrace to create “a more interactive and social environment,” athletic director Greg Byrne said.

It could work, and maybe spark a trend in college football stadiums. But schools don’t seem to have a larger solution to their attendance problems. But as long as they’re allowed to report the number of tickets sold, they don’t really need to.

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Liz Roscher is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email her at or follow her on Twitter at @lizroscher.

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