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FBS attendance decline: Why it’s not a surprise

Sprawling conferences and instant access to highlights have created apathetic fan bases yearning for the rivalries of old.

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Wisconsin
Uninteresting forced rivalries have created an apathetic fan base that, in a world of increased FBS content over the internet, has hurt average attendance across the country
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

In case you haven’t heard, the 2017 college football season marked the largest attendance drop in 34 years. Among the 129 FBS teams, attendance was down an average of 1,409 fans per game. That’s the largest drop since 1982-1983 and the second steepest decline since the NCAA began recording attendance in 1948.

For the first time ever, average attendance has declined nationally for four consecutive seasons and is down 10.1% since the all time high of 46,971 fans in 2008 (also a record).

Why Is This Happening?

In the CBS article linked above, Bill Lutzen, a sports TV programmer believes that it is due to a lack of student involvement. He believes that students don’t see going to the games as part of the “college experience.” I however, do not believe that is the problem.

Another source in the article, Wright Waters, says it’s a technology issue. With increased access to content, fans are able to watch the games anywhere on multiple devices. While I agree with Waters point, I still don’t think that is the whole reason why the decline is occurring.

So What Is the REAL Problem?

I believe we can attribute the attendance drop to one major issue.

Conference alignment

Since the beginning of the decade, conferences have realigned to create confusing and uninteresting match-ups. Schools have given up storied rivalries and anticipated games for TV money, sacrificing fan interest and student involvement.

Just take a second to Google “CFB rivalries killed by conference realignment” and you’ll get plenty of great examples.

The Border War against Kansas and Missouri is a perfect example. It’s a rivalry that started during the Civil War when both sides would cross state lines and destroy entire towns. In fact, the Jayhawk and Tiger nicknames originate from the Civil War militias from each state.

Kansas Jayhawks v Missouri Tigers
The Border War, one of the biggest and longest rivalry games in CFB, has turned Cold thanks to conference realignment.
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

That hatred has spanned generations and has lead people to write children’s books about their rivals (as well as create these great commercials).

Texas-Texas A&M? Gone. The Backyard Brawl between West Virginia and Pitt? Gone. Nebraska-Oklahoma? Forget about it.

Texas v Texas A&M
Texas vs Texas A&M was one of the biggest CFB rivalries in the country but has since gone away thanks to conference realignment.
Photo by Darren Carroll/Getty Images

The point is, these games were more than just games. They were part of our culture! Families get together during the holidays and bad mouth rival fans by passing down horror stories about them, they go to the games together to get bragging rights or just to get new reasons to hate the other team.

Rivalries are the essence of college football and, for me personally, are what got me interested in this sport to begin with.

Now, they are just memories. Leaving newer generations with made up rivalries and generic, uninspiring rivalry trophies like the “Freedom Trophy” that Nebraska and Wisconsin play for (BORING!). Here’s a snippet from the linked article above:

“They just made some silly trophy,” said Dane Melby, 48, a server at Mickie’s Dairy Bar across the street from Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium. “This is, ‘Here, let’s make up a trophy until they remake the conference again.’ ”

You see? Nobody wants to be spoon fed a forced rivalry. They want authenticity. They want to see the rivalries they grew up with and heard their family talking about. They want to pass down the hatred to their kids.

What exacerbates the problem is the increased accessibility of content over the internet. If you are able to get the highlights and news almost instantly from home, why travel and spend money to watch your team take on an opponent from 1,000 miles away? You won’t.

The Civil Conflict Trophy, a made up rivalry between the UConn Huskies and UCF Knights, is perhaps the greatest example at an attempt (and failure) to create a rivalry with a new conference foe.

So, NCAA, you want people in the seats? Make rivalry games a priority. Restructure conferences like the AAC and C-USA. Rebuild the original Big 12, ACC and SEC. Who cares about a team from the Northeast playing in Florida (think Civil Conflict trophy, folks)? Nobody does. Because you don’t see or know any fans from the other team and won’t until the next year rolls around. You don’t have any pride to gain like you would if it was a local rivalry.

The point is, conferences should be kept local. Don’t make the sport about money. Make it about the rivalries and the fans that made this sport great and you’ll get your attendance, trust me.