The Unspoken Potential Problem with College Football Playoffs vs BCS: Attendance
For years, fans of college football have clamored for a playoff at the highest level of the NCAA sport. Instead, the school presidents have opposed it in favor of the BCS system. And while some school presidents on the outside of the BCS have made some noise, and even government officials such as Utah Attorney General, Mark Shurtleff and Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, no major changes have been made.
Sure, there were some minor tweaks to the BCS, where schools could gain access to the BCS based on their BCS computer ranking. This has enabled schools like Utah, Hawaii, Boise St. and TCU, all whom were outside the 6 BCS conferences, to crash the party.
There’s been another big public push for a playoff of late, thanks to the book “Death to the BCS” by Dan Wetzel, Josh Peter and Jeff Passan. Even more recently, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has proposed a system in which he would work to fund that would create a national playoff system.
The age old argument in favor of a playoff system has been that it would decide a true national champion, decided on the field. The same “pro-playoff” camp will argue that if the NCAA can get a multi-billion dollar deal for it’s basketball playoff tournament, that for an even more popular sport like football, they’d certainly be able to make more money than they are now in the BCS.
The “anti-playoff” camp has always been quick to denounce a playoff saying that it would keep the students away from classes, the primary reason for attending a university. Of course “pro-playoff” people will point to the FCS level of football (I-AA) and the lower divisions like Division 2 and Division 3 and say that if they can have a playoff, why not in FBS? It’s worth noting that conferences in FCS such as the Ivy League do not participate in the FCS playoffs. And for many schools in BCS conferences, despite the big money in their athletics, they more closely associate themselves with the Ivy League than say, the Big Sky Conference in FCS.
The potential playoff revenue issue is further supported by many since it would only be a 12-16 team playoff…the best of the best…unlike the basketball tournament in which with so many automatic bids from lower Division 1 conferences, means there are a number of games that are quite unbalanced. There’s a reason why no #16 seed had ever beaten a #1 seed and why it’s such a shocker when a #2 or #3 seed loses in basketball.
In football, with the best of the best, you’d instead have a more even playing field with even a #16 versus a #1 seed. This year, according to the BCS rankings, that would be #1 Auburn versus #16 Alabama. That’s a much more attractive match-up than say in the NCAA Basketball Tournament game with #1 Duke versus #16 Prairie View A&M.
But with all the issues that seem to support a playoff system, there are a number of reasons why the BCS has been favored….including an issue that nobody seems to talk about.
The school presidents at the majority of the BCS conference schools favor the BCS for the obvious reason: money. Students missing classes is hardly the primary factor when so many millions of dollars are in play. But the BCS system better compensates the BCS school members. And to those school presidents, it’s a reward for their tougher conference schedules and a rationale for the large financial investments they make in their programs.
If you’re Ohio St. and you know you have to play the likes of Michigan, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa and Penn St. each year, while a MAC school has a much lower quality schedule, it hardly seems fair to them that the MAC would be equally rewarded. And when looking at the WAC, even with Boise St. having such a good run the past decade, they’ve had a conference schedule that included schools like San Jose St., Idaho, New Mexico St., and LA Tech. If you’re USC, Texas, Florida or Ohio St. playing in a tough Pac-10, Big 12, SEC or Big Ten, one can see why these schools feel they should be better compensated.
So when it comes to a playoff, the obvious necessity for the BCS conferences would be for the revenue distribution to be favored to them. If they were making more money than in the BCS and a larger portion of the total revenue shared, then it would be in the best interest of the current BCS conference schools.
But there is still one larger problem that people rarely discuss.
And that problem is simply this: while the public says they want a playoff, is the market really there for the number of games that would comprise a 16 team playoff? 15 total games involving only 16 total schools? Games that unlike Bowls which leave a month for planning, would be decided only a week in advance.
Those in favor of a playoff just assume that there would be the market; that a schools fans would wait in line for days just for the chance to see their school in the National Championship Playoffs. But is that really the case?
Mark Cuban mentioned in his initial proposal for a playoff, that the system would have the higher seeded schools having home field advantage. It is unknown if this would mean that the the second round and semi-finals would be on-campus or at a neutral site. We can assume that for a championship game, that it would be treated like the Super Bowl, held at a predetermined neutral location.
The alternative would be to have all games at neutral sites, much like in college basketball, similar to the bowl system now. And of course there could be a system in place where just the 1st round games were on campus while the quarter, semi and finals were held at neutral sites.
But any way you look at it, there is still that question: is the ticket purchasing interest really there?
Because based on the information we have now, that might not be the case.
Fans of FCS (I-AA football) schools and many in the media covering these schools have a large amount of pride with a playoff system. Fans of these schools will even go as far as claiming they have the better system over FBS (I-A football) because they have a playoff.
Everyone is entitled to pride in their school and the system their school participates in. But perhaps it’s time we look at the numbers that really matter: attendance.
The University of Delaware has for years been a dominant force in FCS college football. They’ve won championships, been a regular playoff participant, and this year, have already advanced to the FCS Semi-Finals where they will host another legend in the level, Georgia Southern.
But what has made Delaware such a envy to other FCS schools has been their tremendous fan support. Most years, Delaware will average between 20,000 and 30,000 per game attendance each year. This year, they continued the trend with an average of 20,684. These home games included games such as against Maine, a school located 600 miles away, along with URI, a school downgrading in football in 2013. Delaware also hosted Duquesne, a limited scholarship program in Pittsburgh, as well as games against it’s conference foes Villanova and Towson and Division 2, West Chester. Yet with the home schedule, Delaware averaged 20,684 fans.
And then the playoffs started.
Delaware’s first game was against a nearby school, Lehigh, just 80 miles away. With all the regular support at Delaware, the excitement of hosting a playoff game, and the opponent being just a couple hours drive away, one would assume that Delaware would have been selling more tickets than usual. It’s the playoffs, it’s to determine a true national championship, and there are only so many schools good enough to make the tournament….so it should sellout, right?
Wrong. Instead, Delaware had a playoff attendance against a nearby opponent, of only 13,669.
So perhaps it was just an anomaly.
But then after winning it’s first playoff game against Lehigh, Delaware got to host a 2nd game in the next round against one of the best in FCS, New Hampshire. The result: only 8770 in attendance.
But we know that this attendance issue isn’t limited to just Delaware.
Appalachian St. is another FCS powerhouse. After multiple FCS Championships and an upset win over FBS Michigan a few years ago, Appalachian St., along with schools like Delaware and Montana has been an FCS power.
This season, Appalachian St. averaged 29,450 in attendance against the likes of Jacksonville, North Carolina Central, Elon, Citadel, Wofford and Furman. Hardly household names to the rest of the country, but primarily conference rivals of Appalachian St.
Yet for the playoffs, Appalachian St. had only 13,332 in attendance against Western Illinois. In it’s 2nd playoff game this year, against last years national champion Villanova, the attendance was only 15,706.
That’s quite a drop.
And last year, you had Villanova win the FCS National Championship. This same Villanova program, that has been extended an invitation to join the BCS in the Big East conference, had only 4771 in attendance in it’s home national semifinal game last year against conference foe William & Mary.
The numbers don’t lie: people say they want a playoff system, but in a level that has a playoff system, those fans don’t actually have the level of interest to actually attend the games. And we’re not talking about some lower level schools that got lucky and advanced. We’re talking about programs like Delaware and Appalachian St. that average more in attendance than a number of FBS schools.
The reality is that the college football playoff system seems great on paper to the fans, but it creates a higher level of inconvenience to the fans than the current bowl system.
In FCS each summer, alumni, students and fans can plan their schedules to attend games on campus, making their arrangements months in advance. But when the playoffs start, the schedule and location of the games are unknown even a single week before. Passionate fans might change their schedules or have the spontaneity to attend a game. But that is a limited number of fans.
For basketball, many of the seats sold to neutral site games are sold to people living in that area. They are sold months in advance and the fans are buying tickets to an event, not knowing who the participants will be. Each school then has it’s allotment of tickets to sell, resulting in a what appears to be a balanced fan base…depending on the location.
When it comes to a proposed FBS football playoff, there would exist the same inconvenience for fans not having the necessary time to plan. Perhaps it means finding a babysitter, or moving a work schedule around. There are always things that come up. Because with the bowl system, the fans have a month to plan a trip. For some fans, it means a cross country trip from Pennsylvania or Ohio to get to the Rose Bowl in Los Angeles. For others fans in the SEC or ACC, it’s a convenient nearby trip to either Miami or New Orleans. Not are convenient as a trip to a nearby campus for a home game, that we know. But as we’ve seen in life, it’s often easier to plan a trip on the other side of the world with a months notice than it is to rearrange a set weekend schedule to do something just a few miles away.
It’s doubtful that the attendance drop would be as drastic in an FBS playoff as it is with even powerful FCS schools like Delaware and Appalachian St. At the top, schools like Texas, USC and Ohio St. would likely do fine based on the population of their communities. Schools that traditionally have attendance figures over 100,000 per game like Michigan, Tennessee, Penn St., etc would also likely do fine. But would there be a drop in attendance at all? Perhaps.
The assumption that all fans in favor of a playoff have is that a playoff system would be exactly on par with the NFL, where there is a huge demand for tickets to a showcase event. But what if an FBS playoffs were even a small step down from that and more similar to the FCS playoffs? If there were an average attendance drop in FCS regular season versus playoff games of 35%, is it a stretch to think that maybe the FBS attendance drop would be 5% or even 10%?
While the bowl system has more flaws than one can count, the one advantage it has is in the convenience it provides for the participating schools fan bases. In most cases, a fan of a school will have at least a month to finalize their travel plans. At the time of this article, UConn has sold roughly 4,000 tickets to it’s BCS game this year, the Fiesta Bowl. That number will grow. But how many people would travel for 4 road games in the playoffs each year? Very few. And those road tickets sold do make a significant part of many attendance figures. Fans need to look no further than watching an Ohio St. at Michigan game and seeing the number of red shirts in the crowd. And those road warriors are usually planning their trip to a rivals field with much advanced time…it’s rarely a spur of the moment decision.
The potential attendance issue is worth factoring into a playoff system because it is a real risk. If next week they announced a playoff system, the novelty would be quite high. But would it be enough to remain so that every year, you’d have all 15 games sold out when the people attending only have 1 week notice? The benefit of the NFL is that is takes place in metropolitan areas. So in addition to the regular attendees of seasonal games, you have another demographic to attend the playoffs. And in most cases, you’re talking about cities with 1-5 million people, versus college towns where the attendees are often driving from hundreds of miles away.
The risk is that the novelty could wear off with a playoff system and the attendance figures drop as they have on many FCS football campuses. And even as a TV product, a full stadium is always desired.
But the reality is that this risk will need to be put aside is a playoff system is to ever come to be. And for many fans, it’s a risk much worth taking.
Update: for Delaware’s home national semifinal game versus Georgia Southern the attendance was 10,317, half of their regular season average.