What's hard to understand is exactly why the MAC has SO much trouble. They are large institutions in populated areas and the only competition is the Big 10. They ought to do about the same as the current CUSA which has similar size institutions and the SEC in its territory and also has the Sun Belt to compete with. But the MAC is not as strong and draws barely half as many. It seems to be just a lack of commitment.
I've mentioned the weather issue hurting the MAC on an earlier post. With most of the MAC schools in Ohio and Michigan it has a mid-major bus league setup. Too many schools in the same area to be able to recruit effectively or to market as a big time school. How can you market Western Michigan as big time football when they play in the same division as Central and Eastern Michigan. To the common fan that is not major football. If you had just Western Michigan in 1-A, they would have distance between Central and Eastern and the perception of WMU would be more like an East Carolina.
CUSA schools have vastly different histories than the MAC. Many CUSA schools for years played in a major conference. SMU, Rice, Houston played in the SWC. UTEP in the old WAC. Tulane in the SEC. Memphis, Southern Miss, and East Carolina as Southern Independents. UAB has been considered high major in basketball for years. CUSA schools have long shed the mid-major tag. In some cases they've never had it.
The MAC was a Division 1-AA level conference playing Division 1-A ball until about 10 years ago. Schools in the MAC have gradually built programs over time. A press box here, a indoor facility there. Today most of the schools in the MAC have the Division 1-A look to their stadium. MAC schools rely for the most part on alumni support, and its going to take time before the new realities of their programs set in.
Don't forget, some of the MAC schools play in very small towns. Mt.Pleasant, Oxford, Athens, Bowling Green; all towns that are exclusively the college. Greenville and Hattiesburg are much bigger towns. DeKalb of NIU would be comparable in size to Hattiesburg and at NIU you find the Huskie's averaging 27,000 now that they have some tradition. Kalamazoo is bigger than Greenville, and Western Michigan has had crowds of 35,000+ when it was winning.
And remember, the only ones in the MAC that have SO much trouble with attendance are Kent, Akron, Buffalo, EMU. They are consistently bad, and buried behind pro sports. Kent in the early 70's was ranked and selling out its then state of the art football stadium. Once Akron joined 1-A in 1987, Kent's program and following began to decline because playing in D1-A didn't mean anything anymore with Akron right next door. EMU was a Division II school until the 70's, and they've had little winning at Division 1-A. Buffalo is not a big enough town to give support to the Bills and the Bulls.
Once you look at all the factors that are holding MAC programs back from drawing better, weak attendance is not a big surprise.