It’s been the talk of college football for a few years now.
You see headlines all over the country about it:
“Is Alabama ruining college football?”
“America tired of Alabama dominance?”
“Is Alabama as tired of Alabama as we are?”
The verdict is in, folks want Bama. According to National Football Foundation numbers for the 2018 season, Alabama was a big ratings grabber, with the SEC Championship Game between the Crimson Tide and Georgia being the most-watched and highest-rated regular-season game on any network in seven years. The game, televised on CBS, drew 17.5 million viewers and was the second-most watched SEC title game since 1992, which also featured Alabama.
Three of the top-10 most watched regular-season games last season included Alabama. The SEC title game was first, the Crimson Tide vs. LSU on Nov. 3 ranked third and Alabama vs. Auburn on Nov. 24 was at No. 5.
The Crimson Tide posted big numbers in two postseason games, pulling in 18.5 million viewers for its Orange Bowl win against Oklahoma and 24.3 million in the national title game loss to Clemson.
Alabama football appears to be in good shape with attendance. Its total attendance for seven 2018 home games averaged 101,562 fans per game. Compared to the 101,722 average in 2017, UA saw just a .16 percent decrease. The attendance average has fluctuated since the expansion of Bryant-Denny Stadium in 2010 with the highest average in 2016 (101,821) to its lowest average in 2013 (101,505).
The Crimson Tide led the nation in overall attendance, counting home, away and neutral-site games. Ohio State was second.
“We have an outstanding fan base that spans well beyond the state of Alabama and also one that does a great job traveling to support the Crimson Tide,” Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne said. “This is a testament to the success that our student-athletes, Coach (Nick) Saban and his staff have had over the last decade, and while this is certainly something to be very proud of, we are constantly evolving and continuing to hone in on ways to make the game-day experience a special one to be part of.”
Alabama had two road games in 2018 where the allotted number of tickets for fans had no returns (Ole Miss, LSU). Alabama sold all its allotted tickets for the SEC title game and the Orange Bowl, and 1,650 of its 20,000 allotment for the CFP title game went unsold.
It was a good year for Alabama and the rest of college football with TV ratings. Attendance, however, saw a slight dip in 2018, continuing a trend of the past 10 years.
Nationally, college football attendance (all divisions) had a 1.3 percent decline from 2017, according to the NFF. The 2017 season saw a 3.4 percent drop-off. When accounting for FBS teams only, the 2017 total was a 3.78 decline.
The lower attendance can be attributed to a number of factors, said Wright Waters, executive director for the Football Bowl Association. No. 1 is technological advancements with TV and internet, which allow fans to watch anytime from anywhere.
“That is something different that we’ve never had to deal with before,” Waters said last week while meeting with the Alabama Sports Writers Association. “When we had the Greatest Generation watching games, television was 30x30x30. We now have 70-inch TVs, and football is a game that broadcasts very well. For people to be able to sit at home on the couch with a cold beer and clean restrooms — that’s an issue we’ve never dealt with before as we made these transitions.
“Also, this generation is tied to cellphones and we don’t know exactly how to get into it.”
This generation also is tied to student debt. According to the Institute for College Access and Success, 46 percent of 2017 University of Alabama graduates have some type of debt. The average debt for 2017 UA graduates is $34,000.
Getting younger alumni to attend football games with such a big financial burden becomes more difficult.
“Students come out of college with huge debt and they don’t have expendable income,” Waters said. “You hear about these graduates going back to live with mom and dad because they can’t afford their first home. It’s a challenge we are still working on and have to figure out.”
Alabama is taking steps to keep the fans’ interest at home games, particularly students. Alabama head coach Nick Saban has been critical in the past of students leaving games early, and through a renovation project of Bryant-Denny Stadium, UA hopes to keep students in the stands for more than just one half.
The UA board of trustees just approved a budget increase for the stadium renovation project from $75.5 million to $92.5 million due to changes in the original plans. Upgrades to the plan include larger video scoreboards in the corners of the stadium, more elevators, and 10,000 square feet of space on the southeast ground level providing a shaded area for students to socialize.
“I don’t know of any stadium in the country that has an area like this designated for the students, so it will be a nice addition for them,” Byrne said at the trustees meeting last week.
The slight dip in attendance is not enough for immediate concern, Waters said. College football continues to be profitable and has a huge impact on local economies. But the lower numbers do suggest finding ways of protecting that investment for the future.
That could mean tweaking the playoff system and expanding it to eight teams, which sounds good on paper.
Waters said he was part of the team a few years ago that was tasked with coming up with a plan to replace the old BCS system. His team came up with an eight-team playoff with first-round games played on campus Jan. 1. There was blowback from college presidents.
“They didn’t just tell us no, but hell no,” Waters said. “You are not bringing this thing to our campus during exams and all the hotels are already sold out for graduation. So you have to shrink this thing down to about 21 days.”
The other issue with an expanded playoff is money. Fans who already spend a hefty amount on regular-season games would be asked to cough up more money for playoff games, which includes travel, lodging and meals.
“That’s a lot to ask of fans,” Waters said. “There are logistical issues. What can the public afford? Alabama has seven home games, then you go to (the SEC title) game, then you go to a semifinal and then a final — we have people that can’t afford that.”
There are several factors to be considered for a playoff expansion, big challenges ahead for college football and no easy answers. For now it’s business as usual for college football, as long as it’s making money, attracting fans and getting big ratings.
|2018 Attendance, home games|
|2018 Attendance, all games|
|2018 Top-rated games
TV ratings for regular-season games
|Alabama-Georgia||17,499,000||SEC title game|
|Michigan-Ohio State||13,200,000||Regular season|
|Texas-Oklahoma||10,155,000||Big 12 title game|
|2018 Postseason ratings|
|Clemson-Notre Dame||16,284,480||Cotton Bowl|
|Alabama-Clemson||24,321,612||CFP title game|
Source: National Football Foundation
|Alabama ticket returns 2018|
|Ole Miss||5,000||No returns|
|Arkansas||3,300||2,700 returned for credit|
|Tennessee||7,150||350 returned for credit|
|SEC title game||16,300||No returns|
|Orange Bowl||13,000||No returns|
Source: University of Alabama