Alabama’s rise to dynasty status in college football, with five national championships in the last nine years, coincides with a trend in the opposite direction. Fewer fans are traveling to games.
Data obtained through open records requests shows UA has received 10,500 fewer tickets to away games against its regular home-and-home SEC opponents – Arkansas, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Tennessee and Texas A&M – in the last two-year cycle than it did in 2013-14, and distributed 11,000 fewer to those teams for their visits to Bryant-Denny Stadium.
In short, the decrease from 2013-14 to 2017-18 for road games against those teams for Alabama has dropped 20.2 percent, and the decrease in tickets allotted to the same opponents for games at UA over the same period is down 20.75 percent. The reduction in ticket allotments reflects a lessened interest on the part of fans to travel.
“There’s something of a softening of the demand,” said Greg Byrne, Alabama’s athletics director.
The drop in travel for Alabama fans, and for fans of opposing teams for games in Tuscaloosa, mirrors a national shift in attendance.
“We’re seeing anywhere from 10 to 14 percent down for college football, so the problem is not Alabama alone,” said Wright Waters, executive director of the Football Bowl Association and former Sun Belt Conference commissioner. “And it’s not college football alone. If you look at attendance at live events, whether it’s Major League Baseball or the NFL, attendance is down at all of them.”
The Crimson Tide is ranked No. 1 again and off to an undefeated start to the 2018 season, but two weekends ago the student section for a home game against Louisiana-Lafayette was half-empty. There were scattered empty seats unused by ticket-holders throughout the stadium. When Alabama played at Arkansas last weekend, the Razorbacks announced paid attendance at nearly 65,000, but turnstile attendance – the number of people who actually used those tickets – was 15,000 less.
“For years and years and years the answer has been win and they’ll come,” Waters said. “Boy, Alabama spits in the face of that theory.”
While dropping attendance hasn’t yet begun to hurt Alabama at the ticket window – paid attendance at three home games this season is at 99.45 percent capacity for 101,821-seat Bryant-Denny Stadium – the school is working to keep it that way. From scheduling of future out-of-conference opponents to concession pricing to a planned stadium upgrade that will actually reduce the number of seats, UA is undertaking steps to offset the trend of falling attendance. Whether it will be enough, however, is yet to be seen.
Home and away
SEC schools allot an agreed-upon number of tickets to conference opponents that visit their stadiums. Alabama plays SEC Western Division opponents Arkansas, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Texas A&M each season, with three of those games at home and three on the road. UA also plays Tennessee every year, with each team playing at home on an alternating basis.
The allotted tickets to the visiting team are distributed to season ticket holders, who pay for them. Those not bought are returned. UA has returned only 1.33 percent of its tickets for games against those regular opponents over the last six years. Opponents have returned 14.1 percent of their tickets to play at Alabama.
And while that sounds strong, a closer look shows that Alabama isn’t getting as many tickets to sell to its fan base. UA has reduced the number of allotted tickets for away games at six of these seven schools since 2013-14. Only the 6,000-ticket allocation for trips to Texas A&M has remained the same. UA has gone from taking 9,500 tickets to games at Auburn and Tennessee to 8,000 and 7,500, respectively, and dropped its number by 1,000 to 6,000 for the trips to LSU.
Likewise, Tennessee and Auburn have reduced their number of tickets for games at Alabama – from 9,500 (2013-14) to 7,500 (2017-18). Ole Miss and Mississippi State have reduced their allotment for away games at UA from 7,000 to 5,000. All seven of Alabama’s regular opponents now receive fewer tickets than they did just a few years ago.
The SEC doesn’t dictate how many tickets each team gets.
“You have to provide a certain amount of seats on the lower level, behind your bench, is what the rule is,” Byrne said. “I think that’s basically been a school-by-school decision as long as you follow those guidelines.”
Since Nick Saban arrived as head coach in 2007, Alabama has regularly played an away-from-campus game at a neutral site against a big-name opponent, usually to open the season. UA is paid a large guarantee – $4.5 million to play Louisville in Orlando to open the 2018 season, for instance – and receives a large allocation of tickets.
A look at the numbers shows Alabama’s games in Atlanta have been popular with the fan base. The Crimson Tide received an average of more than 30,000 tickets for three games there over the last six years (against Florida State, West Virginia and Virginia Tech) and was able to distribute 100 percent of those to its season-ticket base.
Games elsewhere have been a harder sell. For two games (versus Wisconsin and Southern Cal) in Arlington, Texas, and the Louisville game in Orlando, Alabama received an average of a little more than 20,500 tickets per game and returned 15 percent of those unsold.
By playing those games at neutral sites, Alabama has left its home base wanting. While Saban has cited the recruiting and publicity benefits of those contests, they aren’t played at Bryant-Denny Stadium before a home crowd hungry for more high-profile games. This year’s non-conference home slate has games against Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette and the Citadel. The only major-conference opponent from outside the SEC to visit Tuscaloosa in the Saban era was Penn State in 2010.
UA has announced future home-and-home series – with an away game and a game at Bryant-Denny Stadium – against Texas in 2022-23 and Notre Dame in 2028-29. It also has neutral-site games against Duke, Southern Cal and Miami in the next three years, but is looking for more attractive opponents to bring to campus.
It won’t be a quick fix.
“We have heard, loud and clear, and we’ve shown with our actions that we are looking for more high-quality non-conference games at Bryant-Denny,” Byrne said. “Because games are scheduled so far in advance, it’s hard to get those done.
“We are working on others, but it is a challenge to find years and dates that work out on both ends. So we’re having a lot of discussions about potential games 12 to 15 years out.”
The athletics director is hopeful that top-flight home-and-home series can be scheduled to fill the current gaps in the 2024-27 schedules.
Byrne also said there has been little talk of not playing a regular game against a lower-level, Football Championship Subdivision team (a regular spot on the November schedule before the Auburn game) or consideration of playing in-state opponents like UAB or Troy, which UA hasn’t done in football.
Anyone hoping for a future schedule with home games against, say, Ohio State and Clemson in the same year can drop those dreams.
“First and foremost, we’re going to schedule to position ourselves to compete for SEC and (national) championships, and we cannot put ourselves at a disadvantage from a scheduling standpoint to those we’re competing against,” Byrne said.
College football’s biggest foe when it comes to attendance is a device that can be found in many homes.
“We can’t deny the introduction of the 70-inch TV,” Waters said. “As my generation gets older, parking is becoming a bigger issue – it’s harder for us to walk from parking behind the Sigma Chi house to Bryant-Denny Stadium. We’re concerned about walking up stairs, sitting out in the sun, concession prices, ticket prices. All of that is answered by the 70-inch TV. You can have comfort and none of the problems.”
The rise in technology presents issues that may be impossible to overcome. Past generations of football fans were replaced by the next wave of supporters coming to games. That may not be passed down.
“In past years we were replaced by a younger generation that wanted to be part of the tribe of being there and yelling for the home team and experiencing the highs and lows that you get from being at the game,” Waters said. “The sociologists tell us that millennials are more engaged in cell phones and iPads and things like that.”
Byrne doesn’t believe attendance issues are related to economics.
“I think it’s a changing culture as far as how people consume athletics,” he said.
Alabama has introduced changes this season to enhance the experience for those who go to home games, and has more planned for the future.
The prices for bottles of water, hot dogs, pretzels and fountain drinks are lower in 2018 than in past seasons. Stadium workers undertook customer service training. Cooling stations were added to help fans battle the heat of September games.
Starting this weekend, free refills of fountain drinks will be offered in the student section starting in the fourth quarter. If all goes well, in time that deal may be offered stadium-wide.
“I think at the end of the day, as a foundation, you need to give your fans an experience where it’s still better and more enjoyable to be at Bryant-Denny Stadium than sitting at home and watching,” Byrne said.
Some obstacles are harder to overcome. Parking is a big one.
“One of the realities is when you have 100,000 people come to you venue, not everybody is going to be able to park right next to the stadium and walk in 15 minutes before kickoff,” Byrne said. “If we had a 100-story parking deck right next to Bryant-Denny Stadium it would still be a challenge to get in and out of that efficiently.”
Alabama announced in August a $250 million upgrade to the stadium as part of an overall 10-year, $600 million athletics facilities plan. It will reduce seating to less than 100,000 (although the exact number of seats that will be lost is not yet known) while adding a large video board and plaza area for students atop the south end of the field and an improved locker room and recruiting lounge. It will also include a new club seating area and more luxury boxes.
“The high-end amenities that we are working on are going to help pay for the majority of the expenses to positively benefit our fans throughout Bryant-Denny Stadium,” Byrne said.
The plan is in keeping with the direction stadium projects have been going.
“The ultimate business group in football is the NFL, and they saw this coming 15 years ago,” Waters said. “If you go back and look at the number of stadiums that have been built, their seating has gone down but the number of box suites has risen. That’s part of a shift.”
What can you do?
Some things are out of Alabama’s control. The Louisiana-Layette game played before so many empty seats kicked off at 11 a.m. That was due to the SEC’s television contract. Some games also kick off as late as 8 p.m.. That’s not likely to change.
“We always give more on the negotiations,” said Waters, who has been involved in numerous television rights deals for collegiate athletics. “We’re getting more money, but that’s why we have 11 o’clock kickoffs now, that’s why TV is telling us when to play. TV pays for it, but they’ve got some expectations with those huge payments.”
A complaint sometimes heard lately is Alabama is so good, many of its games are not competitive. Why, they ask, go to the game when they already know the outcome?
For that one, Alabama will not be accommodating, nor will it apologize.
“It’s a good problem to have,” Byrne said.
Reach Tommy Deas at email@example.com or at 205-722-0224.