As college football programs across both subdivisions have watched in-stadium attendance decline, schools in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA, +2%) and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC, +10%) have collectively experienced an uptick over the last two seasons. Alabama head coach Nick Saban suggested improving the quality of the schedule to combat the trend, but Ray Katz (co-founder of Collegiate Sports Management Group) says it’s not that simple; it’s not as if the visiting teams are driving the attendance across the two FCS conference outliers mentioned. He points to a singular commonality between the CAA and the MEAC. Both have “commissioners intent on also serving as the conference’s chief business, chief marketing and chief media officers – in addition to being the chief administrator. There is a willingness to be true innovators and to adapt to the rapidly changing media and marketing landscape.”
Howie Long-Short: It’s rare for conference commissioners to “be intimately involved in sponsorship sales calls, to work with sponsors so that they drive ticket sales or for them to take a leadership role in media rights negotiations”, but it’s that hands-on approach that has enabled the two conferences to grow attendance as most everyone else looks for answers. While Dennis Thomas (MEAC) and Joe D’Antonio (CAA) pay attention to the smallest of details within their ‘businesses’, the “power five conferences sell off their media and sponsorship rights to third parties who are naturally not going to be as invested in total success across the entire ecosystem and all revenue streams.”
The reason Thomas and D’Antonio can have their fingerprints on so many facets of the operation is “because [the MEAC and the CAA] are not the monolithic organizations that the power five conferences are. They don’t function as siloed corporate machines.” While it’s not feasible for a P5 conference commissioner to wear all the hats that those guys do, the ability to operate a business has become a skill critical to the job.
Fan Marino: Saban is right, college football programs need to step up the competition “or fans are going to quit coming” – three of Alabama’s seven home games this season come against non-P5 schools (see: New Mexico State, Southern Mississippi, Western Carolina), but simply increasing the strength of schedule isn’t going to result in packed stadiums across the country. While there are dog non-conference games, Katz suggests it may well be conference games (which comprise the bulk of the schedule) that are contributing to the decline. There might be something to that. Alabama fans are excited to host the Iron Bowl every other year, but they’ve likely tired of going to games against Arkansas, Mississippi and Mississippi State. The formation of a strategic alliance between P5 conferences (see: Early Entrants: Vol. XI) would help to solve CFB’s scheduling problem.
The issue with having cupcakes on the home schedule is that fans simply don’t want to pay to attend those games and once a fan decides to pass on season tickets in favor of buying on a single game basis for the few games he/she wants to attend, there are all sorts of variables (think: weather, life, team performance) that could prevent that individual from ultimately purchasing seats.
The cost of attendance is also a problem. Ticket prices have reached “unconscionable levels that are not affordable for the average fan.” Katz says, “the television experience has gotten so good, why would a fan pay $350 to bring a family of four to sit in mediocre seats at a mediocre game?”
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