Jeffrey Martin, USA TODAY Sports
One glance inside Josh Shea's loft apartment in Wichita, Kan., and his allegiance is clear. His living room is painted purple and gray, he's a Kansas State alumnus and a diehard Wildcats fan.
He's the kind of fan athletic directors and conference commissioners used to take for granted would be in the stands on game days.
Now those administrators are concerned about college football attendance, which has declined ever so slightly among Football Bowl Subdivision schools over the past four years. The drop in average per-game attendance from 2009 to 2012 is less than 2%, but it's a trend that has drawn attention because of one key question: Are fans deciding it's more fun to watch games than attend them?
"The most fun had at a game is generally happening at tailgates in the parking lot before, during and after games," says Shea, who no longer holds Kansas State season tickets. "As for the in-stadium experience, it's simply not enjoyable versus the alternative. Most seats in a football stadium don't offer a good view of a game. End zone seats? No, thanks."
Blame it on technology. In an era when fans at home can watch multiple games at the same time, when the stadium video board can't match the number of highlights available on an iPad, when fans inside a stadium get poor cell-phone reception while those at home are texting and Twittering, big-time college programs are feeling pressure to keep pace.
Even the Southeastern Conference, which has produced eight of the past 10 national champions and enjoys huge popularity, has created a "Working Group on Fan Experience." Chaired by Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin, the committee exists because the SEC saw a per-game decrease in attendance for a fourth consecutive season.
In the Big Ten, Indiana averaged just under 45,000 fans per game at Memorial Stadium, ranking 10th in the 12-team league. But now, Hoosier fans that do show can expect fireworks before the kickoff and the start of the second half, a light show following victories, flat-screen televisions in the concourse and upgraded cell-phone reception.
After Larry Scott was named commissioner of the Pac-12 in 2009, he made a priority of hiring two dedicated ticketing professionals so that the best working practices across the conference were being shared. The reason is simple: With football the rainmaker for most programs, athletic directors know they have to keep up with the times.
"We're dependent on (fans) to generate the revenue to be able to continue to compete at the highest level," Oregon senior associate athletic director Craig Pintens says. "We have to make sure we're generating the revenue. The way to do that is to make sure we have the best possible fan experience."
What schools don't want is for fans to view going to a game as akin to stepping into a sports vacuum, leaving behind the all-access feel of watching games on television.
Last year, Stricklin's committee addressed a major problem - lack of replays on the stadium big screens. Previously in the SEC, only one replay could be aired on any given play and it couldn't be shown at all if the play was under review. The committee relaxed the limits - replays can be shown as often as desired, provided a game official isn't shown up in doing so, and if there is a play under review, the stadium will get the same television feed that viewers elsewhere are watching.
During his address this summer at his conference's media days, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby revealed a plan to air live and taped highlights from the league's other games at stadiums this fall.
"College football has experienced declines in overall attendance over the last four or five years, and I think bringing highlights in will take into account and help one of the things that really is getting to be a challenge for us," Bowlsby said.
Shea is skeptical.
"Everyone wants to watch on giant HDTVs that give the best views and have two other games on other TVs going on the side, and be able to chat about what's going on on Twitter and web sites, while getting up-to-the-second updates on what else is going on in football, sports and the world," he says. "I don't think that running highlights of other Big 12 games is going to make up for all that."
Even though television may impact attendance, it's not the enemy. That's because conferences also have enjoyed huge windfalls from selling TV rights to networks, in addition to dedicated outlets in the Big Ten and Pac-12, with the SEC set to launch its network in 2014. Schools don't want to blame their television partners for hurting the gate proceeds, even if it might be true.
"They're being victimized by the business model," says Paul Swangard, managing director of the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. "Television has begun to dictate kickoff times, days of the week - just as we saw with the NFL, which used to be an exclusively Sunday experience. The idea that college football was for the longest time just a Saturday experience has long since ended. Fans are making judgments on their attendance based on a variety of factors, some of which is pricing and cost."
Stricklin says the upcoming season will serve as a fact-finding mission.
"I think the hope is we continue to make sure people understand how special it is to come to one of our campuses on Saturdays," Stricklin said. "All of the senses are engaged in a way you don't get sitting on your couch. There is nothing like a college football game in a Southeastern Conference stadium."
Just as technology has complicated the equation for universities, it also presents an opportunity - such as free and reliable wi-fi to all fans in attendance.
It's a expensive proposition, ranging from $2 million to $4 million per stadium. Baylor's new stadium, which is scheduled to open in 2014, will offer internet access inside and outside the facility.
"The trend we're starting to see is technology, as it advances, it's taking over these facilities, which opens up a lot of opportunities," says Geoff Cheong of sports architecture firm Populous.
Others say college officials are reacting too much to a slight decline.
"I think it's much ado about nothing," says Darin David, senior director at The Marketing Arm. "Every athletic department worries about attendance as one of the key indicators of how excited the fan base is, but it's really a campus-by-campus issue. Some may have had a dip due to the quality of opponents on the schedule, a down year on the field, a coaching change, etc., but many of those issues can be repaired in fairly short order."
Says Matt Balvanz, vice president of analytics at Navigate Research: "The attendance decline has more to do with the cyclical economy and competitiveness of certain markets than it does the improved TV experience."
Mike Lewis, a professor of marketing at Emory University, agrees that "there is a just a little bit of randomness in the data. Things will naturally go up and down."
But he says there are issues to be concerned about, such as competitive balance. As the big-time programs with huge fan bases continue to pour hundreds of millions into stadium expansions, locker room renovations and expensive coaching staffs, the rest have to decide whether they can afford - or want to afford - what it takes to pack the stands.
Alabama, for example, averaged 101,722 fans per game last year, third in the nation and one of 10 SEC teams among the top 25 FBS schools in attendance. But at the other end of the SEC spectrum, Mississippi State was at 55,628, while Kentucky averaged less than 50,000 and Vanderbilt was below 40,000.
"The SEC has won what, the last seven titles? And Alabama is really starting to dominate the SEC," he said. "It's like when the Yankees were on their run in the late '90s and into the 2000s. To some extent, why should the folks at Mississippi State keep showing up when it seems like the economics have kind of pushed things out of their reach?"
It's the same in other BCS leagues. In the Big Ten, Michigan and Ohio State both average well over 100,000 fans per game, while Northwestern draws just under 36,000 and Purdue about 45,000.
Shea, a 36-year-old lawyer who says he works hard and plays hard, has a suggestion to make games more fun. Students have their areas, and suites and boxes attract their own demographic. How about one for fans who want to watch with similar fans?
"I'd love it if a decent section was known and sold as a section for non-students to be standing and yelling and getting rowdy all game," he said. "Cost wouldn't be a factor if I knew I was going to be in the same party within the stadium that I'd be at outside the stadium.
"Maybe if sections were somehow assigned to fans of different age and enthusiasm levels, it'd be important and/or desirable to be there."
It's an idea.