Packing 'em in: SEC trying to get crowds back to stadiums
By DAVID BRANDT
The Southeastern Conference has all the built-in advantages when it comes to selling college football: Incredibly passionate fan bases, relatively little competition from professional sports franchises and a long history of competitive teams.
Even so, the league isn't immune to a national trend of falling attendance.
Like other schools around the country, SEC programs are trying to do something about it.
There's no one-size-fits-all approach, so schools are using tactics they feel appeal to their respective fan bases. Some examples include: Mississippi State recently slashed concession prices, Ole Miss unveiled a new mascot named `Landshark Tony' to try and connect with kids and LSU has added `The Chute,' which is a 21-and-older section that offers premium food and drinks.
"It's top of mind every day on how you make it cool and engaging for fans," Ole Miss athletics director Ross Bjork said.
The SEC saw a drop of more than 2,400 fans per game last season, which was the biggest decline of any Power Five conference.
The drop in attendance wasn't limited to the SEC, with the entire Football Bowl Subdivision losing an average of about 1,400 fans per game in 2017. The American Athletic Conference had the biggest drop at nearly 3,000 per game. Most other conferences had more modest losses while two conferences - the Mountain West (832 per game) and the Big Ten (76) - saw an increase.
The SEC is still in a good position relative to the other leagues. The 14 teams draw an average of about 75,000 fans per game, or nearly 10,000 more than the nearest league. SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said several factors went into last year's drop, including an abnormally high number of imminent coaching changes around the league.
"It's not a sky is falling situation," Sankey said.
But he also acknowledged it's a good time for schools to be proactive when addressing last year's decline. There are several reasons schools are facing headwinds when drawing fans, including the prevalence of televised games and the high cost associated with coming to stadiums.
Mississippi State had a slight dip in average attendance last season and responded by cutting many concessions prices by as much as 50 percent. Hot dogs, candy, pretzels, popcorn, peanuts and bottled water are down to $2. The school's athletics director John Cohen said it's a move school leaders had considered for years.
"We're also fans and when you see people paying $5 or $6 dollars for a hot dog, there's just something that doesn't sit right with us," Cohen said. "That's not our identity at Mississippi State. We want to meet fans halfway."
Cohen said he doesn't necessarily expect the school to lose revenue from the cheaper concession prices because the hope is volume will increase. It's too early to know if the move is a success, but at least one Mississippi State fan was pleased by the development at the Bulldogs' home opener on Sept. 1.
"We normally grab something before or after, but I'd read a little about the new prices," said 40-year-old Marshall Cabor, who usually comes to a few games a year. "When I got here and saw them, I said get whatever you want."
Bjork said Ole Miss is doing a number of things to make sure fans want to come inside the stadium. The school has a unique situation in that it sometimes has to fight one of the nation's most famous tailgating scenes. Many times fans will choose to stay in the area called The Grove instead of coming inside the stadium.
Some of the changes are obvious and flashy, like big videoboards, an improved sound system and, of course, Landshark Tony. Others are more about infrastructure, like making sure the wireless and cellular networks in the stadium can easily handle 60,000 fans.
Sankey said the SEC has had a working group for nearly a decade that focuses on fans' stadium experiences at games. He said a lot of the key findings have been relatively boring, but are nonetheless important: Things like cleanliness, the amount of bathrooms and parking.
"We've learned the importance of the basics," Sankey said.
Alabama ranked fourth in the nation in attendance last year, averaging 101,722 fans in a 101,821-seat Bryant-Denny Stadium. The Crimson Tide - who have won five of the past nine national championships - has a different set of issue because of their dominance.
"The biggest challenge we've had is, there's two things: We have gotten more returns from our visitors. I think people aren't traveling quite as much," Alabama athletics director Greg Byrne said. "The second thing is when games aren't close getting people to stay and be a part of it for 60 minutes is a challenge."
Alabama has tried to combat the first problem by having flash sales when unused visitor tickets are returned. The second problem has proven more difficult to solve: Saban's annual pleas for fans to stay in the stands have had varying success.
Alabama has an eye to the future as well: The school recently announced a $600 million fundraising campaign that includes extensive improvements to Bryant-Denny Stadium and basketball's Coleman Coliseum.
Byrne said it's the school's responsibility to adapt to "changes in the market when it comes to how people consume sports."
"Where we're going to spend the most resources is impacting our fans' experience for everybody at Bryant-Denny Stadium and Coleman Coliseum," Byrne said. "Seating areas, concourses, everything. Restaurants, concessions, video boards."
Follow David Brandt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP . AP Sports Writers John Zenor, Jim Vertuno, John Kekis, Pat Graham and Brett Martel contributed to this story.
More AP college football: https://apnews.com/tag/collegefootball and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25 .
Updated September 12, 2018