Joe Henderson: Athletic departments need to heed the warnings of dwindling attendance

UF becomes the latest football program to see a decline at the gate.
Florida Gators linebacker Danny Weldon (59) entered a full stadium when he came out for the Oct. 6 game against LSU, but the fans appear to be growing fickled. Attendance at the Nov. 3 game against Missouri was the lowest since Steve Spurrier-Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium expanded in 1990. BRONTE WITTPENN   |   Times
Florida Gators linebacker Danny Weldon (59) entered a full stadium when he came out for the Oct. 6 game against LSU, but the fans appear to be growing fickled. Attendance at the Nov. 3 game against Missouri was the lowest since Steve Spurrier-Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium expanded in 1990. BRONTE WITTPENN | Times
Published November 6 2018
Updated November 6 2018

My daughter-in-law is a University of Florida graduate, and she is total Gator.

She even once convinced my son to drive them from Hillsborough County to Gainesville to watch a UF gymnastics meet.

She also held football season tickets to The Swamp – that is, until she got the bill to renew them for this year. The price had basically doubled from the previous seasons because the “recent graduate” discount she had been receiving had expired.

Well, so did her season tickets. She decided not to renew.

She is not alone. Actually, she appears to be part of a trend affecting major sports all over the state and nation, and right here in Hillsborough too.

As Matt Baker noted in the Tampa Bay Times sports section, attendance at last Saturday’s UF Homecoming game with Missouri was the lowest for a Gator home since 1990. The announced crowd was 80,017, but on television it looked like there were large sections of unoccupied seats for a team that has been having a good season.

The same phenomenon is visible at Florida State’s Doak Campbell Stadium, and here in Tampa poor attendance at University of South Florida games has been an ongoing story for years.

Even mighty Alabama shows some cracks. Coach Nick Saban complained recently that more students need to show up.

What gives?

There is creature comfort, of course. September and even October games in Florida can be miserable affairs, what with high temperatures, soaking humidity, and the ever-present chance of storms and lightning delays.

Let’s just say The Swamp is aptly named.

But this is Florida. We love football and it’s not as if the weather is a new phenomenon here.

Earlier, I mentioned the cost. It goes beyond what people pay for tickets.

The Buccaneers, another football team where attendance often seems to be a story, charge $25 just to park in a stadium lot. Add the cost of tickets and food, and you’re making quite an investment – especially for 1 p.m. games where, oh yeah … it’s Tampa, and it gets warm here.

For what it costs to take the mythical family of four to one of these deals, you could invest in a 60-inch hi-def TV, with money left over for beer.

Hotels are culpable too. It’s not unusual for fans coming from out of town to college games to see a two-night minimum at an elevated rate, which is annoying. It’s hard to plan, too, what with the great god television moving start times around from week to week to cater to its audience.

Also, it’s not uncommon for a college game to last four hours or more, and it looks like more people are deciding it’s just easier to watch it from home.

I don’t come to bury football, though — particularly the college game.

The atmosphere in the stadium for a big Southeastern Conference game is hard to match. I love the horse and the flaming spear at Florida State. I love the video of a swamp filled with alligators when UF takes the field. I love when USF runs out of the tunnel for the start of its game while the band is playing the fight song.

But just maybe, and this applies to all sports, the people in charge have over-estimated how much the paying customer is willing to put up with in exchange for things they like.

The Lightning seem to have figured out the formula of in-game experience versus cost. It also helps that they’re really good and people obviously see value in investing their time and money.

When you add everything up though, I’m not sure we can say the same thing about football. This might be a blip, or it might be a societal change. Either way, the warning signs are there. They better pay attention.

Contact Joe Henderson at [email protected]

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