College football stadiums are building out luxury offerings to combat declining attendance, which hit its lowest point in four decades last season.
On Saturday, the Clemson Tigers will unveil a 7,125 square-foot video board and a new premium space in the WestZone titled the “Masters Club." The area flaunts spacious seats, club-like perks such as a climate-controlled club lounge, and an "exclusive social atmosphere."
"A premium experience, and what that does for maybe the relationships or business development, how you are able to have the amenities of that environment, and obviously the ability to pay for it, I think that's where socially maybe we're seeing even a trend towards that: Lower volume, higher amenity." Clemson Athletic Director Graham Neff told Yahoo Finance. "Not from like premium space in it of itself, but from an experiential standpoint."
While many of the renovations are based on surveys and pre-pandemic trends, college administrators see that fans are now approaching live sports differently. Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) college football average attendance declined for the seventh straight season last year, and the 2021 average attendance (39,848 fans) was the lowest number since 1981.
And for the fans who are attending games in person as opposed to watching them on increasingly sharp TVs, consumer demands are clearly shifting toward higher quality experiences. Consequently, an industry that once prided itself on cramming 100,000 people into stadiums by any means necessary now has athletic departments searching for additional space to place a handmade cocktails in a luxury seating area.
"There's been a trend across the country of the declining gate," Wisconsin Athletic Director Chris McIntosh told Yahoo Finance. "That's a signal from the customer. So I think you're seeing programs like ours try to introduce new options and an opportunity to hedge against that and provide an opportunity for existing customers to find something that might retain them for longer or attract new customers."
College athletics often trail trends in professional sports, Neff explained. Across the country, college teams are chasing a model set by stadiums like the Raiders new home in Las Vegas, which ranked 25th in attendance last year but first in ticketing revenue.
Wisconsin is one of those schools. The school saw gate attendance hit a 15-year low in 2021 and will return this year with advanced options for fans. Camp Randall Stadium, which was originally built in 1917, underwent renovations this offseason. The south end zone will be dramatically different: A roughly 7,000-seat area will now hold about 3,000 and include various types of premium seating, such as high-top tables and bar-style spots created by seating company 4Topps.
What was once an 80,321-person stadium now caps out at 75,822.
“The demand is being driven by a different set of expectations today,” McIntosh said. “We have benefited from having an incredible game-day environment for many, many years now, decades really. That doesn't just happen, and we need to continue to evolve our offering and in this case improve the experience at Camp Randall.”
The emphasis on luxury seating will create about $3.5 million in annual revenue to Wisconsin, according to McIntosh, which may explain why other schools are exploring similar options.
“We’ve seen the introduction of party decks, some (stadiums) adjusting down a bit, using spaces differently, creating spaces that may have been storage” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey told Yahoo Finance in May. "So a lot more intelligence about activating spaces to access economic opportunity within stadiums and that’s baseball, basketball, and football. At the same, we have stadiums above 100,000 seats that aren’t going to go below 100,000 seats, and they’re going to activate in different ways.”
Florida State University is considering upgrading to fewer seats, too. A proposal unveiled last year would cut capacity at Doak Campbell Stadium by roughly 10,000 in the name of increased luxury seating as early as the 2024 football season. San Diego State recently built a 35,000-seat stadium based on the model of Major League Soccer (MLS) stadiums that emphasize smaller venues with more revenue per seat rather than overall capacity.
Schools poll fans before embarking on these projects. Neff has been pleased to see the polling at Clemson was accurate and will be a net positive for the university's bottom line. Clemson's new 688-person area was 96% sold out two weeks before the home opener. According to Neff, the expected revenue from the luxury seating itself could cover the entire $65 million project.
"After the sales rate for this, we're picking the pencil back up and [saying]: 'OK what's next?' specifically from a premium experience standpoint," Neff said.
Josh is a producer and reporter for Yahoo Finance.