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Why low NCAA football bowl game attendance isn't a financial fumble

Thomas Barrabi

This winter's slate of college football postseason bowl games yielded plenty of empty stadiums, but the lukewarm attendance figures are a secondary consideration for a playoff format that has proven to be profitable for NCAA conferences.

Of 33 bowl games for NCAA’s top-tier Football Bowl Subdivision, 23 games were played at venues where the reported attendance filled less than 75 percent of the venue capacity, according to an Associated Press analysis. Six of the 33 bowl games posted record-low attendance figures.

While average announced attendance at the 33 bowl games rose one percent to 34,595 this season, the AP noted that actual attendance was often far lower. For example, The Birmingham Bowl announced a crowd of 27,193, but the final scanned ticket count in the stands was just 9,679.

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Despite the stagnant attendance figures, NCAA football bowl games are a lucrative source of revenue from media, sponsorship and advertising sources, especially when factoring in the flagship College Football Playoff.

Like other major sporting events, the bowl games are considered one of the few remaining safe bets to attract large television audiences in the cord-cutting era. Large viewership figures are key to luring the corporate sponsors, media partners and advertisers responsible for the lion’s share of revenue.

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For the 2018-19 bowl season, the NCAA distributed a combined $549 million in payouts derived from revenue from the top-tier bowl games — the Rose, Sugar, Peach, Orange, Fiesta, Cotton Bowls and the national championship, according to USA Today. The 33 lower-tier bowl games contributed another $99 million in payouts.

The College Football Playoff’s revenue-sharing model also provides an incentive for low-level college football programs to participate in far-flung bowl games, even if it results in an initial financial loss. The Football Bowl Association, which lobbies on behalf of the current bowl system, said its “conservative estimate” predicts more than $1 billion in payouts to conferences and schools from 2018 to 2020.

Slowing attendance hasn’t impacted the NCAA’s expansion plans. Three more bowl games will debut in the 2020-21 college football season, for a total of 42 games.

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