College football programs that did the best/worst job of filling their seats in 2018

By Amy Daughters -

While we know that Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State, Texas A&M, and Tennessee have the stadiums with the largest seating capacities in the FBS, which programs do the best job of filling their seats?

Think about it – isn’t consistently selling every available ticket more impressive than having the most seats to start with?

Following are the Top 25 FBS programs in fill rate for the 2018 season. These are the schools who did the absolute best with what they had to work with.

25. TCU (7-6) – 95.3% (Amon G. Carter Stadium holds 50,000)

23T. WISCONSIN (8-5) – 96.1% (Camp Randall Stadium holds 80,321)

23T. NOTRE DAME (12-1) – 96.1% (Notre Dame Stadium holds 80,795)

22. IOWA (9-4) – 96.4% (Kinnick Stadium holds 70,585)

21. AUBURN (8-5) – 96.6% (Jordan-Hare Stadium holds 87,451)

20. MICHIGAN STATE (7-6) – 96.8% (Spartan Stadium holds 75,005)

19. OHIO STATE (13-1) – 97.1% (Ohio Stadium holds 104,944)

18. TEXAS A&M (9-4) – 97.2% (Kyle Field holds 102,733)

16T. OLD DOMINION (4-8) – 97.6% (S.B. Ballard Stadium holds 20,118)

16T. TEXAS (10-4) – 97.6% (DKR – Texas Memorial Stadium holds 100,119)

15. OREGON (9-4) – 98.2% (Autzen Stadium 54,000)

14. LSU (10-3) – 98.5% (Tiger Stadium holds 102,321)

13. WASHINGTON (10-4) – 98.6% (Husky Stadium holds 70,083)

11T. CLEMSON (15-0) – 98.7% (Memorial Stadium holds 81,500)

11T. NC STATE (9-4) – 98.7% (Carter-Finley Stadium holds 57,583)

9T. PENN STATE (9-4) – 99% (Beaver Stadium holds 106,572)

9T. WEST VIRGINIA (8-4) – 99% (Mountaineer Field holds 60,000)

8. KANSAS STATE (5-7) – 99.5% (Bill Snyder Family Stadium holds 50,000)

7. UCF (12-1) – 99.6% (Bright House Networks Stadium holds 45,301)

6. ALABAMA (14-1) – 99.7% (Bryant-Denny Stadium holds 101,821)

5. GEORGIA (11-3) – 100% (Sanford Stadium holds 92,746)

4. UTAH (9-5) – 101.1% (Rice-Eccles Stadium holds 45,807)

3. MICHIGAN (10-3) – 102.9% (Michigan Stadium holds 107,601)

2. OKLAHOMA (12-2) – 103.9% (Oklahoma Memorial Stadium holds 86,112)

1. NEBRASKA (4-8) – 104.2% (Memorial Stadium holds 85,458)

By conference, the Big Ten leads the way with seven members on the honor roll. Tied for second are the Big 12 and SEC with five members apiece, then the Pac-12 with three, the ACC with two and finally the Independents, American and C-USA are represented by one member each.

Most impressive is Nebraska, which has suffered consecutive 4-8 finishes but still managed to lead the nation in fill rate on both occasions (the Cornhuskers filled 105.1% of their seats in 2017). Compare that to Florida State, who dropped to 5-7 last season and filled only 85.8% (No. 44 nationally) of Doak Campbell, which holds a more reasonable 78,560.

Also worth recognizing is Old Dominion, tied at No. 16 with Texas. Though the Monarchs’ Ballard Stadium is the third smallest in the FBS with only 20,118 seats, they managed to keep them full despite going 4-8. Compare that to Western Kentucky, which plays in 22,113-seat L.T. Smith Stadium. The Hilltoppers filled only 64.4% (No. 88 nationally) of their seats in 2018 with a similar 3-9 mark.

Finally, props to NC State, the only ACC representative on the list except for Clemson, which has only lost one home game in five seasons. Compare the Wolfpack’s 98.7% fill rate (which ties them with the national champs) to more recognizable ACC schools such as Miami (94.1%), Virginia Tech (89.9%), Georgia Tech (78.3%), Louisville (77.3%) and North Carolina (69.2%).

On the other extreme, following are the bottom 25 teams in fill rate in 2018.

106. UCLA (3-9) – 55.3% (Rose Bowl holds 92,542)

107. USF (7-6) – 53.2% (Raymond James Stadium holds 65,890)

108. MEMPHIS (8-6) – 53.1% (Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium holds 61,008)

109. EASTERN MICHIGAN (7-6) – 52.8% (Rynearson Stadium holds 30,200)

110. KENT STATE (2-10) – 51.8% (Dix Stadium holds 25,319)

111. UCONN (1-11) – 51.5% (Rentschler Field holds 40,642)

112. HAWAII (8-6) – 51.4% (Aloha Stadium holds 50,000)

113. MIDDLE TENNESEE (8-6) – 50.6% (Johnny “Red” Floyd Stadium holds 30,788)

114. UNLV (4-8) – 47.4% (Sam Boyd Stadium holds 36,800)

115. SAN JOSE STATE (1-11) – 46.8% (CEFCU Stadium holds 30,456)

116. ULM (6-6) – 46.7% (Malone Stadium holds 27,617)

117. BALL STATE (4-8) – 45.7% (Scheumann Stadium holds 22,500)

118. NEW MEXICO STATE (3-9) – 45.2% (Aggie Memorial Stadium holds 30,343)

119. LOUISIANA (7-7) – 44.8% (Cajun Field holds 41,264)

120. TEXAS STATE (3-9) – 43.7% (Bobcat Stadium holds 30,008)

121. NORTHERN ILLINOIS (8-6) – 43.3% (Huskie Stadium holds 24,000)

122. RICE (2-11) – 42.9% (Rice Stadium holds 47,000)

123. CENTRAL MICHIGAN (1-11) – 42.4% (Kelly/Shorts Stadium holds 30,255)

124. NEW MEXICO (3-9) – 42.3% (Dreamstyle Stadium holds 39,224)

125. TEMPLE (8-5) – 40.9% (Lincoln Financial Field holds 69,176)

126. SOUTH ALABAMA (3-9) – 40.2% (Ladd-Peebles Stadium holds 40,000)

127. KANSAS (3-9) – 38.8% (Memorial Stadium holds 50,071)

128. UTSA (3-9) – 38% (Alamodome holds 64,000)

129. UAB (11-3) – 33.9% (Legion Field holds 71,594)

130. UTEP (1-11) – 27.5% (Sun Bowl holds 51,500)

By conference, the MAC and C-USA are tied for the most members who struggled to fill seats in 2018 with five each. Next up, the American, Mountain West, and Sun Belt are tied with four members apiece followed by the Pac-12, Big 12 and Independents, all with one member each.

To be fair, two of the programs listed – USF and Temple – share their home fields with an NFL franchise, meaning they have more seats to fill than their Group of  5 counterparts. Also worth highlighting are Memphis, UTSA, UAB, and UTEP, which all play in stadiums designed to host bowl games rather than a single programs’ regular-season slate. Finally, there are Hawaii, which plays in a venue that was the long-term site of the NFL Pro Bowl and Rice, which plays in the same stadium which hosted Super Bowl VIII.

The biggest surprise is UCLA, one of only two Power teams listed. While yes, the Bruins play in the tenth largest stadium in the FBS, the Rose Bowl, their fill rate of 55.3% is more like Tulsa (which filled 57% of its 30,000 seats in 2018) than USC (which earned a 70.7% fill rate despite having 78,467 seats to fill). As far as lagging performance being the issue (UCLA hasn’t had a winning season since 2015), Tennessee, which plays in the fifth largest FBS venue (Neyland Stadium holds 102,455) has suffered a similar losing streak yet still managed to fill 90.8% of its seats in 2018.

Perhaps most puzzling is Northern Illinois at No. 121. The Huskies play in the ninth-smallest stadium in the FBS and still couldn’t manage to fill even half of their seats last season. Throw in the fact that NIU went 8-6 (with half of the losses coming vs. Iowa, Utah and Florida State) and won the MAC title in 2018 and the number becomes even more troubling.

Fill rate data courtesy of Phil Steele’s 2019 College Football Preseason Magazine.

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Comments (13)

With the exception of UCF and maybe Michigan, the top ten are the only game in town, so to speak. You’ve got large schools located in small towns where going to games is what people do.

On the bottom side you have UCLA, large school in a massive city, where people have options in terms of what they spend their time on, followed by a lot of smaller schools located in very populated areas where people have options.

Of course, that’s not all there is, but that sort of jumped out at me when I looked over the list.

I’m sure something could be said for ticket prices, ease of getting in and out of the stadium, the actual games, how well teams were doing, who they were playing, game time, weather, etc. But when I looked at the list, those were some of the things that jumped out at me right off.

Would be an interesting study if you wanted to go deeper.

ND is wrong. Capacity is 77,622. ND has sold out every game but one since 1966 (ND vs Airforce 1972 was 1800 shy of full capacity on Thanksgiving Day)

Thanks for the very interesting article. I found it surprising to see UCLA at the very bottom of the list. But as Arnold pointed out, lots to do in the greater LA area…

UTSA and UAB get somewhat of a pass since they are in Stadiums not designed for them, but the Alamodome was designed for an NFL team and Legion Field for a Bowl Game. Temple and USF do a better job filling NFL Stadiums.

The problem with this article is that it is a ticket sold count, not a turnstile count.

For the programs that draw 80K or more, they really don’t play with the numbers of sold tickets. But count at the turnstile might be 10-20% less than those season tickets sold. Further not all students with a game pass (many schools essentially give away the student tickets) actually show up. So Ohio State might always sell 103,000 tickets, but some games against opponents nobody much cares about could see as few as 85-90,000 actually go through the doors.

Also filling is subjective. Ohio State, Alabama and other have huge stadiums due to demand. USC and Memphis use huge stadiums they don’t actually own because they are available. I think raw average attendance is better measure. Also the average number of tickets sold for road games tells you how big their dedicated fan base is.

On the low end at G5 level, the numbers are often heavily doctored and inflated. One game that Liberty played -and which was streamed live- last year announced 15,000 in attendance. But it was a miserable wet cold day and the actual crowd at the game was probably under 700. You can find shots people took of the game on the web still.

Other counting methods are carried out by programs that don’t come close to the 15,000 average required. Every year Bowling Green claims to sell tickets in what really is a matching of donations. The same at EMich and probably twenty other schools (ULM comes to mind). These schools and others rarely have more than 8-12K in the stands.

The back half of the MAC and Sun Belt seasons seems to be almost exclusively weeknight games which draw minimal attendance. Those games should not be factored into the averages.

Nebraska has no competition within the state. NONE! A storied program like that should sell out every game regardless of how good they’re doing.

Sure, but the population of Nebraska is only 1.8 Mil. So 5% of the ENTIRE state has to show up to fill it. Impressive.

Interesting that the article’s author was puzzled by the low fill rate at Northern Illinois University for home football games. Since I grew up in the Chicago area, I know why for two reasons: 1. NIU is a commuter school, as a majority of its students are from the Chicago area. It’s too easy for students to drive home every weekend. So there are very few students around each weekend to watch football. 2. The environment around both the campus and city (DeKalb) is terrible. The campus is out in the middle of cornfields, and is unattractive. DeKalb is one of the worst college towns I’ve ever seen. It’s run down, has few businesses and completely lacks any character. Can’t blame anyone for not wanting to stick around on weekends.