If you watched any part of this season’s generous offering of bowl games, if nothing else, you saw row-upon-row of empty seats.
While most reports compare the average annual bowl attendance with last season’s figures – how many seats were left unused?
If you total up the entire number of seats available (the capacity for each venue) and subtract the official attendance for each of the 39 games (remember the SERVPRO First Responder Bowl was cancelled due to weather), there were nearly 700,000 empty seats this bowl season.
To get down to brass tacks – 1,602,609 of the chairs were accounted for vs. a total capacity of 2,294,361. That makes for 691,752 empty seats.
Six of the 39 bowls left 35,000-plus seats empty apiece – accounting for a whopping 40% of the total.
|Quick Lane||Ford Field||Minnesota||Ga. Tech||65,000||27,228||37,772|
|Birmingham||Legion Field||Wake F.||Memphis||72,000||25,717||46,283|
|New Orleans||Superdome||App. St.||Mid. Tenn.||74,295||23,942||50,353|
Only five bowls had fewer than 1,000 seats empty, a number that includes the only two bowls that sold out their games.
|Armed Forces||Amon G. Carter||Army||Houston||45,000||44,738||262|
|Rose||Rose Bowl||Ohio State||Washington||91,136||91,853||-717|
Even the much-anticipated Cotton Bowl/CFP Semi-Final game between (3) Notre Dame and (2) Clemson left 7,817 seats open – drawing in 72,183 in giant AT&T Stadium in Arlington which holds 80,000.
The matchup with the most empty-seats that featured at least one ranked team was the Gator Bowl, pitting (19) Texas A&M vs. NC State on Monday, Dec. 31 at 7:30pm EST. It drew 38,206 into 67,246-seat TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, leaving 29,040 empty chairs.
The ranked vs. ranked matchup with the most-empty seats was the Camping World Bowl – featuring (16) West Virginia vs. (20) Syracuse on Friday, Dec. 28 at 5:15pm EST. Only 41,125 saw it in person, leaving 28,875 seats vacant in the 70,000-seat Camping World Stadium in Orlando.
The non-ranked vs. non-ranked matchup with the fewest-empty seats was the Military Bowl – Cincinnati vs. Virginia Tech on Monday, Dec. 31 at Noon EST. An impressive 32,823 flocked to reasonably-sized, 34,000 seat Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Md. Only 1,177 seats went unused.
The award for bowl with the fewest empty seats featuring two non-Power 5 members goes to the Bahamas Bowl. Again, this had to do with Thomas Robinson Stadium’s capacity of 15,023 – making it easier to entice 13,510 to watch FIU and Toledo go at it (Fri., Dec. 21 at 12:30pm EST). Only 1,513 chairs were left vacant.
Though it’s a valid argument that the number of bowl games is the problem – 40 games featuring 80 teams or 62% of the total FBS field – it’s also venue selection that leads to empty seats.
Think about it this way – let’s come up with 37 meaningless postseason games that most people don’t care about and then let’s book more than half of them into stadiums that hold 60,000-plus people.
And that’s precisely how it worked this season – 20 of the 36-non CFB Playoff bowl games were played in venues that hold 60,000-plus, 12 of these with a capacity of 70,000-plus.
Though a lower capacity naturally results in a lower number of potential empty seats, it’s still noteworthy that the 16 bowl games this season played in venues with fewer than 60,000 seats accounted for only 183,619 of the empty seats. That’s only 26% of the grand total.
To put another spin on it – the average fill rate for the 20 bowls with venues of 60,000 plus was 61%. This includes the Rose, Peach, and Sugar Bowls which all filled more than 95% of their seats. These “bigger” games also included 24 of the 25 teams ranked in the final CFP rankings.
Compare that to the 16 bowls with fewer than 60,000 seats which earned a fill rate of 72%. Only one of these games – the Las Vegas Bowl – included a ranked team, No. 21 Fresno State, which downed Arizona State 31-20.
The “smaller” bowls – featuring, presumably, less-attractive matchups had 11% fewer empty seats than the big boys.
Seeing row-after-row of empty seats on television, much less in person, adds to the growing impression that all but the CFB Playoff games (and the New Year’s Six bowls) are less true reward and more pure entertainment. It also explains why a growing number of pro-caliber athletes opt out of participating.
All we can hope for is that wiser heads will prevail and what’s good for the great game of college football will no longer be sacrificed in the name of television revenues (all but five of this year’s bowl games were offered on an ESPN network or ABC).