Was it just me, or were there a bunch of empty seats at the conference championship games this past weekend?
And remember, these weren’t meaningless bowl games, these were on-field battles for actual titles, rings and trophies. All fraught with meaning and all offering accolades that will be permanently attached, in a very good way, to a program’s historical record.
Here’s a look at the seven title games ranked by total attendance, what’s even more interesting is the percent of the venue each filled.
What do the numbers tell us about the state of college football, a sport that would otherwise seem to be peaking in popularity?
7. MAC: Northern Illinois vs. Bowling Green
Date/Time: Friday, Dec. 5, 7:00pm EST
Venue: Ford Field, Detroit, Mich.
Fill Rate: 23%
Only 15,000 brave souls travelled to Detroit to watch 10-2 NIU and 7-5 Bowling Green battle for the MAC title.
For Huskie fans it meant a five-hour drive, while for Falcons’ enthusiasts it meant only an hour-and-a -half car trip north on I-75. It couldn’t have helped that this game was on Friday night at 7pm, giving fans little or no time to make the trek after work.
Last season’s MAC title game—also between Northern Illinois and Bowling Green—drew 21,106 to Ford Field. But that game was between the 12-1 Huskies, ranked No. 16 and a 10-3 Falcons team. Additionally, the start time was pushed back to 8pm.
Would the MAC be better served to follow the lead of C-USA and the Mountain West, holding their title game at the home field of the team with the better record?
6. C-USA: Louisiana Tech at Marshall
Date/Time: Saturday, Dec. 6, 12:00pm EST
Venue: Joan C. Edwards Stadium, Huntington, W.V.
Fill Rate: 62%
It’s hard to believe that 11-1 Marshall, playing for its first conference title since winning the MAC in 2002, couldn’t fill more seats for its showdown with Louisiana Tech. Especially since average home attendance in 2014 at Joan C. Edwards was 28,682, or 5,151 more than the conference championship game drew.
In fact, Saturday’s clash with the Bulldogs was the second-lowest turnout of the season, drawing only 135 more fans than the low mark, the Friday night, Nov. 28 game against WKU. Of course that resulted in a 67-66 overtime loss, but coming into the game the Herd were still undefeated and ranked No. 24.
Last season’s C-USA title game between Marshall and Rice drew 20,247 folks to Rice Stadium in Houston, a venue that holds 47,000.
5. Mountain West: Fresno State at No. 22 Boise State
Date/Time: Saturday, Dec. 6, 10:00pm EST
Venue: Albertson’s Stadium, Boise, Idaho
Fill Rate: 71%
Another surprise, Boise State couldn’t fill all its seats on Saturday night, despite the fact it had a ranked team vying for its first conference crown since 2012. The Broncos average home attendance this season was 33,570, or 7,469 more than the number that showed up for the title game.
In fact, it was the fewest number of fans who saw the Broncos play at home this season—1,377 fewer than the season-low 27,478 that turned up for the San Diego State game on Nov. 15.
Last seasons’ Mountain West championship, the first-ever such game, featured Fresno State and Utah State squaring off in Fresno. That game drew 31,362 fans—5,261 more than this year’s game—filling 76% percent of the seats at Bulldog Stadium.
4. Pac-12: No. 2 Oregon vs. No. 7 Arizona
Date/Time: Friday, Dec. 5, 9:20PM EST
Venue: Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif.
Fill Rate: 66%
Fewer fans turned out for the Pac-12’s title game than did any of the four power-five conference championships: 14,611 fewer than the Big Ten game, 19,190 fewer than the ACC and 27,908 fewer than the SEC.
And remember, this was a game between two Top Ten teams, on paper the best matchup of the seven title clashes.
Part of the issue may have been the distance between the schools and Levi’s Stadium, located south of San Francisco. For Ducks’ fans it meant an eight-hour car ride, due south, while for the Wildcats it meant an 800-mile, 12-hour trek.
The other detractor was the Friday night date, which may set it apart from the other games from a T.V. standpoint, but makes it difficult for the travelling fan or anyone with a nine-to -five job (the game kicked off at 6:20pm PST).
This was the fourth-ever playing of the Pac-12 title game and the first year at a neutral site, the league previously allowed the team with the best record to serve as host. To compare, in 2011, 59,376 fans watched Oregon beat UCLA in Eugene. In 2012, 31,622 fans watched Stanford beat UCLA in Stanford and in 2013, 69,535 were on hand to see Stanford best Arizona State in Tempe.
3. Big Ten: No. 13 Wisconsin vs. No. 5 Ohio State
Date/Time: Saturday, Dec. 6, 8:17pm EST
Venue: Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis, Ind.
Fill Rate: 96%
Even though the Big Ten had 4,579 fewer fans on hand for its title game than the ACC, its file rate was 8% higher, making it second only to the SEC in terms of the fewest empty seats.
Indianapolis is about five hours from Madison and only three hours west on I-70 from Columbus, making the trip doable for both fanbases, especially on a Saturday night.
This was the Big Ten’s fourth-ever championship game and the fourth played in Indianapolis. It ranks No. 3 in attendance, behind 2013 (Michigan State-Ohio State, 66,002) and 2011 (Wisconsin-Michigan State), 64,152) and ahead of 2012 (Wisconsin-Nebraska, 41,260).
2. ACC: No. 4 Florida State vs. No. 11 Georgia Tech
Date/Time: Saturday, Dec. 6, 8:00pm EST
Venue: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C.
Fill Rate: 88%
Nearly 9,000 seats sat empty in this season’s ACC title game, also the gateway to perfection and a playoff slot for Florida State.
The ACC, like the Pac-12, features a wide geographic spread among its members. This game meant an eight-hour car trip for Seminole fans and a four-hour journey for the Yellow Jacket faithful.
The ACC has been hosting a conference championship game since 2005 and has used Charlotte as its venue since 2010. This year’s crowd ranks No. 4 among the five games played in Charlotte: After 2011 (Clemson-Virginia Tech, 76,675), 2010 (Virginia Tech-Florida State, 72,379) and 2013 (Florida State-Duke, 67,694) and barely before 2012 (Florida State-Georgia Tech, 64,778).
Clearly attendance is better when Virginia Tech is in the mix, Blacksburg, Va. is only three hours from Charlotte.
1. SEC: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 16 Missouri
Date/Time: Saturday, Dec. 6, 4:00pm EST
Venue: Georgia Dome, Atlanta, Ga.
Fill Rate: 103%
While you would have expected this kind of crowd for Alabama-Georgia or Alabama-South Carolina, the Alabama-Missouri game sold out regardless of not looking like a blockbuster matchup on paper.
For Mizzou fans, attending this game meant 10 grueling hours in the car or an expensive four-hour plane ride. For Tide fans, it was a less expensive, and more familiar, six-hour trek to Atlanta.
The SEC has been hosting a conference title game since 1992 and has been in Atlanta since 1994, playing the first two contests in Birmingham, Ala. This year’s game drew 2,106 fewer fans than the 75,632 who packed the Georgia Dome last season to see Auburn and Missouri play and 2,098 fewer than the number that attended the 2012 Alabama-Georgia game.
In fact, and despite the sellout, it’s the fewest number of people to attend an SEC title game since 2006, when 73,374 watched Florida beat Arkansas 38-28.
Either way, you’ve got to give the SEC credit for filling its 70-plus thousand seats, something you’d expect it could do, but more impressive in light of every other conference falling short of the goal.