What Factors Contribute to College Football Attendance?

Submitted by MGoShoe on January 17th, 2011 at 2:02 PM

H/T Yostal via his hooverstreet Twitter feed.

Pretty interesting article by Alex Koenig of the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective outlining the results of a study on the factors that drive college football attendance. They are:

  1. Sustained winning (obviously)
  2. Being a BCS school (positive)
  3. Undergraduate population (more is better)
  4. Large City population and the presence of pro teams (negative)
  5. Being a public school (positive even though private schools have a slightly higher winning percentage (+1%))

These factors aren't especially surprising, but as we know, in spite of a very rough stretch over the past three years, Michigan Stadium attendance has held strong. In fact, Michigan is one of only three BCS schools who have maintained near capacity (or in Michigan's case, above capacity) football attendance while achieving a sub-.500 winning percentage (over the last three seasons). Specifically:

The driving force behind big ticket sales is generally a compelling and successful team. Between 2008 and 2010 the average NCAA stadium was filled to 79.95% capacity – about 44,000 fans. However, teams that had winning seasons in that same time period drew crowds of around 53,000 (88.19%) – an 8% jump in attendance.

Not surprisingly, losing has a similar effect on fan support. Teams that dropped below .500 played in front of crowds that weren’t even ¾ full, with an average stadium being filled to 70.5% capacity. The negative publicity that comes with losing continued to hurt teams the next year. Despite averaging win% hikes of 8%, teams coming off a losing season saw their attendance numbers drop to 69.7%. The lesson here is twofold: 1. winning helps as much as losing hurts; and 2. it usually takes a year for positive results on the field to be reflected with positive results in the stands. 

Teams that have performed below .500 and maintained good attendance (2008-10)


36.1 Wpct

0 weeks in top-25

92.7% cap.

Kansas State

48.5 Wpct

0 weeks in top-25

94.5% cap.


40.2 Wpct

0 top-5 conf. finishes

102.2% cap.

The study aslo provided a pretty interesting set of data on the success (attendance and winning) of BCS and non-BCS schools when hosting BCS, non-BCS and FCS schools: 

Cost-Benefit relationship for non-conference games

BCS-Conference Schools

Host BCS

94.5% capacity (+3.01%)

48.0%Wpct (-8.69%)

Host Non-BCS

89.6% capacity (-2.03%)

87.8%Wpct (+31.1%)

Host FCS

86.7% capacity (-4.9%)

94.5%Wpct (+37.8%)

Non-BCS Conference Schools

Host BCS

85.3% capacity (+19.4%)

34.4%Wpct (-11.4%)

Host Non-BCS

71.8% capacity (+5.9%)

55.0%Wpct (+9.2%)

Host FCS

66.9% capacity (+1.0%)

89.5%Wpct (+43.7%)

Difference from season averages are in parentheses



January 17th, 2011 at 2:09 PM ^

I'm not sure how you'd measure this, but I think culture matters, too.  We all know how important football is in SEC country.  South Carolina has only rarely been good/great, but I'll bet they've filled their stadium more often than not.

Of course, it helps that they have a high undergrad population, no nearby pro teams, etc.

Aside: I saw the upward slope in those scatter plots and I believe in the trends, but I had to squint to get there.


January 17th, 2011 at 2:13 PM ^

inflates their numbers at all. The Big Chill count contrasted moderately between the official M count and Guinness's. If we were short at all (of selling out) these last couple years I wouldn't be that surprised but I hope that's not the case.


January 17th, 2011 at 3:38 PM ^

They're inflated in the sense that they aren't a turnstile count.  We take the number of tickets sold plus invited guests (media, people with field passes, players, bands).  Since there are almost always some no-shows for whatever reason, our figures are probably inflated by a few thousand a game, but generally, aside from games that have been played in horrid weather ('95 Purdue comes to mind), they're pretty much accurate.


January 17th, 2011 at 3:38 PM ^

I know that the NY metro area doesn't support college football, but just from the top of my head, I feel like being not far from major metropolitan areas is a help not a hindrance. Ann Arbor is 40 miles from Detroit, which I think is the 10th largest metro area in the country. Penn State is halfway between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh so ~ 3 hours from each, kind of far but not impossibly so. Philly is ~ the 5th largest metro. OSU is in Columbus - a large city in its own right, but also in the middle of Ohio, which features both Cleveland's and Cincy's metro areas. Austin is <1 hour from San Antonio, and <3 from Dallas-Ft Worth, the latter of which is another top five metro area in population.

I know those are only four examples, but they're also the four largest stadiums in college football, and every one is an easy drive from a very large city with a famously rabid pro sports culture - in Penn State's case, two rabid pro sports cities. I think that's significant enough that it cannot be dismissed as an outlier.

From reading the article it looks like he's only looking at schools that are within the city limits, so I'd be curious at an analysis that looked at how distance from a major metropolitan area changes that data.


January 17th, 2011 at 4:47 PM ^

I think a lot of it has to do with the local sports culture.  Despite being number 3 in the country, Stanford regularly played in front of crowds of less than 40k.  On the contrary, M, KSU, and Colorado are playing front of full houses.

However, these are percentage numbers.  It's obvious that a number 1 team will sell out a 50,000 seat stadium, but would Oregon sell out the big house?  Oregon isn't exactly known to be as sports crazy as other places.