But ratings aren’t everything and actual game attendance has been steadily declining since 2008. The same is not true with the NFL, which has seen in-person attendance bounce back. Any sport which is experiencing declining game attendance is only hollowing out its future television fan base and clearly, the current in-game experience isn’t what it used to be.
So what happened?
Average attendance had been rising steadily in college football for years until 2008 when it peaked at around 47,000. Then it fell a little in 2009 to almost 46,000 before bouncing back to almost 47,000 in 2010. Then in 2011, it fell off a cliff, declining to below 40,000 today.
What happened in 2011?
Specifically, Colorado and Utah went to the Pac-12 and Nebraska went to the Big 10. Then in 2012 Missouri and Texas A&M went to the SEC while TCU and West Virginia moved to the Big 12. Then in 2013 the Big East completely fell apart when Pittsburgh and Syracuse went to the ACC. A year later the Big Ten expanded again, adding Rutgers and Maryland, while Louisville went to the ACC.
Then things were pretty steady until 2021 when Texas and Oklahoma announced they were leaving for the SEC while USC and UCLA — long the stalwarts of the PAC-12 — announced they were leaving for the Big Ten. The Big 12 has since announced it is adding BYU, Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF.
These moves all make sense if you are trying to add big markets for your conference’s cable network. But they do not make any sense from a college football fan perspective.
Classic rivalries like Nebraska vs. Oklahoma, West Virginia vs. Pittsburgh, and Texas vs. Texas A&M are all dead. Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma St, USC vs. Stanford, and UCLA vs. Cal are all about to die.
And what have football fans gotten in their place? Total garbage. No one wants to watch Nebraska vs. Maryland or Missouri vs. Vanderbilt on television, let alone travel to the game. How many southern Californians are going to make the 3,000-mile trek to Rutgers in New Jersey? Zero.
The new 12-team playoff system isn’t terrible by itself. But it does perpetuate a failed conference system that is in desperate need of change. It also destroys some of the tradition and uniqueness of the biggest bowl games. Instead of the Rose Bowl always being on New Year’s Day and always featuring the Big Ten vs. Pac-10, now it is on a different day every year and features random teams from random conferences. No thanks.
So what could be a better alternative? The following conference realignment will never happen, but a fan can dream. (Maybe the Big Ten network could just buy out the Pac-12 and the ACC could add the old Big East teams to its network.)
Clemson, Duke, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Maryland, North Carolina, NC State, South Carolina, Virginia, and Wake Forest.
Boston College, Cincinnati, Miami, Notre Dame, Penn State, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Syracuse, Virginia Tech, and West Virginia.
Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Ohio State, Purdue, and Wisconsin.
Big Plains (based on the old Big Eight)
BYU, Colorado, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Nebraska, and Utah.
Arizona, Arizona State, California, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, Washington, Washington State, UCLA, and USC.
Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana State, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt.
Arkansas, Baylor, Houston, Louisville, Memphis, SMU, Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Christian, and Texas Tech.
That’s seven conferences with ten teams each. The playoffs would start on New Year’s Day. The Big Ten and Pac Ten champs would play in the Rose Bowl. The Big East and Big Eight champs would play in the Orange Bowl. The ACC and SEC champs would play in the Sugar Bowl. And the Southwest champs would play the top-ranked team not otherwise included.
So this year the playoffs would look like this (assuming all the favorites win their conference championship games tomorrow):
Cotton Bowl: TCU v Ohio State
Orange Bowl: Penn State v Kansas State
Rose Bowl: Michigan v USC
Sugar Bowl: Clemson v Georgia
And then just as in the new playoffs, the quarterfinals would take place a week after New Years (the Peach and Fiesta bowls would be perfect venues) and the semis a week later. And then hopefully we could move the final game to the following Saturday. These Monday-night national championship games are terrible.
All the old rivalries would be back, fans wouldn’t be forced to fly across the country to see a conference game, and teams would be able to play every other team in their conference again.
Of course, it all makes too much sense to happen.