Saturday, October 5, 2013

Students Make Rational Choice to Skip Football Games; Colleges Freak Out

2012 BCS "National Champions"
The 2012 BCS "National Champions" Crimson Tide can barely get their own students to games. Photo from
At first glance, it sounds absurd to say that the top NCAA football programs are suffering from diminished student attendance. The country's best football programs rake in absurd amounts of money and get national attention for months out of the year. It's an understandable reaction to read that nearly 40% of student section tickets at University of Georgia went unsold and assume it was a typo. Really, it makes perfect sense.

In 2012, Georgia finished the season ranked #5 in the polls. Alabama, winners of three national titles between 2009 and 2012, saw over 30% of student tickets go unused. We can safely assume that these schools are not suffering from a number of fairweather fans. In fact, let's get it out of the way now: this has nothing to do with quality of football. This is about SEC powerhouses that stock the NFL unable to fill their enormous stadiums. No student has ever been turned away from an average Big 10 cupcake matchup. The Wall Street Journal points to a lack of cell reception in the stadium as a possible culprit, but I don't think that holds up.

Instead, consider the time cost of attending an NCAA football game. Football games are long. There's no getting around that, and students today have more demands on their time than ever before (full disclosure: I'm incredibly biased). Students today are graduating into an economy in which people almost exclusively talk about how difficult it is to find employment, cyber security notwithstanding. As a result, students may feel obligated to pick up internships and extracurriculars and jobs that set them apart from other people their age or help them afford their education or both. Checking all of these boxes takes time. A lot of it. So much time that some students may feel that they can scarcely afford to attend a 3+ hour tilt between Alabama and Arkansas that was over before it began.

Recognizing that students may be rationally and rightfully deciding that there are better uses for their time than a Saturday of tailgating and football (THE HUMANITY), what are colleges so upset about? The utility a student gains from watching the second half of a blowout is likely to be significantly less than the benefit gained from literally any other activity available on campus. The Mississippi State athletic director quoted says that they "can't afford to lose a generation," which sounds a lot like worry that endowments to the university after graduation might shrivel up if kids aren't having fun on gameday.

And it goes without saying that watching games on TV has its very significant advantages too. I won't go so far as to say that football is better in my living room, but I will say that I like the short bathroom and beer lines, and it's much more comfortable than an early-winter matchup.

Is it a bummer that other activities have become so valuable and football games so invaluable that major schools are left with empty student sections? Yeah, it is. Sports are fun for everyone: players, tailgaters, fans, students, alumni. You can count on Michigan vs. Notre Dame selling out even when the teams are miserable, though, and I don't think new jumbotrons and wifi hotspots are going to have an effect on student attendance. Maybe this will be an impetus to schedule more competitive matchups and fewer cupcakes to pad stats - we can only hope.

Observational Studies co-founder Brendan Porto and I often share articles and our reactions, often applying our knowledge of economics to the topic. This post is a revised version of our discussion of the Wall Street Journal's article Declining Student Attendance Hits Georgia.