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Post SEC leads the way in soaring NCAA football attendance

Monday February 26, 2007

According to the NCAA, college football at all levels is packing them in:

NCAA football attendance set a new standard during the 2006 season as 615 schools combined for a total gate of 47,909,313, shattering the 2003 record by 1,764,774 fans.

Though the 12th game in Division 1 helped boost the totals, the NCAA points out that per-game records were also set. Hooray college football!

The 32 bowl games in Division 1 drew an average of 53,114 per game. That’s up over 2005, but we also had an extra BCS-class bowl introduced last year.

It’s no surprise that the SEC and Big 10(+1) with their massive shrines to the pigskin are kings of attendance. Three of the top four are Big 10 schools. Half of the SEC is among the top eleven. Overall, the SEC lives up to its reputation as the home of passionate college football fans with a conference-record average of 75,706 fans per game. Big 10 schools averaged just under 70,000 fans per game. The Big 10, along with the Pac 10, Big East, and Mountain West, saw its average attendance drop in 2006. The Big 12 came in third with its own conference-best mark of just under 59,000 fans per game.

No other conference has the disparity between its top draw and the rest of the league like the Pac 10. Southern Cal had the eighth-highest average nationally with over 91,000 per game. You then have to go down to the 24th and 25th spots to find UCLA and Cal with under 65,000 per game.

Tennessee leads the SEC as always. Georgia is second in the SEC and fifth nationally, but Georgia, LSU, and Alabama are so tightly clustered that one school setting out a few folding chairs might change things next season. Another way to look at the numbers is by the percentage of seats sold. How did the SEC do?

SEC East SEC West
Tennessee (102%) Arkansas (103%)
Florida (102%) Alabama (100%)
Georgia (100%) LSU (100%)
South Carolina (94%) Auburn (97%)
Kentucky (85%) Ole Miss (88%)
Vanderbilt (84%) Mississippi State (75%)

It’s impressive that every conference member had at least three-quarters of its seats filled. Is it a sign that the South is football-crazy, or is it that there’s just nothing better to do in Mississippi on a Saturday than to watch bad football? I do wonder how some schools count their capacity and how others count attendance. South Carolina has had announced crowds as big as 85,000, yet their official capacity is 80,250. Georgia sold out all of their home games for an average crowd of 92,746 per game, but we all know how empty areas of the stadium were for certain games.

South Carolina at 94% of capacity, even with an understated capacity, is noteworthy. They have a reputation for being a wildly loyal and supportive fan base despite the program’s history of underachievement, and the Spurrier "revolution" was still fresh in just its second year. They were coming off a relatively successful season that included a win over Florida and weren’t far from winning the SEC East. Yet they drew an average of 75,630 in a stadium that has held as many as 85,000.

The rich get richer. You can see which programs are selling all of their seats, and many of those same programs keep building but still can’t keep up with demand. Even Arkansas completed a really nice expansion and upgrade not too long ago. You have to wonder where the upper limit is on capacity and demand for some of these programs even as ticket prices climb.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see some building projects at Auburn and Florida soon. Facilities, especially stadiums, have an arms race quality to them. So while it might seem satisfactory that Florida and Auburn are ninth and eleventh in average attendance, SEC programs continue to build their temples higher and higher. Though Florida added some club seats a few years ago, they haven’t had a really major expansion project since the early 1990s. With the surge in demand sure to come from Meyer’s turnaround job, we’ll see if they feel pressure to expand the Swamp. In the meantime, Florida is focusing on a $12 million "front door" to their stadium which will house football offices and various other support facilities for the program, but it won’t affect capacity.

Auburn might be a bit more under the gun to keep up. Expansion of Jordan-Hare Stadium has been discussed as long ago as 2001, but nothing has been done. There are grand plans floating around, but university officials maintained as recently as October that expansion is "not something that we are actively considering." Auburn has turned its priorities to other facilities improvements such as a badly-needed arena.

As with most things in Alabama, the rivalry between Auburn and Alabama might be what drives expansion on the Plains. For years, Jordan-Hare was the crown jewel of football stadiums in the state. Alabama’s on-campus stadium was just a part-time home. But recent rapid expansion to Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa has pushed its capacity to 92,138 – the fourth-largest stadium in the SEC and a close second to LSU among SEC West programs. The most recent expansion in the north end zone also included an impressive stadium facade and plaza leading in from the central area of campus. Alabama currently might not have the best football program in the state, but its stadium now at least looks the part. Fans of both programs have noticed.

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