MONEY Sports

Why Ticket Sales Plunged 40% at One College Football Powerhouse

Bleachers at Michigan Stadium.
Bleachers at Michigan Stadium. Simon Bruty—Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

With college football ticket prices soaring and expanded conferences leading to less exciting matchups, fans—students in particular—are more likely to watch games from home.

There’s no denying that college football is a hugely successful business enterprise, arguably the second-biggest, most popular sport in the U.S. right now (after pro football in the NFL). But there’s one glaring crack in the armor that college football conferences and storied college programs have been struggling with for years: Fewer and fewer fans are actually buying tickets and attending games in person.

The problem is particularly evident among students, who aren’t buying tickets like generations past. For the upcoming season, the University of Michigan, the winner of no fewer than 11 national championships and 42 conference crowns, projects that student attendance will hit around 13,000—a shocking 40% less than the figure hit last year (roughly 19,000).

It’s not just a problem in Ann Arbor. The Wall Street Journal reported that student attendance fell 7.1% from 2009 to 2013, and that it has even fallen over the past few years at games hosted by perennial powerhouses such as Ohio State, Michigan State, Florida State, LSU, and the University of Florida. A year ago, observers took note that home attendance was down for the majority of teams in the SEC, even though the conference has thoroughly dominated college football in recent years.

The two most frequently cited reasons for the ticket slump are simply: 1) higher ticket prices; and 2) less interesting games. A student season ticket package at Michigan, for instance, now costs $295, up from $205 not long ago. There are only six homes games in the package, mind you, so that breaks down to just under $50 per game. “There are students who are being priced out,” a Michigan business student named Michael Proppe explained to the WSJ. “People are looking to trim costs, and for a lot of folks, football is an easy thing to cut. It’s not essential to going to college.”

What makes the decision easier for students at Michigan and other schools is the expectation that the games they’re missing aren’t going to be that good. The shifting and expansion of college football conferences has led to incredibly lucrative TV contracts for the programs involved, but it has also meant that traditional rivals don’t play every year like they used to. Michigan’s biggest rivals are Michigan State and Ohio State, but for the first time in nearly 40 years, the Wolverines won’t be hosting either team this season. Instead, Michigan will welcome the likes of Appalachian State and Miami (Ohio), opponents that many fans apparently think aren’t worth paying $50 to see.

As ticket prices have soared, and the quality of the product has declined, it has become more of a no-brainer for fans—poor students in particular—to stay home and watch the game on the couch. After all, this option has gotten cheaper and more entertaining and convenient in recent years, thanks to the declining prices of big-screen TVs and the advent of DVRs, multi-angle replays, and other innovations. Sure, the exciting roar of the crowd may not be there if you watch the game at home, or the frat house, or heck, in the parking lot while tailgating outside the stadium. But the way trends are going in terms of shrinking attendance at games, the crowd might not be all that loud inside the stadium either.

MONEY Sports

How College Football Sacked the NBA and MLB

Houston football fans singing the National Anthem
Dave Einsel—AP

With the college football season upon us, it's time to take stock of just how valuable this "amateur" sport has become.

Want to know how rabid fans have become for college football?

Well, the season kicks off in earnest tonight when the South Carolina Gamecocks (ranked 9th in the country) take on the Texas A&M Aggies (ranked 21st).

The game will be played in Columbia, South Carolina, in front of 80,000 screaming fans — an amazing feat given that Columbia has a population of just 133,000. The Aggies, for their part, play in Kyle Field, which in 2015 will be able to hold almost every single College Station, Texas, resident.

Last year, the Gamecocks opened with a game against the University of North Carolina, and 3.7 million people across the country tuned in. That may not sound that impressive, but consider that Columbia is just the 77th largest television market in the U.S., behind cities like Omaha and Toledo.

There’s no doubt about it. Americans love football.

More people watched the NFL Sunday Night pregame show last year than watched the Boston Red Sox win the World Series. In fact, professional football games comprised all but four of the 50 most-watched sporting events of 2013. The National Football League is the most popular spectator sport in America.

What’s No. 2? Not the NBA, not Major League Baseball—but college football. And with college football introducing a new-fangled playoff system this year, expect America’s infatuation to only grow.

Here are a few measures of its influence.

Ratings

The 2013 NBA finals featured perhaps the most popular athlete in the world, Lebron James, as his super team battled against the San Antonio Spurs for seven unforgettable games. An average of almost 18 million viewers saw James secure his second NBA title. A few months later, 15 million baseball fans saw the Red Sox win their third championship since 2004.

How many viewers watched Florida State beat Auburn in the 2014 BCS title game? Twenty-six million, per Nielsen ratings.

This isn’t a one-off event. On average, 2.6 million people watched NCAA regular season football games last year, according to Nielsen. Take Saturday, October 5, 2013. Both the University of Georgia and Tennessee were enduring less than stellar seasons. Nevertheless, 5.6 million people tuned in to see the two Southeastern Conference schools play each another on CBS.

Viewer demand is only likely to increase. Starting this year, college football will institute a four-team playoff to decide the national champion, and rejiggered rules allow the biggest football programs more control over their finances. According to USA Today, these developments will lead to the biggest schools earning 71.5% of the $470 million annual television revenue for the playoff.

Baseball and basketball simply don’t attract as many eyeballs. About 700,000 people watched an MLB regular season game on television in 2013, and 1.4 million watched a non-playoff NBA game in the 2012-13 season. (All are based on nationally televised games.)

The total attendance for 835 NCAA Division I football games was a little more than 38 million, with a per-game attendance of 46,000. The NBA, which has almost 400 more total games in its season, drew 21 million people, while the MLB attracted 30,500 per game. (Major League Baseball has almost three times as many games and brought in a total of 74 million fans.)

Reach

Part of college football’s popularity might be its reach. While the NBA and MLB have 30 teams collected mostly around large metropolitan areas, college football programs exist where there are colleges – which is everywhere. Consider that New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco have 15 professional baseball and basketball teams. That’s a quarter of all the teams in only four cities.

Now look at NCAA football. The top five teams play in Tallahassee, Tuscaloosa, Eugene, Norman, and Columbus. While it’s true that a number of the West Coast schools play in big cities (UCLA, Stanford, and the University of Washington), most of the big-time schools are the only game in town. If you live in Boise, Idaho, do you really care about anything else the way you care about Boise State Broncos football?

Riches

There is something a bit unsettling about college football’s popularity, and corresponding affluence. A college football coach is the highest paid public employee in 27 states – including South Carolina and Texas. Alabama’s Nick Saban made more than $5.5 million last year, despite the fact that his and every other team’s players weren’t paid anything. (Many were given athletic scholarships, but those can be taken away if a “student-athlete” becomes injured. Just for some perspective: the University of Texas’s football program earned $82 million in profit last year.)

Plus, football is a dangerous game, and it’s an open question whether an institution of higher learning should even be in the business of promoting a sport that causes severe head trauma. (Google: Owen Thomas.)

College football, though, is inexorably linked to American history. The first intercollegiate game took place four years after the end of the Civil War, and the college game itself was saved by then President Teddy Roosevelt.

Otherwise normal, hard-working Americans revert to 20-year-old fanatics every fall Saturday afternoon and cheer on their alma maters. Tonight’s game in Columbia is just another page in the never-ending story of America’s love with her second-favorite sport.

TIME

USC Football Player Suspended Indefinitely for Fake Drowning Story

Southern California cornerback Josh Shaw lines up against California defensive back Isaac Lapite during the first quarter of a NCAA college football game in Berkeley, Calif.
Southern California cornerback Josh Shaw lines up against California defensive back Isaac Lapite during the first quarter of a NCAA college football game in Berkeley, Calif. Eric Risberg—AP

Shaw has been suspended "indefinitely" from the Trojan athletic program

University of Southern California’s cornerback Josh Shaw said Wednesday he lied when he told his coaches he sprained his ankles while attempting to save his drowning nephew. In response, the USC Trojans suspended Shaw indefinitely from the athletic program as a result of what he referred to as a “complete fabrication.”

“We are extremely disappointed in Josh,” USC coach Steve Sarkisian said in a statement. “He let us all down. As I have said, nothing in his background led us to doubt him when he told us of his injuries, nor did anything after our initial vetting of his story.”

USA Today reports that members of the school’s athletic department doubted Shaw’s story from the beginning. The investigation into Shaw’s injury had been ongoing since Monday when the school posted the initial story in which Shaw claimed to have sprained his ankles after jumping onto concrete from an apartment balcony in an attempt to save his drowning 7-year-old nephew.

In a statement issued through his lawyer, according to USCTrojans.com, Shaw apologized saying, “I made up a story about this fall that was untrue. I was wrong to not tell the truth. I apologize to USC for this action on my part.” The statement did not include any information about the real reason behind Shaw’s injuries.

Shaw is a fifth year senior at USC where he was a team captain on the football team.

TIME Sports

Black Cat Interrupts Barcelona Game

A cat runs on the pitch during a Spanish La Liga soccer match between FC Barcelona and Elche at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, Aug. 24, 2014. Manu Fernandez – AP

Paws-ing play until it trotted off the field

It looked like an unlucky beginning to the Spanish soccer season yesterday when a black cat wandered onto the field, mere minutes after kickoff in the Barcelona vs. Elche match.

The feline intruder upstaged all the players as it raced around the field and evaded capture, much to the delight of laughing fans and commentators. It eventually trotted off the field, apparently done with its time in the spotlight.

Turns out the cat was a bad omen for Elche – Barcelona won the match 3-0.

Manu Fernandez – AP
MONEY Sports

NFL Preseason Tickets Aren’t Even Worth $10

Johnny Manziel #2 of the Cleveland Browns scrambles for a touchdown during the third quarter against the St. Louis Rams at FirstEnergy Stadium on August 23, 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio.
Johnny Manziel of the Cleveland Browns scrambles for a touchdown during the third quarter against the St. Louis Rams at FirstEnergy Stadium on August 23, 2014, in Cleveland, Ohio. Joe Sargent—Getty Images

What do fans think of NFL preseason games? Basically that they're meaningless, to the point that they're sometimes not worth paying $10, or even $5, to attend.

Every year around this time, sports talk radio overflows with rants about the meaninglessness of the NFL preseason. Actually, the anger is about more than just that the games don’t mean anything in terms of rankings or even what fans can expect out of their team in the coming (real) season. Sure, the quality of the games is low due to the fact that starters rarely play for more than a few minutes. But that’s only part of the equation that makes the preseason a magnet for hate.

What also gets fans up in arms is that some of their team’s favorite, most important players might get hurt when they do briefly jump into the action during these meaningless games. And the thing that really drives the most loyal fans nuts is that they are forced to buy tickets—usually at full price—for these matchups that mostly feature players they don’t know and may not see again in the regular season. Anyone who buys season tickets, after all, is required to pay for seats for two home preseason games as part of the package. These are tickets, by the way, that cost an average of $81 apiece at face value last year.

During the regular season, prices on the secondary market for those tickets can and often do soar far above their face value. According to the ticket resale and research site TiqIQ, the average resale price for tickets at most NFL stadiums is more than $200, and tickets for home games for Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots average over $400.

That’s all during the regular season, though. During the preseason, it’s a different story entirely—because, again, fans couldn’t care less. Leading into this past weekend, tickets for NFL preseason games hosted in Cleveland, Detroit, Atlanta, and Arizona were all selling for $10 or less at secondary ticket sites such as StubHub. Meanwhile, the get-in price on Thursday night in Buffalo, when the Bills host the Detroit Lions in their final preseason game, has dropped as low as $4.50.

Another game this Thursday, in which the San Diego Chargers will host the Arizona Cardinals, is also a matchup drawing a remarkable disinterest among fans. Not only is it a work night, but not much is expected in terms of success or playoff runs from either team this year—plus the two teams are playing again, 11 days after this preseason game, when it actually means something as the Monday Night Football season opener.

Last week, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that tickets to the preseason game were starting at around $6 on the secondary market, with many seats selling for 85% off face value. Prime seats on the 50-yard line were on the market for around $19.

Stating the obvious, Miro Copic, a San Diego State University College of Business Administration marketing lecturer, said to the Union-Tribune that the shockingly low prices of these games “really does create a question about the value of preseason for fans.”

He then offered an interesting suggestion that could turn the preseason, currently a subject of great frustration among fans, into something that could make them happy, and even build the customer base: “It’s almost like the NFL could offer them for free as a PR activity. One of the things that should be considered is how do you make preseason a way to engage fans who otherwise may not afford a Charger game, or are now willing to get apparel?”

TIME Appreciation

Google Doodle Honors Black Tennis Star Althea Gibson

Gibson was the first African-American to win the U.S. Nationals and Wimbledon tennis championships

Monday’s Google Doodle pays tribute to black tennis star and barrier breaker Althea Gibson, who paved the way for tennis greats including Venus and Serena Williams.

Gibson, who was born on Aug. 25, 1927, was the first black person to take the title at Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals. The Harlem-raised Gibson was also the first African-American named the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year in 1957; she won again in 1958.

TIME wrote of Gibson in 1957: “Lean, tall and well-muscled (5 ft. 10½, 144 Ibs.), Althea Gibson is not the most graceful figure on the courts, and her game is not the most stylish. She is apt to flail with more than the usual frenzy, and she often relies on ‘auxiliary shots’ (e.g., the chop and slice). But her tennis has a champion’s unmistakable power and drive.”

Gibson died in October 2003 in East Orange, N.J.

MONEY Kids and Money

What It Costs to Raise a U.S. Open Champion

Serena Williams of the U.S. raises her trophy after defeating Victoria Azarenka of Belarus in their women's singles final match at the U.S. Open tennis championships in New York September 8, 2013.
Does your kid want to be the next Serena Williams? Start saving now. Mike Segar—Reuters

Want your kid to win the U.S. Open? Start shelling out $30,000 a year.

Serena Williams won her first U.S. Open at age 17 and her fifth at age 31, just last year. But can she defend her crown against the newest upstarts? It all starts on August 25, when Williams goes head-to-head with rising star Taylor Townsend. And 18-year-old Townsend won’t be the only young talent to watch in Queens: 20-year-old Canadian Eugenie Bouchard is seeded no. 7, and 19-year-old Australian Nick Kyrgios will try to build on his surprise upset against Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon.

If those youthful feats fuel your kid’s dream of tennis stardom, then get ready to open your wallet. In the United States, families of elite tennis players easily spend $30,000 a year so their kids can compete on the national level, says Tim Donovan, founder of Donovan Tennis Strategies, a college recruiting consulting group. That can start as early as age 11 or 12. At the high end, Donovan says, some parents spend $100,000 a year.

On what, you might ask. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Court time. Practice makes perfect, but practice can be expensive, especially if you need to practice indoors in the winter. In Boston, where Donovan is based, court time costs about $45 an hour. In New York City, court time can run over $100 an hour.
  • Training. Figure $4,500 to $5,000 a year for private lessons, plus $7,000 to $8,000 for group lessons—in addition to the aforementioned court fees to practice on your own.
  • Tournaments. National tournament entrance fees run about $150. Plus, you have to travel to get there. Serious players will go to 20 tournaments a year. Donovan estimates that two-thirds of the tournaments might be a few hours away, but elite athletes will need to fly to national events six or seven times a year. Want to bring your coach with you? Add another $300 a day, plus expenses.
  • School. You’ve already racked up $30,000 in bills. But if your kid is really serious, you might also spring for a special tennis academy. Full-time boarding school tuition at Florida’s IMG Academy costs $71,400 a year.

So what’s the return on investment? While most parents don’t expect to see their kids at Wimbledon, many still hope that tennis will open doors when it comes time to apply to college. But the reality is that athletic scholarships are few and far between. In 2011-2012, only 0.8% of undergrads won any kind of athletic scholarship, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Edvisors.com.

Opportunities are particularly limited for boys. Donovan notes that because of Title IX—which requires that schools provide an equal number of scholarships for men and women—a Division I college with a football program might offer eight full tennis scholarships for women, but only half as many for men, because male scholarships need to go to the football players.

Bottom line: If you spend $30,000 a year hoping your tennis star will go to college for free, you’ll probably be disappointed with your ROI.

“Recipients of athletic scholarships graduate with somewhat less debt than other students but not significantly so,” says Kantrowitz. “The main benefit of athletic scholarships is providing access to higher-cost colleges without increasing costs, moreso than reducing the cost of a college education.”

That’s where Donovan comes in: For $3,500 to $10,000, Donovan Tennis Strategies provides different levels of assistance with the college application process. Oftentimes, Donovan’s clients are able to pay full tuition but want additional help leveraging tennis to get their kids into better (and more expensive) schools.

The strategy can pay off. According to Donovan, recruited athletes have a 48% higher chance of admission, sometimes even with SAT scores that are more than 300 points lower than those of non-athletes. “The coach can go in and significantly advocate for somebody and change the outcome,” he says.

So if you’re a parent to a budding tennis star, can you foster his or her talent for less? The IMG Academy does offer scholarships to promising young athletes whose parents can’t pay full freight, and the United States Tennis Association offers some grants and funding. But ultimately, players need to log hours on the court to get good, and that costs money.

“The more you’re playing, the better you’re going to be,” Donovan says. “That’s pretty well documented … and that adds up over time.”

TIME China

Watch Mixed Martial Arts Fighters Compete in China

Chinese mixed martial arts fighters are beating their way out of poverty, the AFP reported

+ READ ARTICLE

Mixed martial arts, or MMA as it’s widely known, is a combination of boxing and Brazilian jujitsu, where almost anything goes during a fight. The sport, widely practiced in Europe and Japan, was unknown in China just a decade ago.

“I didn’t know MMA existed before, when I started fighting in the competition in 2006, I thought it was great fun because there were almost no restrictions,” Chinese fighter Wu Haotian told AFP.

Recently, an increasing number of athletes in China are turning to the sport, which is seen as a springboard out of rural poverty: Fighters can compete for prizes of up to $10,000 in fights in the United States and Hong Kong, the AFP reported.

In the video above, take a look inside a Chinese gym that has already sent several fighters to the U.S.-based Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

MONEY Sports

WATCH: Memorabilia Vendors Are Already Profiting Off Mo’ne Davis

Little League star Mo'ne Davis pitcher her way into the national spotlight, and now memorabilia sellers are looking to make money off her autograph.

TIME Baseball

Mo’ne Davis Helps Draw a Record Little League Viewership

Nearly 5 million viewers in all tuned in

+ READ ARTICLE

Little League World Series’ sensation, 13-year-old Mo’ne Davis, may have got pulled during her game on Wednesday night, but the event did garner the largest viewership of a Little League game in ESPN’s history, says the Hollywood Reporter.

Despite the 8-1 loss by Davis’ Philadelphia team Taney Dragons to Las Vegas’ Mountain Ridge, the coverage drew a 3.1 rating, which, according to ESPN, was up 155% from last year’s viewership. In Philadelphia, 14.9% of homes tuned in on Wednesday, while 16.3% watched from their homes in Las Vegas. Nearly 5 million viewers in all tuned in for Wednesday night’s game.

Davis was catapulted to fame this summer as the first female in the history of the Little League World Series to pitch a shutout game. She landed a Sports Illustrated cover and a ton of fans.

However, her unfettered success took a turn when she was pulled in the third inning after allowing Las Vegas three runs on Wednesday. She was then unable to pitch against Chicago during Thursday night’s game (because of restrictions designed to prevent arm strain). And because Philadelphia lost 5-6, the possibility of her taking to the mound during a Saturday night rematch with Las Vegas was quashed.

Davis’ manager Alex Rice nonetheless has big hopes for the 13-year-old’s future. “The world’s her oyster, right?” Rice told the Associated Press after the Chicago loss on Thursday. “Mo’ne will figure out her future, and it’s going to be terrific.”

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