While coaches and administrators throughout the Southland Conference frequently reference an increase in parity and competition in recent years, the same cannot be said about the league’s football attendance numbers.
The Southland Conference has experienced a notable drop-off in average attendance each of the past two seasons — falling 10% in 2018, and another 4.9% last season.
Attendance figures have been down across the FCS as a whole during this stretch, but not at this level. After a 4.7% drop-off in 2018, attendance nationally fell just 0.3% last season.
So what’s behind the Southland’s drop-off in football attendance? Matt Faye of the Beaumont Enterprise, David Berry of the American Press in Lake Charles and myself give our thoughts:
JC: A reason I think we’ve seen a drop-off in attendance — and it’s not necessarily a bad thing, because you’re getting exposure for your program — is because it’s so much easier for fans to log into their computer or pull up the ESPN app and watch a game … and not have to sit in 95-degree heat for four hours.
DB: Another problem you have, look at the states you are in. You’ve got Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana. All three have at least one flagship school, and in Texas you have two flagships and a bunch of other teams, so the attention is always somewhere else. In Louisiana, it’s all about LSU … and last year even more so because of how successful LSU was. So everyone is like, ‘Would I rather go watch a McNeese team that is decent, or would I rather watch LSU put 40 on Alabama?’ Even Nicholls and Southeastern Louisiana went to the playoffs, but I’m sure if you gave those some of those half-LSU, half-Nicholls fans the choice, they’re going to pick that LSU game.
That’s part of it, and like you said the TV part of it is a big deal. If I want to watch McNeese, I can just go get some pizzas, grab a couple beers and watch it at home — and I can watch other games. Or I can be out in the baking sun where, depending on which side of Cowboy Stadium you’re on, I might not have much — or any cover.
MF: Southland Conference football in particular loves to preach about this parity, where anyone can beat anybody, but I’m not sure that’s such a good thing for attendance necessarily. Especially with the traditional powers not being so powerful the last couple years, the attendance you lose at those traditional powers is probably a little more than you would gain from say Lamar being a little bit better or (Incarnate Word going on a run). I don’t think those necessarily move the needle, and I’d almost guarantee you that if given the choice, the Southland Conference would say, ‘Screw all this parity, give me the traditional powers going head-to-head in a top-10 matchup.’
JC: I hadn’t thought about that much, but it’s a good point. You look at other conferences like the CAA, and you have James Madison — who is not just the best in the conference, but is indisputably one of the top programs in the country. Everyone is gunning for them, so you get that animosity. Then you look at the Missouri Valley Football Conference, and you have North Dakota State and South Dakota State battling it out in a top-five game that matters.
It’s like we’ve discussed before as the reason why the Southland probably won’t get four teams in the playoffs — they just beat each other up too damn much, and there’s not that one team that emerges. We saw it a little bit with Sam Houston State last season, when they’re sitting up two touchdowns on the road at Central Arkansas and in the position to essentially clinch a playoff berth. Then all of a sudden Central Arkansas comes out of the gates blazing in the second half, Breylin Smith leads an incredible comeback and all of Sam’s momentum just starts rolling downhill. And the same thing happened with Nicholls. They came into Sam Houston State at No. 9 in the country, and got shutout 17-0 by a team that didn’t have a healthy quarterback on its roster.
DB: We also have to look at the different areas of attendance in the FCS. There’s your HBCU attendance, and they’re going to show up and show out regardless. That’s why teams want to schedule them, because they know fans are going to show up. Then you have places like the Big Sky for example, where there aren’t a ton of big cities. Look at Montana and Montana State. Montana is probably one of the best atmosphere’s in the entire FCS, and there’s probably not as much to do on a regular basis outside of that — and that’s not to disparage, I’m just saying in comparison to a Houston Baptist or Incarnate Word. Or like with North Dakota State, I can either be at home, or I can go into the FargoDome, cheer my head off and see one of the best teams in college football play.
JC: The Southland, more than any conference in the FCS, has to fight an uphill battle as far as capturing the attention of that geographic region. I don’t think there’s anywhere that’s really close when you think about the Power Five teams and other FBS schools that are not only competing at that level, but competing for conference titles and national titles. Montana and Montana State, you aren’t fighting with much. Even North Dakota State, I know a lot of people up in that region that choose to be Bison fans over Minnesota fans.
Minnesota is a Power Five team, but they don’t have that traditional success like a University of Texas has. Arkansas might be struggling, but they dominate that state — and always will dominate that state. Then LSU is coming off a national championship. So I think the Southland, more than any FCS league, has to fight an uphill battle that is very unique to them.