John Clay

Kentucky football one among many dealing with declining ticket sales

Fans cheered for UK before the Catwalk when Kentucky hosted Florida at Kroger Field last season. UK was one of only three SEC teams whose attendance increased last season from the year before but season ticket sales for 2018 are slumping..
Fans cheered for UK before the Catwalk when Kentucky hosted Florida at Kroger Field last season. UK was one of only three SEC teams whose attendance increased last season from the year before but season ticket sales for 2018 are slumping.. aslitz@herald-leader.com

So season ticket sales for Kentucky football’s 2018 campaign are down 10 percent from a year ago.

The numbers suggest UK has plenty of company.

Fact is, actual game attendance is down for most every major sport, with college football no exception. The NCAA’s numbers last year revealed average attendance for the 129 FBS teams dropped by 1,409 fans per game from 2017 to 2016.

That’s the largest decline since 1983, a span of 34 years. And the overall FBS average of 42,203 was the lowest since 1997. Considering that the all-time high was 46,791 in 2008, that’s a 10.1 percent drop in the past nine years.

Despite its national success and the fervor of its fan bases, the SEC hasn’t been immune from this trend. Last year, the SEC’s average attendance dropped 2,433 per game, its biggest drop since 1992. The average of 75,074 was its lowest since 2005.

Even the grid hotbeds of Alabama and Auburn suffered slight drop-offs. Alabama’s attendance fell from 101,821 to 101,722. Auburn’s attendance dropped from 86,937 to 86,446.

Only South Carolina (76,920 in 2016 to 78,586), Vanderbilt (31,242 to 31,341) and, yes, Kentucky (53,643 to 56,468) boasted attendance increases last season.

So after back-to-back winning seasons and back-to-back bowl games, why are Kentucky’s season ticket sales slumping again this summer?

Commitment is the primary reason. It’s one thing to decide during the week that you’re going to the UK home game on Saturday. (Plenty of tickets available.) Given the circumstances of modern sports these days, it’s quite another to make the monetary commitment necessary for securing a ticket package for six or seven home games.

Let’s start with the time commitment. Thanks to television timeouts and incessant officials reviews, the games are way too long, stretching to nearly four hours in too many cases. Factor in the traffic hassles of driving to the game, the increased parking prices — you have to donate to the K Fund to secure the best spots — and finally exiting the parking lot after games, we’re talking about an all-day or all-night affair.

It doesn’t help that kickoff times are left to the whims of the television networks and are often not announced until a couple of weeks before the game. The start time could be noon, or 3:30 p.m., or 4 p.m., or 6:30 p.m, or 7 p.m., or 9 p.m. You just never know. And because you never know, it’s difficult for fans to plan, especially those who need babysitters or drive from long distances, i.e. the western or eastern part of the state.

Then there’s the money commitment. UK’s ticket prices are in line with the rest of the league, but in general they continue to rise. Same goes for parking. Same goes for concessions. There are more food options than before, but none are cheap.

Then there’s the commitment schools have made to their deep-pocket donors. Yes, the recent renovations at Kroger Field are nice, but you can’t blame the average fan for thinking the bulk of the improvements served those who can afford corporate suites and private boxes. Most everyone else was forced to give up their old seats, and the friends they had made at games, for new ones.

Another alarming trend is the lack of students in the stands. Going to the Saturday home game is no longer a way of life for the student body. Their interest has declined in direct proportion to the view from their seats. They’ve found other things to do at other places.

One thing: Watch the game at home on their high-def television with snacks and beverages nearby. The same goes for regular fans. In its greedy desire for television revenue, the sport is cannibalizing itself. There are too many games, good games, on too many television networks. You can hardly blame a fan for staying home to watch a great matchup instead of heading to the local stadium to watch a mediocre one.

That’s not just the case at Kentucky, but throughout college football. That trend isn’t declining.

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