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The college football season kicks off tonight. For the next few months, tens of thousands of fans will spend Saturdays tailgating in stadium parking lots around the country, but fewer of those fans will likely make their way into the stands. In all but 2 of the past 10 years, average NCAA attendance has declined. Most big-name programs have weathered the decline, but even Ohio State saw a noticeable drop-off last year. WOSU's Nick Evans looks behind the numbers.
NICK EVANS, BYLINE: The north entrance of Ohio Stadium is a massive 85-foot-high rotunda, modeled after the dome of the Roman Pantheon.
TODD HARTZ: This brings back a lot of really good memories for me. I've been a season ticket holder for about seven years. And whenever I come here, I kind of get emotional.
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EVANS: On game days, Todd Hartz wants to be right here to see the marching band make its way into the stadium. But after seven years, he's giving up his season tickets.
HARTZ: The nonconference games are fairly affordable, but conference games are getting very highly escalated in price. And as much as I love this team, and as much as I love Ohio State, I don't want to spend two or three paychecks a year just on tickets for Ohio State.
EVANS: While Hartz says he'll miss being in the stadium, he'll still show up to tailgate and watch the game on TV. He's in good company. Last year, Ohio State ticket sales hit a 10-year low, falling on average by more than 4,000 per game.
Economist Rob Baumann studies the trend at College of the Holy Cross. He says many schools are seeing similar declines.
ROB BAUMANN: Across the board, college football attendance has been falling for the last 10 years or so. This has been true at really every conference.
EVANS: While the biggest programs - like Michigan, Penn State and Alabama - have seen only modest decreases, others, like the University of Texas, saw a noticeable increase in 2018. But attendance there is still well below where it was a decade ago. When it comes to what's driving the trend, Baumann points to the overall cost of attendance compared to just turning on the TV.
BAUMANN: At the end of the day, you're still talking about a lot of money to drive down there, a lot of congestion, to figure out parking, walking a long way - expensive to buy any concessions that you want, whether it's alcohol or otherwise. And again, meanwhile, like, the experience at your house has only gotten better over the last 20 years.
EVANS: At home, you've got high definition, big screens and instant replay from multiple angles. The seats are comfier, and there's probably no line for the bathroom. In addition to rising ticket prices and a better broadcast experience, DePaul University economist Stacey Brooks (ph) notes the stadiums themselves are shrinking.
STACEY BROOK: From 2004 to 2018, the average stadium capacity has fallen over 2,000 - almost 2,400 seats. And the average attendance has fallen from 2004 to 2018, oh, about 3,500.
EVANS: Ohio Stadium cut its capacity last year to add more luxury seating. That doesn't account for the entire decline, but the athletic department isn't panicking. The team still ranked third overall in the nation in home attendance last year. Still, OSU's Jerry Emig concedes they have to work a bit harder to get fans into stadium seats.
JERRY EMIG: Just the combination of the technology and the times we're in right now is causing the subtle, you know, but general declines in some fan attendances for, you know, quite frankly, most of the live entertainment events.
EVANS: Concessionaires now sell beer. The school is upgrading phone and Wi-Fi service, and it started selling partial season tickets. Even if those efforts don't fill the stands this year, all those people watching on television still help the school's bottom line. Ohio State sports media rights generate nearly $43 million a year. And according to Fox, 13.2 million people tuned into last year's OSU-Michigan game, making it their most watched regular season college football game ever.
For NPR News, I'm Nick Evans in Columbus.
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