Three things stood out after my Homecoming walk from east of campus to Arizona Stadium: Every bar on University Blvd. was overflowing. The mall was packed with tailgaters. And the stadium was half empty.
Everyone is trying to figure out why Arizona fans are outside the stadium on game day. The cause is as clear as your high-definition television. Arizona and the rest of the Pac-12 created this problem when they made it possible to enjoy game day from outside the stadium.
The numbers are in black and white. Every season from 2012 to the present has had a lower average home attendance than every year from 2005 through 2010. The average attendance at Arizona Stadium the last two seasons is even less than in 2011 when the Wildcats lost by double-digits seven times and Mike Stoops got fired.
Arizona Average Home Football Attendance, 2004-2017
Source for 2004-2016: UA 2017 Media Guide
I used to think it was a Stoops vs. Rich Rodriguez thing but that makes no sense. Stoops went a combined 37-37 in his six best seasons while RichRod has gone 34-26 in 5 ½ years. Yet every single season of the former stretch out-drew every single season of the latter.
Arizona’s attendance problem didn’t start because RichRod was hired. The woes began because of something else that happened in 2012: the launch of the Pac-12 Network and the promise that every game would be on TV.
The Daily Star recently interviewed fans who no longer go to games. You hear similar calls on local radio shows. The excuses are all over the place but they have a common denominator. Every single complaint is solved with TV.
Tickets too expensive? Watch for free at home.
Seats too uncomfortable? Sit in your favorite chair in your living room.
Games start too late? Watch from your bedroom.
Bad overpriced food? Watch from your kitchen or favorite restaurant.
Music too loud? Work the remote at home.
In the case of start times and game length, television – like Homer Simpson’s alcohol – is the cause of and solution to all of Arizona’s problems. The games are at night and last four hours because of TV, and you can reduce the effect of both issues by watching on TV.
It’s the exact same reason malls and movie theaters are suffering while Amazon and Netflix are thriving. If you offer people a cheaper and more convenient way to consume the exact same product, they’re going to take advantage of it.
Schools in the South and Midwest have overcome the TV issue because of generational ties. If your parents and grandparents have always gone to Nebraska games, the Huskers are an ingrained part of your life. If you have been spending every fall Saturday since birth at Texas A&M or Tennessee tailgates and games, you don’t want to be anywhere else.
Arizona doesn’t have that immense pool of generationally loyal supporters. The UA probably has 30-to-35,000 football fans who don’t want to be anywhere else on an October Saturday. The rest watch most or all of the games on TV. Why? Because they can.
This wasn’t the case before the birth of the Pac-12 Network. In Stoops’ first five seasons Arizona had a total of 20 untelevised games. If you wanted to see every single home game you had no choice but to buy a ticket.
If the TV option doesn’t exist, maybe the individual excuses aren’t enough. Joe Fan may decide, I can only afford tickets in the upper deck, but I love watching the Cats. Jane Fan might say, Those benches are terrible but UCLA is coming to town. Julio Fan thinks, Another 8 p.m. start?! But Khalil Tate is really, really good….
Tucson is still a college town. There are enough Wildcat fans in the area to fill Arizona Stadium several times over. But in today’s world you can be a fan from anywhere. You can wear red and blue, sing “Bear Down, Arizona!” and cheer on the Cats from any location that has a TV subscription and electricity.
When the Pac-12 decided to take $3 billion from ESPN and Fox and start its own television network in 2012, the conference decided game attendance wasn’t as important as it used to be. The six years since have proven that fans of schools like Arizona agree.
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Scott Terrell is one of the 30,000 who faithfully pay too much to sit on uncomfortable benches late on Saturday nights. Follow him on Twitter.