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Ratcliffe: College sports' growing TV dilemma

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Posted: Saturday, December 22, 2012 6:00 am

Assuming that the world didn’t come to an end in between the time this column was written and the time it hits your computer screen this morning, major college athletic directors woke up today with an ongoing dilemma that may not have a solution.

Anyone who believes that the new national pastime of conference realignment parlayed with all the crazy TV money being thrown around, will solve all of the problems for college athletics, needs to look a little closer.

Major college football, the country’s most popular sport, dipped to its lowest average attendance since 2003 during the 2012 regular season. The ACC, for example, averaged 49,544 fans per game, its lowest average figure in a dozen years and down 11 percent since 2004.

The SEC, which still led the nation in average attendance per game (75,444), experienced its lowest totals in five years and if the SEC was down, you figure most of the rest of the college football world was, too. Certainly the Big Ten was down, reporting its lowest average attendance since 2008. Only the Pac-12 didn’t sink in attendance figures.

While attendance figures may have dropped, television ratings for college football in general were pretty high. In fact, four of the five top-rated programs on Saturday nights this past fall were college football games.

So, if you’re Craig Littlepage and his senior associate Jon Oliver, or any other AD in the ACC or around the country, here’s your dilemma. There may be more eyeballs watching your game on the 70-inch, HDTV, but there are less fannies in the seats at your football stadium.

Virginia, in fact, averaged 46,650 fans per game this season, a three percent drop from the year before. Virginia Tech, one of the few schools that experienced only a minor decrease in attendance (65,632 per game), wasn’t the typical story for universities in ’12 in spite of suffering through one of its worst seasons in 25 years.

Oliver, who recently attended the annual IMG Intercollege Athletics Forum in New York, was there to learn if any of his colleagues had an answer to the growing problem.

Yes, the TV money is grand, but …

“Television people are saying that it doesn’t look good on TV if there are empty seats,” Oliver said. “And [he and the other ADs and conference commissioners] we all looked around like …”

Oliver didn’t finish his thought but obviously everyone in the room was somewhat dumbfounded. No one had any real answer to the problem.

“College athletics are in such a state of flux in trying to generate more revenue and we’re doing a good job of doing that but we’re not sure how it impacts everything else we’re trying to do and that concerns everyone in this business,” Oliver said.

Consider that a lot of football fans are fed up with the escalating ticket prices and what some consider a lack of loyalty from the universities they support back to the fan for their longtime support of those programs.

Just for instance, a face value ticket for a particular SEC game this past season reached $100 for the first time ever. Virginia’s home game against Penn State this past season went for $70, well above the average premium seat cost for the other opponents. That’s the case most everywhere as colleges seek added revenue anywhere they can get it.

The ADs have to pay the bills and sometimes pay off coaches who are fired.

Virginia has been in that boat but now only owes money to the recent four assistant football coaches it fired after a 4-8 campaign. Collectively, that will cost UVa’s athletic department a tad less than $2 million, which sounds like a lot until you start looking around.

Auburn had to pay $11 million for dumping its football staff after the season, while Tennessee paid Derek Dooley, a UVa alum, $5 million to buy out his contract. Tolerable perhaps until you consider the Vols paid $6 million to get rid of Phillip Fulmer a few years before and since fired a basketball coach, a baseball coach and an AD.

Littlepage and Oliver are contending with a football program that has had only two winning seasons since 2006 and attendance is an issue because football revenue helps pay for all the other sports, including the retention of premier coaches such as Brian O’Connor, Brian Boland and Dom Starsia.

When other institutions have coaches openings in those Olympic sports programs, where is one of the first places those schools look? Of course they’re going to take a shot at luring away one of Virginia’s coaches. Keeping them isn’t cheap and so football and basketball have to be productive.

That means fannies in the seats and when a team is losing, there are less fannies than usual.

And remember, Littlepage and Oliver are keenly aware of that aforementioned HDTV thing.

“Right now in our society, are fans going to block out hours of their Saturday’s, drive to the game, deal with parking, watch the game, deal with traffic after games and getting home, and feeding the family,” Oliver questioned. “They can turn on that big TV with the action jumping off the screen, have friends over, eat, drink and be merry and then call it a day. That’s what many of us are fighting, especially if a program is struggling.”

There’s also the ever-growing impact of social media wherein fans can watch the game on TV while texting, tweeting or participating in message boards. They are fully engaged in the game without leaving their favorite chair.

While there may be more fans watching on TV, UVa’s desire is to have fans at the games to support how it operates its athletic program “the right way.”

“At Virginia, you’re not just an athlete, you’re a student-athlete,” Oliver said. “And I think our fans appreciate that.”

There are some suggested cures to the problems but all remain to be seen.

One idea is “dynamic pricing,” which is different ticket prices weighed on how big the opponent might be. Oliver isn’t sure that will work in college athletics the way it has in professional sports.

Another is for the ACC to create its own television network much like the Big Ten did several years ago, which would showcase the league 24/7 from Beantown to South Beach and create more revenue for all soon-to-be 15 members. The idea is being discussed but there seems to be reluctance by the conference office to pull the trigger even though the SEC appears headed in that direction.

Then there’s Oliver’s other football only solution.

“I’ve said for a few years, that for UVa and schools similar to us, it’s going to take a reset,” Oliver said. “We’re going to have to have a dream season before people go, ‘OK, that was cool. I’ve been watching on TV, now I want to buy a ticket again.’”

But we’re talking about a 10-win season and in more than 120 years of football, Virginia has only had one of those.

Perhaps the world didn’t blow up overnight, which only means that Littlepage, Oliver and Mike London face yet another day of worrying on how to keep the sky from falling.

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