Home football game attendance at all time low

Over the past five seasons, attendance at home football games has declined sharply as program success dwindled. Spikes in attendance occurred when rivals Clemson or UGA come to town, bringing fans with them. // Graphic by Rahul Deshpande Student Publications

The 2022 season came to an end just over two weeks ago and marked a troubling trend in college football: declining attendance at games. It is a problem that has plagued college football programs across the nation, and it is one that is noticeable even here in Atlanta, known nationwide as a recruiting hotbed for football talent.

The 2022 season began for the Jackets with the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game matchup between Tech and Clemson. This counted as a home game for Tech, but the Jackets elected to cap attendance at 42,500, using the same seating configuration that it used for the North Carolina game last year at Mercede-Benz Stadium, with the upper deck closed off.

This was the second annual game in the six year “Mayhem at Mercedes-Benz Stadium” series Tech has agreed to.

In a statement to the AJC, Gary Stokan, the CEO of Peach Bowl, Inc (which manages the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game) said “It’s Georgia Tech’s game, so we want to be cognizant of their fans, because we know that we’re moving a game out of Bobby Dodd (Stadium).”

However, these issues with attendance are even more apparent at home on the Flats. In the last five seasons of Tech football, totaling 32 home games, Tech has sold out all its tickets just seven times, with six of those times occurring during the COVID-impacted 2020 season when NCAA regulations mandated a cap on attendance at 20% of total capacity. Bobby Dodd Stadium, with a standard capacity of 55,000, was limited to just 11,000 tickets during the season. Bobby Dodd Stadium has only sold out one other time: when the Yellow Jackets faced in-state rival Georgia in the last regular season game of the 2019 season.

Over the last five seasons, the only times Bobby Dodd has had over 50,000 fans in attendance has been during rivals Clemson and Georgia’s visits to Atlanta. Clemson’s 2018 visit to Atlanta put 50,595 fans in seats, while Georgia’s two visits in 2019 and 2021 brought 55,000 and 54,400 fans to Bobby Dodd, respectively.

The decline of the product on-field goes hand in hand with attendance. Tech hasn’t posted a winning season since 2018, when the Yellow Jackets went 7-6 to lose in the Quick Lane Bowl against Minnesota. That season was the end of the Paul Johnson era of Tech football as Johnson announced he would be retiring as Head Coach at the end of the season. During this time, Tech won 4 of its 6 home games (against Alcorn State, Bowling Green, Miami, and UVA), with the lowest attendance of the season at 37,453 against UVA.

The 2019 season was Coach Geoff Collins’ much-hyped first season as head coach, promising a shift in scheme from Johnson’s triple option-esque offense to a more pro-style one. However, this transition was a weak one, as Tech posted its worst record since 2015, going 3-9 and had record losses like the first loss to an FCS opponent since 1983 (and second-ever such loss) to the Citadel. Tech was also shut out for the first time since 1997 against UVA, a loss that also marked the first home shutout since 1957. Despite this, Tech’s lowest attendance that season at home was against NC State, a 28-26 win that brought 38,198 fans to Bobby Dodd. This season was the first of Collins’ three consecutive three win seasons, as the Jackets’ scoring woes continued through 2020, 2021 and 2022 until his dismissal after four games.

Attendance dipped below the 40,000 mark for all games in the 2021 season except the rivalry game against Georgia, posting an average home attendance of 37,733 or 68.6% of total capacity. The program suffered two consecutive shutouts (at Notre Dame and against Georgia) to close out the regular season with a combined score deficit of 100-0. Notably, the loss against Boston College brought the smallest crowd to Bobby Dodd since 1989 at 31,511— a paltry 57.3% of total capacity.

This past season was not much better, with an average home attendance of 36,625 or 66.6% of total capacity. Athletic Director Todd Stansbury and Collins were dismissed four games into the 2022 season with yet another home shutout (this time to Ole Miss) under Collins’ belt, leading to interim head coach Brent Key’s 4-4 record to close out the season with dramatic upset wins over #22 Pitt and #13 UNC as well as an overtime homecoming victory against Duke. While lively, crowds remained small throughout the season: the reported attendance at homecoming against Duke was a meager 32,041, the smallest homecoming audience since 1983. Key made a plea to Jackets fans to show out at the Thursday night UVA game after homecoming, crediting the student section for the overtime victory at homecoming. “We need a great crowd on Thursday night to really help these kids and motivate these kids and show them that everyone’s behind them in their quest to be successful Thursday night.” 

Despite this call for support, the UVA game (a 16-9 loss) drew the smallest crowd since a 1983 Thursday night game (also against UVA).

Tech’s attendance struggles are not going unnoticed by students, either. Third-year CS Shail Patel said that while the north end zone student section was always lively, he “always noticed empty seats” in the other end zone and the eastern sideline.

Patel was a student season ticket holder for the 2022 season, and attended every home game except the opener against Western Carolina. Patel noted that many students left games before they ended, and he even did the same for Clemson, Ole Miss and Miami. “For Ole Miss and Miami, I didn’t [stay] because they were blowouts… But Ole Miss I left closer to halftime, I stayed longer for Miami and Clemson.”

The product on-field was a major reason for Patel to attend and stay the entirety of the game. However, third-year BMED Anjali Patel cited the energy of the student section as her main reason for coming to games: “I go because the student section is super fun … they like to heckle and shout ridiculous things, which is fun and kind of stress relieving.”

Anjali Patel noted that she too left early during the Ole Miss game. “… We were so bad I left at the beginning of the 4th quarter or the beginning of the 3rd.”

While Tech saw the worst year-over-year drop in average attendance percentage in the ACC from 2021 to 2022, Tech is far from alone in its attendance woes. After Tech, the next lowest was Louisville with a 5.17% drop, followed by UVA with a 4.14% drop. However, Tech and Louisville are the only two programs in the conference who have seen continuous drops since the 2020 season, when Louisville posted a 25% reduction in average attendance from 2020 to 2021 and Tech reported a 12% decrease.

Duke and Syracuse also reported average attendance percent drops from 2020 to 2021 at 24% and 18% respectively. However, their average attendance rebounded year-over-year from 2021 to 2022, demonstrating increases of 25.78% in the case of Syracuse and 58.87% in the case of Duke. This went hand-in-hand with the football performances of each team, with both teams finishing stronger than anticipated at the start of the season — Syracuse finished third in the Atlantic division with a 6-7 overall record while Duke placed second in the Coastal and went 9-4.

Improvement of the football team is a drawing factor for many fans, and for Tech students can mean the difference between attending games or doing homework and studying. For alumni and casual fans, however, cost is a significant factor. Discounted season tickets start at $355, and $385 for seats in “premium areas,” which can still be cost-prohibitive for young professionals living in or around metro Atlanta, where the median rent is over $2,000 according to Zillow.

The Institute has not left the issue untouched, however. The 2022 season brought with it a partnership with Atlanta-based New Realm Brewing Co., which produced the Helluvienna Lager, the proclaimed official beer of Tech Athletics. This partnership was made to entice fans to games, where the beer debuted. 

Athletics also encourages student organizations to show up and show out at home football games by implementing block seating for them. Greek organizations are one such category of organization. Fifth-year CS Justin Wurst said that Athletics rewards organizations (like fraternities and sororities) by assigning better block locations for more involved chapters. “The better numbers you have and have had, the better location you get to be in.”

Wurst said that while his fraternity, Alpha Sigma Phi, doesn’t have a policy encouraging attendance at home football games or game day tailgates (the latter due to IFC regulations around alcohol), “… the on-field product is always more fun to watch with good company.”

Proximity to the stadium is a big reason for Wurst and other members of the fraternity to attend in person. “People don’t usually watch the game at the house if it’s a 5 minute walk.”

Another way Tech administration demonstrated their desire to bring fans into the stadium was through leadership changes in Athletics, primarily through the dismissal of Stansbury and Coach Collins. 

“New leadership will give our athletes, coaching staff and program, a necessary change in focus and direction,” said Cabrera in a press conference.

“Of course, we feel that the excitement surrounding Coach Key and how the team performed under his leadership last year will be a positive factor as we look towards the 2023 football season,” new Athletic Director J Batt said in an email statement to the Technique.

Shail Patel agreed with Batt’s statement. “I think people are more confident in Key this season to build a winning culture than last season because of Geoff Collins and the midseason switch.”

Anjali Patel was more cautious in her optimism. 

“Key showed he could make use of the team better than Collins, but he’s not shown what kind of coach he really is yet. If next season sees more wins, there will definitely be more attendance.”

Despite these efforts, declining attendance at Georgia Tech’s home football games remains a problem that the program is struggling to address. It is a complex issue with no easy solutions, and it is likely that the Tech football program will continue to face challenges in the years ahead. The Jackets face Louisville on Sept. 2 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.