Conference USA football can celebrate placing a record nine teams in bowl games this season, but there’s little joy for the league when you consider fan interest.
The disappointing crowd in Boca Raton for Saturday’s C-USA title game reinforces a worrying trend. The conference announced 14,258 at FAU Stadium, but the actual figure appeared to be significantly lower.
When the title game was played at WKU in Bowling Green a year ago, C-USA announced a crowd of 13,213. The actual attendance may have been half that figure.
Lane Kiffin’s successful first season at FAU provided national buzz for the program and conference, but that didn’t deliver big crowds. A year after averaging 10,073 fans, FAU jumped to 18,568.
In general, South Florida doesn’t support college sports well. FIU’s average attendance of 16,196 is laughable when you consider there might have been 2,500 on hand for the Panthers’ final home game against UMass this past Saturday.
When schools like WKU and FAU are good in football, it’s bad for the conference. Fewer and fewer fans are invested in their programs and that general apathy is having an impact across C-USA.
Aside from UAB, FAU, Old Dominion and North Texas, much of Conference USA saw a dip in attendance this season.
Huntington and Hattiesburg
Despite having respectable seasons and earning bowl bids, the attendance numbers at Southern Miss and Marshall took a significant drop.
USM led C-USA in average attendance last year at 28,588. This year, games in Hattiesburg dropped to 21,711. That’s partly explained due to inflated figures that were produced under prior administrations and the distribution of fewer free tickets, but there is no denying there were more empty seats at Roberts Stadium this year. The crowd of 22,761 for USM’s season opener against Kentucky is still baffling.
Marshall finished second in C-USA behind USM in attendance last year at 24,760, but that figure dropped to 22,417 despite finishing 7-5 after going 3-9 in 2016.
When Marshall and Southern Miss see waning crowds for no particular reason, that should be a major warning sign for the rest of Conference USA.
Apathy has become contagious.
Energized by the revival of its football program and an 8-4 campaign, UAB led C-USA in attendance this year at 28,749. UTSA finished second at 22,821 — a slight drop from last year.
What also has to be taken into account is that several of C-USA’s members announce official attendance numbers that appear to be well in excess of actual crowds. FIU, Middle Tennessee, Rice and Louisiana Tech can fall in this category.
Conference USA is not alone in its attendance struggles. There are signs of smaller crowds at many Group of Five programs, but the drop in C-USA seems more pronounced.
Shut it down
With less TV money coming in and the cost of travel still an issue, you can’t help but come to the conclusion that the conference is in a failing model.
It’s nice that C-USA was a more competitive football league this year, but there’s no denying the 14-school lineup is geographically awkward and doesn’t instill much confidence for the long-term future. A volleyball team should not have to travel from Norfolk, Virginia, to El Paso, Texas, to play a game.
There are increasing rumblings among C-USA athletic directors that changes are necessary.
New USM athletic director Jon Gilbert is among those who are open to suggestions, saying earlier this year, “I think that the idea of a regionally based conference probably warrants discussion.”
MTSU athletic director Chris Massaro told The Virginian Pilot in April that “It’s inevitable that there’s going to be some kind of consolidation among the Group of Five.”
The best solution is for Conference USA and the Sun Belt to both dissolve and allow the schools to form two or three regional leagues. This will cut down on travel and help build more regional rivalries.
Conference USA had its heyday, but it’s time to move on and create something that makes more sense to its members.