Low Championship Attendance Cause for Concern
I expected more traffic, but the flow heading into Gillette Stadium each morning of men's championship weekend in Foxborough, Mass., had a similar feel of minor rubbernecking for a disabled car on the highway. Normally this would be no reason to complain, but I can't help but think about it when reflecting on the attendance numbers from the three-day weekend.
The 79,595 combined attendance was the lowest for the event since 2002, the last time it was held in non-NFL venue (Rutgers). The three-day figure represents nearly 20,000 fewer fans than the crowds at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium just last year, and about 43,000 fewer than the all-time high at Baltimore during Memorial Day weekend 2007. This year's combined number is more than 10,000 smaller than that of the first NFL-venue championships in 2003.
Monday's headlined game between Loyola and Maryland drew 30,816, the lowest of the stadium era by about 5,000. The number of people who attended this year's final was 18,000 fewer than the championship in the very same venue in Foxborough in 2008.
It's difficult to pinpoint one reason for the low numbers, just as its equally hard to ignore the general decline of championship weekend attendance since '07, when 123,225 fans passed through the gates in three days at M&T Bank Stadium. Until that point, numbers had grown each year since '03. They've gone down every year following. D-I championship game attendance has decreased each year since 2008.
There are a variety of factors to consider: location, the economy and ticket prices, television, participating teams, date and time, and the pace of play discussion, among them.
It was painful irony for event organizers that Loyola and Maryland, two schools located 35 miles apart in the Mid-Atlantic, ended up playing for the D-I championship a seven-hour drive or a plane flight away from their Baltimore-area bases. Surely if the game was played in Baltimore a bigger crowd would have showed. Plus, of the eight teams participating across all divisions, D-II Dowling was the closest championship weekend participant geographically, and the school is located on the south shore of Long Island, which is either a drive through New York City or a a drive and ferry ride across the Long Island Sound from Foxborough. Having a team with a large, dedicated traveling fan base like Syracuse likely would have helped.
But that alone wouldn't have been enough to reverse six years of downward trending figures. Surely you can't hope that local teams are always playing within reasonable driving distance of where a neutral-site tournament is located.
The steady decline should cause the NCAA to pause when it considers where and how it puts on the final four beyond the next two years it has already announced: Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field in 2013 and Baltimore's M&T in 2014. The 2015 and 2016 sites will be announced in the summer of 2013.
Clearly fans are questioning the value of the price of travel and admission to what should be one of the biggest celebrations of the sport. Just because it's put in a football stadium doesn't mean a great atmosphere and experience automatically shows up with the location. In general, there needs to be compelling arguments made for fans to show up rather than watch the games on TV, saving time and money.
Smaller venues perhaps? It's an opinion to consider. Call me old-timey, but I love the atmosphere of a big-time event on a college campus or in a smaller venue that is packed. Or, what about similar-sized venues in new places, where some fans may have never had a final four experience just yet?
I'm going to leave out possibilities if I start naming names, but Denver is one to look at. The sport has caught on quick and fans have been attracted to college and MLL games at Invesco Field at Mile High, and have been known to sell out Denver's big-time home games by early in game week. The 2014 FIL World Championships, hosted by US Lacrosse, will be held in Denver.
The Meadowlands should also be in the mix. In Northern New Jersey, the stadium is located pretty much in the middle all the traditional hotbeds of the sport. And for all of the lacrosse that is played in tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, there is a rabid local fan base that I think would come out to watch a premier lacrosse event, no matter the teams participating. New York loves to put on and enjoy a show.
The last four Big City Classic men's college tripleheaders held at the Meadowlands are the four highest attended regular-season Division I lacrosse-only, single-day events ever. Yes, that's a lot of qualifiers, but it's a good thing. They could draw even more, and maybe a final four would do it.
Or, is the problem plainly the date of the event, on a Memorial Day holiday weekend? I don't necessarily agree with this. If fans want to make the final four an annual part of their holiday plans, they will. Are the games just not exciting enough?
There are plenty of questions, and I don't have all the answers. It's also difficult for me, as a media member over the weekend working mainly in press rooms, to fully evaluate the fan experience immediately (Leave some comments below if you have them). I thought the restaurants surrounding Gillette Stadium, at Patriot Place, were more than satisfactory options. And I saw people tailgating before the games, but there was a lot of empty space in the parking lots, too.
Let's not blame the people that were there, but the numbers don't lie. Some change is needed.