When Minnesota hosted Nebraska at TCF Bank Stadium last year, the game featured charismatic new Golden Gophers coach P.J. Fleck, a home team fighting for a bowl berth and a big-name opponent. The announced attendance was 39,933—an OK crowd for a crisp November day in Minneapolis—but it didn’t tell the whole story.
Only 25,493 ticketed fans were counted at the gates, 36% lower than the announced attendance and about half of the stadium’s capacity. More than 14,000 people who bought tickets or got them free didn’t show up.
College football has an attendance problem. Average announced attendance in football’s top division dropped for the fourth consecutive year last year, declining 7.6% in four years. But schools’ internal records show that the sport’s attendance woes go far beyond that.
The average count of tickets scanned at home games—the number of fans who actually show up—is about 71% of the attendance you see in a box score, according to data from the 2017 season collected by The Wall Street Journal. In the Mid-American Conference, with less-prominent programs like Central Michigan and Toledo, teams’ scanned attendance numbers were 45% of announced attendance.