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The Buffet Experience

Suspend disbelief for a moment, and pretend that college football fans are patrons of a particular restaurant.

This restaurant has a straight menu with but just one main entree and a few sides.  But, the restaurant also has a buffet with a range of items.

In the world of college football, most patrons' existence dictates that their dining choice is made from the menu.  It's what is available and entirely inoffensive.  There is nothing wrong with the menu, but it's just one version of the dining experience.

pizza hut.jpg
Hmm... should I have pizza?  Or pizza? 

For a distinct handful of restaurant patrons, however, their world is the buffet.  They have many choices, many distractions, and very often return to the same menu item the other patrons order, but they have been exposed to the buffet and it alters their dining experience.

Where am I going with this?

Well, this is where I am going.

Randomly flipping through the Phil Steele football guide, my gaze landed upon pages 108-109: the Miami Hurricanes. In the jumble of fascinating facts and Phil's fearless forecasts about the 'canes was a stunning statistic that my eyes could hardly believe: average attendance. Playing in the storied 72,000-seat Orange Bowl, benefiting from some of the best weather on Earth, and having one of college football's finest programs to watch, just a little more than 45,000 fans showed up to the typical Miami game last season.

Spartan Bob sounds amazed that Miami could draw but 45,000 fans to its stadium for home football games last year.

He shouldn't be.

Miami is simply one of America's most populated and cosmopolitan cities.  It's identity isn't deeply connected to the local university nor the sport of college football.  Or any sport for that matter.

Miami---the city and the university---are a rarity in the college football world.  It is a buffet school and a buffet town.

I've previously discussed on here the fascinating regionalism, local-pride whatever you want to call it aspect to college football.  The majority of teams sit squarely within "college towns".  The university is the cultural and social life for that town and its surrounding communities (think Eugene, Oregon or Ann Arbor, Michigan or Austin, Texas or State College, Pennsylvania).  They could sleepwalk through the better part of a decade and still fill the stadiums.  Their fan base is primarily made up of fans who order off the menu.

By virtue of this, football attendance is remarkably high at such schools, let's call them the menu schools.  And the negative holds true for buffet schools (USC, UCLA, Washington, California, Stanford and Northwestern to some extent).  There is simply less area connection to the school and thus less reliable attendance.

Additionally, I'll introduce this concept: entertainment competition.

Several years ago I used to play a computer game---the name of which I've long forgotten--- called Front Office Football which was a micromanager's dream.  It created a setup for the player to manage all aspects of an NFL team, from personnel to ticket prices to negotiating contracts to everything else you could imagine.

One game trend that always stuck with me was how difficult it was to attract fans (and thus, revenue) for clubs in certain cities.  Namely, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami.  I could do the impossible and manufacture two Super Bowl wins in four seasons, make the playoffs each year, and still not attract great numbers of fans in those cities.  Meanwhile, Green Bay or Buffalo could be wallowing in misery but play to 110 per cent capacity.

The game had a name for this dilemma: entertainment competition.  Basically, in those cities, there's a lot going on.  The locals were not wedded to the team when they could just as easily be at the Rainbow Room for a Sunday night dinner or a skiiing weekend at Big Bear or spending a weekend in the Keys or a million other things.  They're living in a buffet world whereas many of us are ordering off the limited menu.

They don't have topless beaches in Knoxville...

The game's creators had jumped on something many of us conveniently ignore in typical partisan fashion: big, happening cities do not automatically mean big attendance.

We see this reflected in pro sports quite well.  I remember reading about the empty seats at Miami Heat games the last two seasons, despite having two superstars in Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal on the team.  The Miami Dolphins have quality attendance most years but even they've faced criticism over weak attendance at times.  As great as Cub fans are, Wrigley Field is rarely sold out despite a relatively small capacity of 40,000 seats.

If you've ever lived in Los Angeles for any amount of time, you know how die-hard the Dodger fans are.  But if you visit Dodger stadium, you'd notice there are many nights where plenty of great seats are available.  Cynics say it's the typical L.A. fan.  I say it's big city life.

There are exceptions one can bring up (New York Yankee attendance?), but then, they're exceptions and not the rule.

Depressed attendance figures present themselves in various spots in college football: namely San Francisco, Seattle, Miami, Los Angeles and Chicago.  The San Francisco (Cal, Stanford) and Chicago (Northwestern) teams have some excuse with the fairly sad histories of their college football teams, but what about Seattle (home to the University of Washington), Miami and Los Angeles (USC and UCLA)?

All of those schools have top 20 historic tradition and success.  The fans should be there but aren't quite to the same level of other programs.  I think it's all due to the factor of entertainment competition and energetic city life.  That isn't to say these schools don't have great attendance at times (USC's averaging 90,000 fans of late, and Washington used to play to raucous capacity crowds), but it's always a fight to get butts in the seats.

If you had substituted say, Michigan or Ohio State and all their tradition for USC or Washington, simply switched cities many years ago---the exact same attendance dilemma would have played out.  People would have wrongly accused the Buckeye and Wolverines of having sorry fan bases.  But it's simply an American phenomena at work.

I'd like to add one final observation about Miami.  Their attendance numbers are impressively low, but another factor may be at work.  They've become a version of baseball's Atlanta Braves with over two decades of nearly uninterrupted annual success.  The fans have grown entirely accustomed to winning and as a result, attendance is sometimes woeful.  Watch playoff attendance the next time the Braves are playing in October, and compare it to the attendance of some upstart team that's never been a part of that kind of success (Padres vs. Braves in 1998 comes to mind).  That says it all.

I've seen this up close, having lived in some outposts but also experiencing big city life.  My experience tells me fans are fans no matter where they are, but the attendance thing gets quirky when a handful of prominent cities are involved. 

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Reader Comments (13)

Miami is definately unlike any place in the USA. I love it though and hope to get back there at some point.

I saw the US play Argentina in soccer at the Orange Bowl in 2003 in February.

My eyes are still thanking me for exposing them to so many beautiful Argentinian women.
July 3, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterNico

The more happenin', worldly cities just have a lot going on from the physical attractions (and distractions) to the environmental ones.
July 3, 2006 | Registered CommenterCFR
Good point, and if you add in the relative size of UM student body + Alumni it's not surprising at all
July 3, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterphillycane
I agree that increased entertainment options can reduce attendance, but would posit that other athletic teams need to have a modicum of success to distract from a winning college team. Take Cal as an example, attendance is on the rise. While this can be attributed to increased success, it also relates to decreased success of the local Pro organizations.
July 3, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick
Nice try, but I don't buy it.

I've been to Miami -- specifically Miami Beach during Spring Break. Trust me, I get the 'distractions' part.

However, it's a big city surounded by other big cities. Filling 72,000 seats within 90% of capacity for what is easily one of the top five (or better?) teams over the last five, ten and twenty years (take your pick) should not be an issue.

For comparison, consider Hawaii, which regularly draws just a bit less than the 'canes, but has much less success and much, much less population to draw on. And, to put it mildly, it has at least as much available on the 'buffet' as Miami. And, due to location and travel costs, Hawaii plays more home games than anybody else.

Also, the other places mentioned (USC, UCLA Washington, etc...) all pick up when the team does well. Indeed, Washington is well over 80% capacity in spite of its present troubles.

Finally, there are the other two power teams in Florida (FL ST and Florida) which pack the joint. Even South Florida (oddly placed in Tampa) is starting to do well. Not quite comparable in entertainment options to Miami, but nowhere near the same sized cities either.

I would grant the point if this were a blip in attendance for a team that generally plays well but not always, playing in a city with lots of other options. There is something to the 'buffet' analogy. But this is more than that: a total abandonment of fans nearly every year for a team that is regularly competing for a national championship.

Name one other team that could play that well and get that ignored by the home crowd. I don't think there is one.

July 3, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterSpartan Bob
Excellent post. 20-25 years ago, ASU packed Sun Devil Stadium, regularly averaging 95-98% of capacity no matter who the opponent or how the team was doing -- and that was while the Phoenix metro area was still fairly small...but with only one other major sports/entertainment option (the Phoenix Suns).

Fast forward to today, Phoenix is one of the 6 largest cities in the country and still growing by leaps and bounds. However, there are teams in all the major pro sports, plus assorted minor league or niche sports like Arena Football, WNBA, Cactus League Baseball, etc. ASU has seen its attendance slump over that same time, to the point where for early season C level non conference games when it's still blazing hot even at night, it's not uncommon to see 20,000 empty seats at kickoff. There's just too many other options for not only sports, but also just the multitude of options that exist when you live in a vibrant, major city.

Meanwhile, Tucson to the south still manages to get pretty good attendence, even as their team has averaged 3-5 wins a year the last half dozen years, because there simply isn't much to do there that isn't connected to the school and it's remained more of a "college town" than the area surrounding ASU.
July 3, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMark
Spartan Bob,

Have you been to Gainesville and Tallahassee?

I have. They are most certainly college towns, nothing like Miami whatsoever other than sharing the same state. There's just not a lot going on besides the universities. All the locals are invested in the college and the team and with large graduating classes from mostly locals, the attendance pool has great numbers to draw from.

As noted by another reader above, Miami is a very tiny private university. Its alums also come from all over America, so the local attendance numbers from alums is further diluted.

And with Miami it's not just about South Beach. It's being a Grade A cosmopolitan city. There are only a few in America like that: New York, Chicago (sort of), Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, Miami, San Diego (sort of). They all share the same college and pro attendance issues.

Every city has its attractions, but the options are nearly unlimited in those types of cities. Culturally the population is less devoted to sports teams and socially, the population is much more fluid. You find less "locals" and more "transplants" with loyalties to other places.

The Average Angelino or resident of Miami isn't invested in the USC/UCLA thing or the Miami/Florida State thing the way nearly every person in East Lansing has a deep awareness of what's going on with Michigan State/Michigan. They sort of have to, since it's a college town and its entire identity and existence is owed to the university.

I read the book Cane Mutiny by Bruce Feldman about a year ago, and the sad story of Miami football is that it was a complete disgrace before Schnellenberger arrived. The true locals had long ago given up on the program (the program had more or less given up on itself) and the future years of winning could only do so much to inspire a wide number of long-established locals who had never forgotten the team's terrible ways.

Think about the Florida Marlin fans. That team could be in the next five world series and the fans would simply never return for regular season games. They have been burned, and many Miami locals were just as burned.

The difference between say, Miami and Florida State locals is that Miami folks could find a wider variety of ways to invest their time and energies besides the football team. Many in Tallahassee simply had no choice but to wait out the football team.

Different worlds, different fan behavior and we see it repeated in those handful of very unique fan cities.
July 3, 2006 | Registered CommenterCFR
This may be an over simplification, but it is something to think about.

59% of Miami residents were born outside of the United States, 75% of its residents speak a language other than English at home. The City of Miami has three official languages: English, Spanish and Haitian-Creole.

The majority of the city's residents don't come from football cultures, they come from futbol cultures (and baseball cultures).

Also, not as many away fans travel to football games at Miami because of its geographic isolation. It's closest conference mate (Florida State) is 470 miles away. Georgia Tech is 660 miles away, Clemson is 812 miles away (you get the picture).

Simply put, Miami is just different from the rest of the US (there aren't too many other places you can meet Vietnamese girls that speak Spanish!) Heck, it's one of Latin America's most important cities. A Nicaraguan presidential candidate was campaigning there recently!

After spending several weeks in Miami a few years ago with a friend of mine who was a professor at Florida International, I don't find it shocking at all that they don't sell out their games.
July 3, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterNico

Their attedance is getting better, but it's still nothing to write home about. Last year, I went to the USF v. Louisville game and it was <a href="http://ultimatefootballproject.com/?p=6">the biggest home crowd in USF history</a> at 33,500 (51% capacity.)

Their home game against West Virginia may have topped that, but they're still pulling sub-50% on a regular basis in a stadium that only seats 65K and some change.
July 3, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterNico
USF over 93% capacity, average game last season, according to NCAA:

Stanford, having crappy season on top of crappy season, shares SF crowd with both Cal and San Jose State, is also a delightfully cosmopolitan city of hardworking people from all over the Earth with no football background (even more so than Miami). And Stanford drew more than 43k to average game last year -- just a smidge worse than mighty Miami.

Meanwhile, Cal, now winning regularly, draws about 60k per game -- a fan base that most NFL teams would envy. Care to bet that Stanford wouldn't do the same if they made it to a bowl game?

Washington does draw well, even when they suck (64k per game last year). So the Seattle thing doesn't compare either.

USC, UCLA, both having good years last year. 91k and 64k per game, respectively.

In 2000, UCLA went 6-6 and drew 67k per game. They were coming off a 4-7 year in 1999.

Chicago is a Notre Dame town, with the religious cultural affinity meshing perfectly with the team. There's pretty much nothing else like it. So far as attendance goes, Northwestern is to Notre Dame what Florida Atlantic and Florida International are to Miami.

San Diego State is underperforming massively, yet still gets 36k per game last year. They play in the same facility the Chargers do. If Chuck Long gets them winning, they will sell more tickets.

That leaves only New York -- which does not have a 1A team. Maybe for the reasons you suggest (it wouldn't draw well due to competition). Possibly also that the space needed for a team would be prohibitively expensive there. Even the NFL teams play in Jersey.

They do have a few decent schools in NYC -- NYU being one quite large example. Yet, no football team.

Miami is unique from every other place in the college football universe. Big winning team, pathetic fan support. You may be right about the reasons. SOMETHING accounts for this afterall.

I do wonder why this is economically worthwhile. Maybe they shouldn't have bothered building such a team. Or, even more fun, maybe they should just ditch the cost of the stadium and cut a deal with the ACC and the OOC opponents to play all road games and divide up the proceeds accordingly. That would be entertaining.
July 4, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterSpartan Bob
The USF capacity percentage is so high because they don't open the upper decks for their games and only count the lower bowl for their capacity.

Ahh, nothing like good 'ol creative accounting.
July 5, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterNico
It is not just sports. I work in the concert business, and it never ceases to amaze me that a band will draw 1000 people in LA, but will draw nearly the name numbers to a tiny town like Laurence Kansas. Entertainment competition is a huge factor. Also LA, Miami and Phoenix have so many transplants here it is amazing. When the Yankees or cubs come to town the baseball stadiums fill up with fans of the road team, yet there are not that many people making the road trip. Those people now live here (How come the midwest is never questioned for its commitment to their towns if they all move out west?)

It is rare to find a West Coast person who relocates to Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Alabama or well, about 45 other states. Yet the streets of LA overflow with transplants from all over the world. It makes me laugh when others mock LA for being full of freaks and nuts...they all came from your towns, you should thank us for taking them off your hands!
July 16, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterdc
Good points DC.

The transplants thing is amazing in California sporting events. I've been to many a NFL and MLB game where a significant portion of a large crowd is for the various Midwest and East Coast road teams.

People just don't know.
July 17, 2006 | Registered CommenterCFR

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