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.
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.