A longstanding point of fragility facing university athletic departments relates to the success of their teams. Simply put, when teams win, fans attend games and support their programs in a variety of ways. But when teams experience rough stretches, fan support diminishes. Athletic department budgets are especially tied to the success of their football teams. Even though men’s basketball provides revenue and other sports such as hockey can also finish in the black, football is the vehicle that supports broad-based programming at Autonomy 5 Schools. At Wisconsin, for example, more than two-thirds of the athletic department’s overall ticket revenue comes from its football program.
A few key player injuries, a change in coach, and a range of other factors can quickly undercut a team’s success – even at the most storied of universities. The University of Southern California (USC) built what seemed to be an unstoppable football dynasty under coach Pete Carroll when, on seven occasions between 2001 and 2009, the Trojans won their conference and finished the season ranked in the top five nationally. USC sold out the L.A. Coliseum and averaged 91,000 fans per game during that stretch. Carroll left USC to coach the Seattle Seahawks in 2010 and since that time the football team has not won a conference title. Attendance plummeted each season – all the way down to an average crowd of only 68,000 during the 2016 season.
Football attendance in the Big Ten Conference is also closely linked with success. While it is not surprising to see Michigan and Ohio State at the top of yearly attendance, faltering teams reveal less dependable fan bases at other schools. Purdue filled merely 60% of the seats at Ross-Ade Stadium in 2016. The raucous crowds that flocked to West Lafayette from 1997-2008 when Coach Joe Tiller’s teams qualified for ten postseason bowl games, including the 2001 Rose Bowl, quickly diminished as Purdue won merely 31 of 98 games under other coaches between 2009 and 2016 (refer to photos below). Many Wisconsin fans cannot recall having gone through a similar plight, but prior to 1990, Camp Randall Stadium was itself often less than half full and there were less than 20,000 season ticket holders as Badger teams often struggled to win. Leaders I have interviewed over the past three years stress how present this potential of attendance drop is. Just as Purdue’s average attendance dropped by over 13,000 fans per game between the 2013 and 2014 seasons, Wisconsin and other schools are vulnerable to significant decreases in revenue when their profit-generating teams lose. Even a 9% drop in attendance at football games at Camp Randall Stadium (which is what USC experienced between 2015 and 2016) would result in a loss of more than $2 million over the course of one season.
This is a conservative estimate. Consider the compounding effects of shrinking attendance. Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman explained to the Chicago Tribune, “Our biggest source of untapped revenue right now is you see 20,000 empty seats in our football stadium and 5,000 empty seats in the basketball arena and that represents ticket revenue, concessions, parking, private donations, merchandise. There’s probably $10 to $15 million in revenue per year that we’re leaving on the table by not having the success that we need in those two priority spots.”