August 12, 2013

Summer Reading: Looking at Final Four Attendance Issue

by Corey McLaughlin | | Twitter | McLaughlin Archive

Since seeing attendance boom to a record three-day total of 123,225 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore in 2007, NCAA championship weekend attendance has dipped below 80,000 in each of the last two seasons in Philadelphia and Foxborough (above).
© Kevin P. Tucker

How do you fix an attendance issue?

That's the question the NCAA is tackling this month as it addresses a six-year trend of declining attendance at college lacrosse's signature event: men's championship weekend.

Beginning in 2003, the crown jewel of May Madness has been set in a Mid-Atlantic or Northeast NFL stadium, rotating among M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia and Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. The Division I men's semifinals and final and Divisions II and III title games have traditionally been played over the three-day Memorial Day weekend.

Weekend attendance boomed for the first five years of the NFL stadium era to a record high of 123,225 in Baltimore in 2007, but has since dipped below 80,000 in each of the last two seasons in Philadelphia and Foxborough.

The 2014 men's championships will be held May 24-26 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, but sites for 2015 and beyond have not yet been announced. The NCAA began accepting bids for 2015-18 in mid-July and the intention to bid deadline was Friday. 

The committee that oversees championships will meet this month to discuss the attendance decline as part of its annual review. That same committee will comb over bids through September and future sites will be announced in December.

While the NCAA isn't "running away" from NFL stadiums, said NCAA associate director of championships and alliances Anthony Holman, the committee, which includes coaches and administrators, will consider non-NFL venues. The NCAA's bid specifications require a 40,000 minimum seating capacity, but Holman said the committee will be open to receiving bids from venues with fewer if there are other options, like club level seating and suites, that may make them viable.

"Folks that are bidding may notice some flexibility in the financial model that will be considered," Holman said. "While we have not decreased the minimum seating capacity, we've made it clear to venues that are not NFL stadiums, but can accommodate 25,000-30,000 seats — which is typically around the number we have for any single session — that there might be an opportunity for them as well. Those things certainly are a reflection of where the championship is right now, and also provide some flexibility and opportunities for some venues or cities that may have not expressed interest previously."

Holman also said ticket prices, the date of the event, the impact of increased television exposure and a tough economy will all be evaluated.

The Intercollegiate Men's Lacrosse Coaches Association (IMLCA) on Aug. 3 submitted to the NCAA committee a position paper with five recommendations to boost championship attendance (Full document available here). Ideas from that paper will also be considered, Holman said.

This year's Division I final attendance (28,224) and semifinal number (28,444) was the lowest of the NFL stadium era. The semifinals also drew about 2,000 fewer fans than the 1995 and 1997 semifinals at Maryland's Byrd Stadium.

Perhaps college lacrosse's grandest stage will move back to a college campus.

"We'd be open to [a non-NFL venue], but we're not running from an NFL stadium either," Holman said. "We feel that if you ask our student-athletes, which we do, that playing in front of 29,000-30,000 on Monday of Memorial Day or a semifinal game is pretty exciting. We don't feel like that's been a failure in any means."

Here's a closer look at some of the factors the committee will evaluate:

Ticket Prices/Economy

Ticket prices, which have roughly doubled in the last eight years, are a good place for the committee to start.

As reported in stories by Inside Lacrosse and Bloomberg on the topic, the cheapest all-session ticket in Philadelphia this year was $85, with a $60 ticket for groups of 20 or more. That was up from $35 for an all-session pass and $25 for groups of 20 or more at the identical venue in 2006. In 2003, the first time the event was held at an NFL stadium, the cheapest all-session ticket was $40. Club tickets more than doubled since 2006, going from $60 to $135.

And that's the just the start, with food, parking and hotel as needed expenses for individuals and families who want to stay throughout what is a three-day event. The attendance drop also has correlated with the U.S. economy crisis that hit a low in 2009.

Denver coach Bill Tierney, left, with assistant Matt Brown, has led the Pioneers to two of the last three NCAA final fours, and Tierney also led Princeton to 10 national semifinals. He said "ticket prices have gotten crazy."
© Marc Piscotty

The larger issue is that ticket prices, in past bid cycles, have been set as a result of revenue guarantees by hosts to the NCAA. The IMLCA referenced this in the second paragraph of its position paper, noting that it was not privileged to the actual figures. A change in the financial model could help.

"The big football stadiums started offering the NCAA a sizable guarantee to get the event because it was up to 45,000-50,000, at least when it hit its peak," Denver coach Bill Tierney said in an interview earlier this summer. "That was a good payday. Everybody was under the somewhat-false impression that that was the trend -- that attendance was going to keep going up and up and up, and everybody's money was going to keep going up. The truth of the matter is those guarantees got a little exorbitant and it meant ticket prices got exorbitant."

Tierney, based on feedback he's received, said families may have decided that NCAA quarterfinal doubleheaders at campus sites are a more reasonable, cheaper option to see high-level lacrosse, rather than face higher prices at a final four city combined with travel over Memorial Day weekend.

Aside from this last year's quarterfinals in a new, non-traditional market in Indianapolis (7,749 fans) and Maryland's Byrd Stadium (3,939, and the Terps didn't play), quarterfinal attendance has been strong. Average quarterfinal attendance from 2008-2012 was 11,655, with eight of 10 doubleheaders in that span drawing at least 10,000 spectators. The 2011 quarterfinals at Foxborough, featuring Maryland-Syracuse and Notre Dame-Duke, drew the most (14,122), just about half of the championship game attendance this year in Philadelphia.

"Ticket prices have gotten crazy, and it's not just the tickets. It's hotel, the food at some of these venues," said Tierney, who also thinks increased television exposure, final four matchups involving less traditionally marquee lacrosse programs (such as his own Denver squad and 2012 NCAA champ Loyola) and youth participation growth (leading to potential conflicts over Memorial Day weekend) are primary factors in the attendance drop.

"There's so many things involved," he said. "It's goodness that's brought on temporary badness. When ticket prices become a little bit more reasonable, maybe the time and sites change a little bit, I don't know the answer, but I know that's the feedback I get from families."

Another factor that often is brought up is the lack of "big draw" teams, those with a traveling fan base like Syracuse. After being absent from championship weekend for three straight years, the Orange made an appearance this May. But this year's final four, which included Syracuse on both semifinal Saturday and championship Monday, had record-low numbers for the NFL stadium era.

There are two ways to look at it: Either Syracuse's presence didn't help attendance enough, or numbers would have been even lower without the Orange, considering two of the other final four participants, Duke and Denver, drew from considerably smaller fan bases. You could even go so far as to say that because Syracuse reached the men's basketball final four in April and made a college football bowl game in December, Orange fans were less likely to travel for lacrosse in May.

"Overall, if you look at entertainment and sports dollars and the downward turn of the economy, families have less disposable income to spend on entertainment," Holman said.

Television Exposure

Increased, quality television exposure for the sport often is cited as a reason for the championship weekend attendance decline. But ESPN's ratings numbers from the last seven championships don't bear that out. Here are the number of NCAA championship game television viewers, as provided by ESPN, compared to announced attendance at the stadiums:

Year Site Teams Attendance Viewers
2007 Baltimore Johns Hopkins-Duke 48,443 855,000
2008 Foxborough Syracuse-Johns Hopkins 48,970 695,000
2009 Foxborough Syracuse-Cornell 41,935 683,000
2010 Baltimore Duke-Notre Dame 37,126 711,000
2011 Baltimore Virginia-Maryland 35,661 681,000
2012 Foxborough Loyola-Maryland 30,816 503,000
2013 Philadelphia Duke-Syracuse 28,224 688,000




It's not as simple as saying less people are going to the games and more are watching on television. In fact, ESPN's most viewed championship game was the second-highest attended in championship history.

"It's our goal to have as many people watch on TV as possible. What seems inconclusive is any correlation between a pretty precipitous drop in attendance and our ratings," ESPN coordinating producer John Vassallo said. "If the correlation to TV was at the root of this issue, then our ratings would be going up year over year incrementally with the attendance drop."

But that's not to say TV does not play some sort of role. With a host of other mitigating factors in play — such as ticket prices, the date and time of the event, teams involved and the weather — there always is the fallback of knowing the games will be on television.

What is causing the final four attendance drop?
Ticket prices
The economy
TV exposure - Championship weekend
TV exposure - Regular season
The date(s)
Quarterfinals are better option
Something else

View Results

"Let's say there were no games on TV, and yet we had this growth [of the sport] — and I don't know if there could be that growth without TV, but lets say there was none — people would still go even with the ticket prices," Tierney said.

It's difficult to quantify the impact of more regular-season games on television than ever before. The championship, in a bygone era, was the only time an extended nationwide audience could view high-level lacrosse on television. That's not the case anymore.

ESPN broadcast 35 regular-season games this past season that averaged 51,000 viewers across three ESPN channels, and also broadcast all 15 NCAA men's tournament games for the seventh consecutive year. CBS Sports Network has stepped up its coverage, including Patriot League regular-season and postseason games. Technology advances and increased media attention in general also have made it easier to keep track of scores and news.

One thing is clear: Television's influence, perceived or real, isn't going anywhere.

"If we say we'll stop televising it, people will go, 'Why aren't you trying to grow the sport?" said ESPN publicist Mike Humes, who works primarily on the network's college sports. "And if we do, they say, 'You're damaging the sport. No one wants to go anymore.'"

"I don't know if TV is a reason. Our goal with every sport we do is to grow the popularity of the sport," Humes said. "This year is the first year we televised every single game from the college baseball playoffs. The hope is you get fans from the very beginning and get them interested and they continue to follow it throughout. Hopefully as the years go on, their kids will play and start to attend those events as well."

From purely a production standpoint, ESPN would prefer fans fill the stadium. A larger crowd benefits the broadcast.

"We hate when we're producing a game and we see an empty seat," Vassallo said. "Every producer at ESPN would love the event they produce to have as many people there as possible. It creates the buzz. If a casual viewer flicks by, maybe they're curious if they see a real buzz with the show. That probably goes for theatre producers, TV producers, goes for any producer in the world of any event. The bigger the buzz, the more the event translates on TV."

Memorial Day Weekend

The traditional date and format of the championships will be considered, Holman said.

"Sometimes the fact that we play on Memorial Day is an asset. It's a destination. It's a cool thing to do with your family," he said. "Other times, it's, 'Hey, do I really want to give up my entire holiday weekend and have to travel back after three days?' That can be a challenge."

Many ideas have been floated, some with the intent of trimming the number of days of the event from three to two or one. Those include hosting just the Division I, II and III finals at the championship site, or moving the Division I championship game into June while keeping the Division I semifinals and Division II and III finals together as they are now. Or perhaps the NCAA would move the entire event into June.

Another thing to keep in mind: The NCAA in recent years has paired men's championship weekend with the Division I women's semifinals and finals in the same city, seeking to create a festival-type atmosphere and crossover among fans.

The women's title game between North Carolina and Maryland at Villanova, Pa., drew a couple-hundred fans short (9,391) of the all-time record of 9,782 reached in 2010 when Maryland beat Northwestern at Towson, Md. In both years, the men's and women's championships were held in the same area.

Related to analyzing the date and structure of the event is considering the growth of the sport at the youth and high school levels, the IMLCA said.

"The growth of lacrosse at the youth and high school levels is both a threat and opportunity. The threat is that there are so many entrepreneurs now entering our sport and creating competing events both on Memorial Day Weekend and the surrounding weekends. No longer is the weekend sacred for the NCAA championships," the coaches' association stated in a five-page position paper submitted to the NCAA. "Parents (and kids) now have conflicting events, such as youth league season-ending tournaments, high school tournament games and summer tournament schedules that compete with their desire to attend the championships. This factor is underrated but has become significant in recent years."

IMLCA Recommendations

The IMLCA submitted to the NCAA recommendations that could enhance fan experience and create an event worth the ticket price.
© Kevin P. Tucker

The IMLCA formed a committee comprised of college administrators, a coach from each division, former NCAA committee members, a corporate leader and an IMLCA corporate partner.

The committee settled on five recommendations:

1. Reduce the hosts' financial guarantee for the championship, thus providing the hosts the opportunity to establish lower ticket prices. The NCAA should take the position that selling 1,000 tickets at $10 is better than 500 tickets at $20. Understanding that the NCAA, the host venue and host institution would need to work together to attract the incremental fan base, it would be important to promote the event as a "can't miss" family weekend.

2. Establish college student ticket prices. The NCAA should consider allowing host institutions to create college-student ticket prices that would be valid on event day with a college ID.

3. Create site specific logos. The championship logo must be a destination-based design to help promote the "can't miss" impression. The generic event logo the NCAA created in 2009 does not help sell the event on a continuous basis.

4. Create an in-stadium announce crew to provide live, in-game analysis and interviews that would be shown on the stadium video boards. Live interviews of coaches before the game, halftime. Analysis during timeouts and between quarters. Interviews with non-playing coaches who could provide insight as to strategies each team may try to utilize. Create content similar to what fans watching on television are seeing at home.

5. The NCAA should continue to provide resources to host institutions to create an in-depth grass roots promotional program. Lacrosse is a niche sport. As much as we celebrate the growth of lacrosse, it still is very small compared with other sports. The local and regional grass roots program is extremely important to successfully selling tickets for the championship.

Many of the IMLCA recommendations speak to fan experience and enjoyment in the stadium and creating an event worth the ticket price, but there are few other important points to pull from the position paper:

  • The growth of championship weekend prior to the NFL stadium era put a big strain on athletic department staffs at Maryland and Rutgers, which the IMLCA said were the only schools "having any interest in hosting it from 1993 to 2002." In order for the event to possibly return to a college campus, an athletic department would have to welcome it.

  • In general: "The NCAA and the lacrosse community must adjust again and embrace the post-recession challenges faced by many lacrosse fans. Family finances are tighter than they have been in decades, while technology options are greater than ever. Mixing the two has had a negative impact on the crowds attending the championships. We have to work together to rebuild relationships with fans and to encourage them to attend the championships again."

  • The paper concluded: "The challenge of attracting new fans for the championships is a serious one. Even more challenging is convincing fans who no longer attend the event to return. Understanding that most fans live within a drive of the championship site, it is extremely important for the host institutions to establish a grass roots marketing effort that promotes the values of attending the championship. The NCAA then must create a "WOW" experience for fans of all ages using the technology, surrounding facilities and stadium resources so that fans become the greatest sales force for futurechampionships."


These factors will all be considered as the NCAA evaluates the men's lacrosse championships. What will its future be? Status quo doesn't seem to be an option.

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