Unprecedented drop in attendance hits Cal football

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Ariel Hayat/File

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Cal football suffered a drastic year-to-year attendance drop this season after home games at California Memorial Stadium brought in an average of 36,548 fans per game — a 22 percent drop from last year’s average of 46,628.

Total ticket revenue was down about $193,000 from Cal Athletics’ preseason projections, according to Cal Athletics spokesperson Herb Benenson. Benenson said in an email that it is “too early” to project how ticket revenue from the season will affect the athletic department’s overall numbers for the 2017-18 fiscal year.

“Of course, we would like to see more support for our team at Memorial Stadium,” Benenson said in his email. “Our fans are very important to the program and its success.”

The drop in Cal football’s attendance comes as Cal Athletics faces huge interest payments from debt incurred from the 2012 renovation of Memorial Stadium and construction of its athletics complex. In total, Cal Athletics holds more than $400 million in debt, the most of any athletic department in the country.

Over the past 11 seasons, excluding 2011, when Cal played in San Francisco because of stadium renovation, attendance has dropped by 42 percent collectively. Aside from Cal’s early-season matchup against USC, every game in the 2017 season saw an attendance figure below 40,000, which has only happened twice in the five previous seasons.

“It’s a bit of a cascade effect,” said Hank Gehman, longtime Cal football fan and frequent critic of the athletic department. “You go to the stadium and look around, and it’s dispiriting.”

In 2007, Memorial Stadium football attendance averaged 63,136, but this number has dropped in every season since. Cal football has only recorded three sellouts since two sellouts in the 2007 season, even after the stadium’s capacity was reduced by about 10,000 with its renovation. The last sellout game was against Ohio State in 2013.

Marquee matchups have succumbed to the spiraling trend as well. Since 2008’s Big Game, an average of 4,455 fewer fans have shown up for the next iteration of the rivalry game when it was hosted by Cal.

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Four other teams in the Pac-12 — Arizona, Oregon State, Utah and UCLA — also saw a dip in home game attendance from 2016-17. UCLA suffered a 16.9 percent drop.

Several factors may have contributed to Cal’s drop in attendance, according to Benenson, including the team’s performance and opponents, start times and weather. In Cal’s game against Washington State, which took place at the same time as the devastating North Bay fires, only 26,244 were in the stands.

Other factors that may have influenced the drop are distractions by other issues on campus and the end of free tickets for first year students, according to sports economist and Smith College professor Andrew Zimbalist. From 2014-16, Cal Athletics provided first year students with free tickets to home games, but the program was terminated in the 2017 season.

“A lot of these current freshmen — they’re not going to have that same desire to go to games in the future,” said Rouhin Ghosh, campus senior and economics major. “If you see all these empty seats, you don’t feel a desire to go back.”

Contact Justice delos Santos and Austin Weinstein at [email protected].