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].

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  • John Hudson

    I have been going to Cal games since 1957. Attendance at football games is correlated to winning. I can remember a crowd of lThe graph starts at 2007. The last time we made a decent bowl was 2006 when we beat Texas A&M 55 – 14 in the Holiday bowl. I am confident that Cal will come back and so will attendance. Prior to the start of the 2017 season we were the subject of very depressing press. The team turned out to be better than expected. Next year we will have Patrick Laird, Tre Watson, and Devonte Downs back. I am looking forward to it.

  • X Ray

    Gee, ya think it might have to do with the quality of football??

    It will get better in Year 3, after Wilcox establishes his program. He’s a good coach, quite unlike Dykes, and it’ll show.

    If you want someone to blame, though, blame Barbour and Williams and *that* should be a lesson to remember when choosing the next AD. Sure Dykes was a disaster but it was Barbour who hired him and Williams who kept him on.

  • Warren Nelson

    I have been a season ticket holder for nearly 40 years. I hate the late games, don’t start a game later than 5 pm. Mostly its the horrible performance of the team. No Rose Bowl win since 1938, no Rose Bowl appearance since 1959, 13 straight road losses in conference, 14 straight losses to USC, not beaten Stanford since 2009. The tickets are expensive for a lousy product. Stanford wins why can’t we? I like Wilcox. He seems very poised and a good leader. UC Berkeley has as legitimate claim to the greatest university in the world but on the football field perennially second tier. This slide in attendance is to be expected. Win the North, then win the Pac 12, show progress on the field.

    • thompson_richard

      Next year UCLA and Stanford tickets will be included in season tickets; these two tickets at $75 and $72 were, together more costly than this year’s season package..

  • JT-always-well-sometimes

    Late notice of game time + too many night games sliced off lots of season ticket holders. That won’t change.

    But nothing brings fans like a winning team, and Wilcox has got these players performing at a top level. Now if he can recruit … we could see space scarce in a year or two. Go Bears!

  • C Bierbauer78

    The Cal Intercollegiate athletic program is a gold plated turd. It would be over priced at 1/10 the cost.

    Time to make research and education the only objectives and targets for University funding. Let the jocks hold a bake sale for equipment (off campus).

    • RJinLA

      Myopic.

  • Curtis Jones

    CAL is one of the 20% schools that the NCAA let have academic waivers in order to maintain its DIVERSITY.
    Needless to say CAL does not play smart football and Stanford does. We will never be in a Major Bowl again if this continues. Thinking people are fed up with everything at CAL and are voting with their feet.

  • Hank Gehman

    I think the number one attendance problem is with the ESP seats. Not surprisingly, the Athletic Department’s focus has been on everything else; student attendance, gameday experience, night games, weather, etc. But it’s the half empty ESP section that is the most important failing for a couple of reasons. First, that is where the money is- or in this case, isn’t. These are the most important revenue seats in the stadium and they’re half empty. And declining. Secondly, having a half empty ESP section is a negative statement about the support of Cal donors for the football program.
    The first thing I would do would be to consider ending the ESP program and reprice the whole west side of the stadium so that it sells out.. This would be an admission of failure by the Athletic Department and they would resist it but ESP is not working and it is not going to work.
    It’s time to face reality and move on with a realistic plan.

  • Colum

    I would bet a lot of the drop is also due to how few day games Cal now plays. The Bears have one of the most beautiful venues in America for a day game. For a lot of people, night games aren’t even part of their concept of a Cal game experience. Berkeley isn’t Waco Texas, and before about ten years ago night games would have been almost completely unheard of at Memorial Stadium. Traditionally you could go to a 1:30 game and get together with friends before the game, and / or have time after the game to go out to dinner. The later season night games get you out of the stadium at 11 or later, and then you have (for a lot of people) a long slow exit that may get you home at 1 am. Not to mention that the variable start times that aren’t announced until a week or so before the game monkeywrench planning anything. Finally the Pac 12 network destroying traditional scheduling of the Big Game as the last game (for Cal anyway–the worst being when it was scheduled for October a few years back) eliminates the experience of it being a culminating game (not that it normally is, in reality). The universities wanted the TV money and got it, but it doesn’t mean that long time ticket-purchasing fans like the change. Why would you freeze your butt off in a poorly lit stadium watching a perpetually mediocre team when you can just stay home and watch it on TV and save yourself a lot of money? True, you won’t get the frozen chocolate malts and the seagulls angling for trash at the end…

    • still trying

      Cal is now playing 1 more game per year than before joining pac-12.

  • Noel Simmons

    This should not be a surprise to anyone. Each year, we are asked to complete a survey regarding our impressions of the Game Day experience and what we would like to see done. Do we ever get ANY feedback regarding the results of the survey? NO. Have we ever received any information that says, “the top 5 priorities of the survey were “X” so we are going to do….”? NO. We’ve told you what needs to be done. Either listen or stop asking. By the way, I’ve been a donor for more than 40 years.

    • Mike Munday

      You are right. Several friends did not renew their tickets because of the game day experience. I agree The survey means nothing. They continue to do all the things that drive people away.
      1. Stop the inane promotions
      2. Stop the endless presentations to Bank of the west executives etc. we dont care. We want to hear the band
      3. Stop Introducing minor sports teams. we dont care
      4. Stop the awful pre game music. Season ticket holder are all over 50
      5.Stop the bear Growl. It is old and tired
      6.Lobby the PAC 12 to stop all the replay reviews. Do what the NFL does. Give each coach 1 challenge. It will speed up the game.
      7. For gods sake do something about the food.No decent Ice Cream, No drinks less than a gallon in size. I wont buy my kid a drink this huge.
      8. Stop the canned music. I have to admit, this has been reduced.

      But then we have been saying this for years. They really have changed nothing. People continue to non renew, mainly because of game times but the rest is just an annoyance that tips the scales.

      • C Bierbauer78

        Better yet, cut to the chase. JUST STOP!

  • Herbie Hanwell

    Sounds like an alumni boycott. Cal and the UC administration have consistently had bad publicity this year.
    Odds are the alumni are disgusted with Cal, in every way.

  • Nunya Beeswax

    But when they sell all those fancy expensive seats, the stadium will pay for itself!

  • Anonymous

    What do they expect – UC has admitted an unprecedented number of low income students of many ethnicities whose preferred game is probably soccer. Then there is a huge population of “out of state” and “out of country” students. You are not going to turn a “hoosier” or “buckeye” into a “bear”. And just wait for the alumni donations to dry up as all of these students scatter around the country and leave Cal behind.

    • C Bierbauer78

      Racist much?

      • Anonymous

        Realistic! The stats just came out that over 500 students are on food stamps and other assistance. Students with wealthy parents (=donors) don’t go onto food stamps or use food banks; and how are they going to afford a ticket to a game.

        • C Bierbauer78

          A$$hole much?

          • John Hudson

            No. YOU are the a$$hole if you cannot face the truth.

  • still trying

    I guess they will need to borrow more money. Could it also be with the removal of free admittance for freshman, attendance was down. If that is the case, the previous years attendance numbers were fake.