Effective this upcoming season, Cal football will no longer offer free tickets to first-year students, officially ending a three-year stretch in which the package was offered.
“To help create excitement around our teams for new students, we offered free season passes to freshmen the past three years,” said Cal Athletics in an emailed statement. “While the redemption rate was high, we found that actual freshman attendance was not. We are no longer offering the program.”
Part of the reason former Cal football head coach Sonny Dykes was fired was a drop-off in season ticket sales, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. This decrease in sales coincided with the athletic department as a whole facing potential cuts and a looming budget crisis.
Cal football, as well as college football as a whole, has seen a considerable decline in attendance over the past half decade. Attendance at all major college football games has seen a slump for the sixth consecutive season — a smaller rate compared to past seasons — but a drop-off nonetheless, according to CBS Sports.
Regarding the Pac-12 specifically, attendance as a whole saw a 3 percent decline from 2015 to 2016 and has been down a whopping 14 percent since 2007. Cal football saw a 4 percent decrease in attendance in 2016. With an average attendance of 46,628, only three-fourths of the stadium filled up on average.
A huge spark plug that has resulted in the decline of attendance at college football games is, as simple as it may sound, television. While Cal football’s current ticket package for the upcoming season is on the cheaper side, fewer students are willing to shell out money to see a live game, especially when a plethora of more convenient and cheaper options exist.
In last year’s Big Game, for example: Not only was Stanford the overwhelming favorite heading into the 119th rendition of historic match-up, leaving little reason to believe the game would be competitive, but also heavy rain showers gave the casual fan less of a reason to attend, especially when ESPN or Fox can broadcast the game from the comfort of the great indoors.
“Freshmen can still purchase season passes during Golden Bear Orientation week through August 20 at a significant discount,” Cal Athletics’ statement reads. “We also have included a student group ticket option for those interested in attending a few games each season with their classmates, club members or residents.”
Even with the discount, having to shell out money as opposed to getting a free product has the potential to discourage incoming first years from attending, further hurting attendance going forward.
“I was excited to go to football games for free,” said incoming campus freshman Mary Grace Lewis. “It’s discouraging that that’s not available anymore.”
Fellow incoming campus freshman Akshit Annadi shared similar sentiments, saying, “It gives me less of an incentive (to go).”
The task of filling Memorial Stadium becomes all the more difficult when the on-field product is expected to be near the bottom of the Pac-12. Cal football’s new head coach Justin Wilcox was put at a severe disadvantage when he was hired in January, and he got a very minimal amount of time to both recruit and get a feel for his players.
Given a full year to bring in fresh talent and learn the various intricacies of his roster, Wilcox may generate enough curiosity in 2018 to fill seats or, at the very least, limit the year-to-year decrease. As for the short-term future, with freshmen losing free game privileges and Cal expected to struggle, another attendance hit seems to be in store for 2017.