As national rates fall, EMU’s attendance numbers rise

A fan holds up a sign reading 'EMU' during the Eastern Michigan-Toledo football game, 8 Oct. in Rynearson Stadium.

College football attendance rates continue to fall as people across the country are staying at home to cheer on their favorite team.

The average for all programs in the division was 43,483 people per game in 2014, but has now fallen to 43,288 in 2015. This is less than a one percent decrease, but this just more statistics that show that people are not leaving their homes to see live college football games.

“In today’s world with all the programs and HD quality offered by Comcast and DIRECTV, it’s understandable why college football attendance is down,” said Eastern Michigan student Josh Starr. “If you can have a similar experience to being at the stadium and be able to get multiple games from the comfort of your own room then why would you leave to go cheer in the freezing cold.”

Attendance for home games across the country have fallen victim to the mass access to different forms of media at a single person’s disposal. Instead of going to the game, a person can stay at home and watch the game on a 4K, big screen and listen to commentators and dozens of camera angles. A person can keep track by play-by-play as they see it go on their computer or their smart phone to see what is happening live.

“The only thing I can think of is with the growth of live streaming on pretty much any electronic device it's just easier for people to watch at home,” said former Eastern Michigan tight end Cody Tuttle on why attendance is down nationally. “Which is tragic because there's nothing like college football.”

There are 128 teams in division 1 FBS and most if not all of them are streamed on tv or on the internet by service providers. There are sports only channels like ESPN, ESPN 2, ESPN U, ESPN News, ESPN 3, NBCSN, CBSSN, ACC network, Big 10 network, SEC network, FS1, FS2 and the numerous Fox Sports local networks that feature college football on Saturdays. There are more channels than that when you think about the local channels that different markets have.

“Nationally, it’s been on the decline because of eyes on TV sets. You watch a game on almost every night of the week,” said Eastern Michigan Deputy Director of Athletics Christian Spears. “People have sort of had their feel of football through the TV every week so it might not be as attractive to spend your weekend coming to a football game.”

Attendance at Eastern Michigan football games has changed over time as it has fluctuated from year to year. NCAA records say that in 2015 that the average attendance for EMU home games was 4,897 people per game. This was the lowest rate out of all 128 teams that make up the Football Bowl Subdivision. This is notable because for a school to remain in the Football Bowl Subdivision they must average 15,000 per game every other year. In 2014, EMU averaged 15,025 people at its home games. The 2015 record was a 32.5 percent of the attendance at home football games for the Eastern Michigan Eagles in 2014.

“If we don’t average 15,000 once over a two year period then our eligibility has been jeopardized. So we spend a lot of time to get to the number we need to get to and work with corporate partners so we can make that happen,” said Spears. “This year has been a great year for us because I think we’re winning more than we’re losing and that obviously increase attendance.”

Some of the fluctuation is due to theme games that Eastern Michigan has like senior day, homecoming, opening day, band day and others. Typically, attendance can fluctuate through the success of the football team from year to year.

As of now, EMU is 6-4 and bowl eligible for the first time since 1995. Coming into the year, the Eagles had a combined five wins over the past three years. The Eagles have not been to a bowl game since 1987 when they weren’t even the Eagles.

“It’s hard to overcome 30 years. For 30 years we haven’t been to a bowl game. For 30 years we’ve had very few winning records. So over time it sort-of eroded peoples excitement about the program so for us the attendance has been naturally declining due to the competitive success of our program,” said Spears.

The success of the Eastern Michigan program can be seen as the reason for increase in attendance rates over the course of this year. The attendance hit a high point in the 2016 season when, at the homecoming game, the tenth largest attendance to a game at Rynearson Stadium happened against Toledo. About 21,412 people showed up to support the EMU Eagles on their Mid-American Conference home-opener. The lowest of the home turnouts this year came against Mississippi Valley State at the home opener where the attendance was 14,221 people which is just below the average. The rest of the home games have been above the required average.

“Wins equals fan support. Plain and simple. Nobody really wants to go watch a team that isn't winning games,” said Tuttle. “This year the team is doing exceptionally well especially when in comparison to the past few years. As a former player I can attest to how proud I am seeing the guys work so hard and play so well. That hard work is rewarded in the form of wins on the field which in turn put more fans in the stands. I know the extra support is going a long way towards motivating this year’s team.”

For smaller football programs like Eastern Michigan, the schools have to find ways to get alumni, students and fans to come out and support their football team. This is hard, due to the lack of success by the EMU football program.

“We have done a lot of different things to encourage people to come to the games. We sell beer on the patio with a local brewing company and I know that isn’t aimed exactly at student attendance but more at alumni,” said Spears.

Bringing students to the football games is hard due to the fact that the majority of EMU students do not live on campus.

“Of the 3,700 students that I think live on campus we average 2,100 students a game. And from a percentage of those students, it’s pretty good,” said Spears. “If you were to tell me we would get 65 percent of the students that live on campus, I mean, that’s a great rate.”

With the national attendance declining at a small rate, the Eastern Michigan football program is getting people back into Rynearson Stadium to cheer on the EMU Eagles.

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