July 17, The Ledger: Vols, Titans fight to fill empty stadium seats

Pro, college athletic programs search for solutions

By Tom Wood

When it comes to giving the consumer what it wants, few sports programs can match University of Tennessee football.

Neyland Stadium, which 40 years ago could accommodate only 70,000 fans, has swelled to a capacity of 102,455, fifth largest in college football. It has a $4 million, 4,580-square-foot Jumbotron, Wi-Fi connections for fans and enough flashing lights around the stadium’s interior to shame the Las Vegas Strip.

But it wasn’t enough.

The last time UT averaged more than 100,000 in home attendance was 2008 when it attracted an average of 101,448 fans to seven home games at Neyland Stadium.

The low point came in 2012, the final year of the Derek Dooley era, with an average of 89,965 – a drop of 11,483 from 2008. That’s eight years after drawing a record 109,000 against Florida in 2004.

Confidence that coach Butch Jones can reignite the Big Orange brand has helped. The Vols have rebounded to averages of 95,584 in 2013 to 99,754 last season, a one-year increase of 4.36 percent. That’s 9,789 fans that have come back to UT since Jones was hired.

But the Vols aren’t alone in this struggle. Major college football home attendance dipped in 2014 to its lowest average in 14 years, according to a CBSSports.comanalysis. Attendance also is down for the NFL, Major League Baseball and NASCAR.

Higher ticket prices, the additional costs associated with actually going to the games (parking, food, drinks), uncertain weather, lack of connectivity at stadiums and the comfort of watching the game at home on a giant HD TV – with its dazzling high-tech extras – has fans, including students and millennials, shunning the game-day experience.

Sports marketers and professionals fear the next generation might be more interested in playing games via technology than attending them.

Teams, schools and leagues have a variety of strategies to reignite fan bases, particularly the younger generation, with innovations designed to make them feel more at home in the stands.

The Titans’ newly rebranded Nissan Stadium, for example, will be able to connect 30,000 Internet devices simultaneously, leaving many fans to wonder what took them so long to get in the high-tech game.

Will innovation bring fans back? It’s perhaps the biggest question in the business of sports.

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