There appears to be a minor issue growing within the confines of Notre Dame Stadium. No, I am not talking about the play on the field. Rather, I am talking about crowd attendance. Despite Notre Dame standing at 6-1 and ranked #11 in the country, Notre Dame is struggling to find enough bodies to fill the stands.
This week Notre Dame is set to square off against North Carolina, a game slated to be one of the marquee home match-ups of the 2021 season. While the Tar Heels haven’t lived up to their lofty preseason rankings, Notre Dame shouldn’t have to resort to slashing ticket prices to convince fans to show up. Yet, as a season-ticket holder, I received an email on Sunday afternoon trumpeting a “$50 Flash Sale” in which all upper deck tickets for the game are currently being sold through the university at $50 until Wednesday. This isn’t the first email I have received this season offering some sort of ticket deal; however, I can’t recall having received emails like this in the past. Evidence continues to mount that there simply isn’t the same demand for Notre Dame tickets as there once was. During the 2019 season, Notre Dame’s consecutive sellout streak finally ended at 273 games for a match-up between Navy and the Irish. While the streak had been artificially saved numerous times along the way when a local business would buy up remaining tickets, the fact remains that every home game from 1973 until 2019 had been listed as a sellout. This season, Notre Dame’s home opener against Toledo drew the smallest crowd (62,009) in Notre Dame Stadium since 1997, which was the year the stadium’s seating bowl was expanded. Further, Notre Dame announced two complimentary tickets to either the Navy or Georgia Tech games for residents of St. Joseph County who receive their first COVID-19 shot in the County-City Building. If sales were that hot, I do not believe the ticket office would simply be giving them away. Against USC, Notre Dame’s biggest rival, ticket prices during the middle of the week had the lowest average resale price in the history of the series in South Bend since ticket prices were tracked. I have not seen figures from the game but as of last Wednesday, the game was not a sellout. That mere fact alone is nearly incomprehensible. Even in years in which Notre Dame was bad, the USC game has always been a major draw.
While Notre Dame is not alone in combating this problem (college football’s average attendance in 2019 hit a 24-year low at an average of 41,477 people per game), the question begs to be asked what Notre Dame can do to fix the issue. For starters, the ACC scheduling agreement certainly is not providing many premier games. Prior to Notre Dame’s scheduling agreement with the ACC, fans could count on a home slate that included some combination of Michigan, Michigan State, Navy, Purdue, Stanford, and USC. While these teams were not always powerhouses, there was a familiarity with these teams and a certain level of disdain for each program. Removing the three Big Ten schools and replacing them with the likes of Syracuse, Louisville, Duke, etc. simply doesn’t move the needle in the same fashion. Besides Clemson, which fans missed out on seeing at Notre Dame Stadium for the first time since 1979 due to the pandemic, what other teams from the ACC are a marquee draw? The first name that comes to mind is Florida State due to their rivalry with Notre Dame in the 90s. However, the program has been on a downward slide since Jimbo Fisher departed in 2017. The other three schools that could potentially drum up interest amongst the fan base would be Miami, Pittsburgh, and Boston College. But again, none of these teams have been consistently competitive over the past decade. The schedule simply does not allow for much wiggle room when 8 of the 12 games a year are already assigned (5 ACC schools, Navy, Stanford, and USC). However, instead of seeing Wisconsin and Notre Dame play at Soldier Field and Lambeau Field, or seeing BYU and Notre Dame play at Allegiant Stadium, perhaps the fan base would rather watch these unique matchups on campus.
Besides the scheduling challenges, the overall experience may not justify the price of admission as the cost of attending games continues to rise. How affordable is it for the average family to pay for parking, tickets, and concession for a home football game? As outlined above with the opponents fans have now been seeing at home, can Notre Dame justify what they currently are charging for pricing? I realize the ticket office can not simply give away tickets but maybe they could run a family promotion to make tickets for the yearly contest against a MAC school extremely affordable. Further, NBC does not aid in the experience with their constant commercial breaks every time there is a change of possession. Not only does it kill the atmosphere, but it is hard to sit through. Why be at the stadium when you could be at home flipping to a different game or accomplishing small tasks around the house during these intermissions. TV should be there to capture the action, not be dictating it. Also, as sports betting continues to be legalized throughout the country, more and more people will seemingly want to remain at home to keep tabs on multiple games. Additionally, younger fans continue to demonstrate their lack of desire to consume sports in person, opting instead to simply watch the highlights of a game. Not only does going to a game require a major time commitment, but it virtually guarantees that you will miss much of the action around the country on a given Saturday. Perhaps another underrated piece of the puzzle is how spread out the fan base is. Besides the cost of travel, with the current climate as it relates to COVID-19, the amount of travel simply is not what it was 2 years ago. Thus, Notre Dame is potentially more affected than most as its alumni throughout the country are not flocking to South Bend in the same number as previous seasons.
With its unique scheduling challenges and expansive fan base, the university certainly has its work cut out for them when it comes to tackling this growing trend. While I certainly do not have an answer as to how to reverse the poor attendance, hopefully, someone does as nothing beats a packed stadium on a college football Saturday.