As the University of Pittsburgh football team was down in South Carolina upsetting No. 1 Clemson last fall, Andrew Bukowski watched it unfold at his house with a group of friends. They ordered food, drank beer, and had a great time, he said.
"I think what you find is that you end up enjoying some of the away games more," Bukowski, a senior this fall, said.
He has attended nearly all the home games with his student season tickets the past three seasons, but when he graduates and is no longer eligible for such cheap tickets, he anticipates going to one, maybe two games per year.
Therein lies a major problem for the Pitt athletic department.
Bukowski, 21, calls himself a big-time Pitt fan, but his attitude toward live sporting events are shared among younger generations. Many feel it can be just as enjoyable to watch at home or in a sports bar with friends, and often it's less expensive and more convenient.
This reality is creating a problem for athletic departments across the country as NCAA average home football attendance has fallen five of the last six years.
While Power Five conferences boasted record revenue in 2016 — more than double the totals in 2012, thanks in large part to huge television contracts — filling stadiums remains important because ticket sales are still a significant source of revenue. And attending football games, experts say, is critical in maintaining another lifeblood of athletic departments: donations. Ticket sales and donations account for 41 percent of total revenue at Football Bowl Subdivision schools in 2014, according to a 2015 NCAA report.
Factor in a predicted decline in future television revenue, and the downward attendance trend is even more problematic.
Athletic departments are trying to target young fans like Bukowski to combat the issue. Pitt recently joined several programs in offering a discounted football ticket program for recent graduates. Unveiled in May, it offers graduates 30 percent off season tickets within three years of leaving school.
"This is the next generation," Chris Bain, assistant athletic director for marking at Pitt, said. "These are the future leaders, future supporters, future donors, of Pitt athletics.
"We're trying to figure out, 'How can we keep our young alumni and recent graduates engaged?' "
The problem is engaging the younger audience — getting them to attend football games — has become more complicated.
To some degree, the sports industry has victimized itself because watching games on TV has become so enjoyable, said Whitney Wagoner, director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.
Todd Koesters, an assistant professor of sport and entertainment at the University of South Carolina, said high-quality TV is part of the decline. As it relates to the young people, though, it's not the whole story.
With younger audiences, Koesters said market fragmentation has also played a key role in the attendance decreases.
"You look at how people consume, there's so many more options for things to do," Koesters said.
This hurts ticket sales, he said, because rarely will people set aside money specifically for eating out, going to sporting events or the movies. Instead, all those options are competing for the same spending money.
The financial situation of many young graduates makes the competition more difficult.
"Millennials have grown up in the shadow of the Great Recession, are saddled with higher education debt and housing costs, and are forming households later," Morgan Stanley, the financial service firm, wrote in a 2016 report. "These factors dramatically affect how Millennials spend."
The average student debt for Americans younger than 30 almost doubled between 2005 and 2012, from $13,340 to $24,897, according to the Morgan Stanley report. Chuck Mattiucci, a financial advisor at Fort Pitt Capital Group, also pointed out the murkier job market.
"With all of those things together, younger folks are more cognizant of being more diligent of their spending," Mattiucci said.
Young people do, though, still like to spend on experiences, whether that's a concert, music festival or football game, said Susana La Luz-Hawkins, director of design research at Lextant, a human-experience company based in Columbus, Ohio.
In 2015, La Luz-Hawkins led a research project focused on millennial attitudes and decision making. The study found, generally speaking, that millennials cherish real-world experiences, meaning the desire to go to football games is likely still there, but it's complicated by the need to be smart financially.
La Luz-Hawkins said the growing popularity of watch parties in sports bars or in a group setting at home is evidence that young people want to consume sports in a way that still provides experiences.
"With the watch party comes the experience to supplant going to the game," she said.
Football attendance is complicated "significantly" by the financial situation of young people, Wagoner said, and it puts pressure on athletic departments to show value by delivering a top-notch experience.
"Young people are willing to spend a $100 (on an event), but it needs to be well worth it," Wagoner said. "It needs to be a great experience. It needs to be unique, and it needs to be compelling, so collegiate athletic departments and other entertainment really have to make sure they're delivering something that young people can't get anywhere else because if they can get it somewhere else, they're going to go somewhere else."
It is why many athletic departments, including Pitt, have worked to revitalize their in-game experience with in-game promotions and giveaways. Programs have gone so far as to reimagine their stadiums to improve the fan experience, often spending millions in the process.
Ben Stindt, a senior project designer at Populous, an architectural firm that designed Heinz Field, PNC Park and PPG Paints Arena, said his company has seen a significant rise in the number of inquiries about stadium renovations from athletic departments.
"A lot of collegiate venues now, I think, universities and athletic departments are realizing it," Stindt said. "'Look, those are our future fans, those are future donors. What do we do to enhance their experience that makes them want to come back in the future and buy clubs and suites? What are some amenities that we can do for that?' "
At Texas A&M's Kyle Field, for instance, the improvements Populous made in a 2015 renovation included canopies designed to shade fans from the Texas heat, installed some seats closer to the field, and created a space which honors Texas A&M history and allows for open gathering before and after games.
Today's college graduate is tomorrow's donor, and given the important role alumni giving has for athletic departments, it is crucial they maintain a relationship with their alumni early on in order to increase the likelihood of donations down the road, Patrick Rishe, the director of the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis, said.
And since attending football games is one of the most successful ways to maintain that relationship, athletic departments need to begin cultivating that alumni relationship soon after graduates receive their diploma.
Rishe likened the young alumni ticket programs to what the credit card industry has done for years.
"If you get people to use a credit card early in their life, they're going to stick with that, probably, for the rest of their life," Rishe said. "There's not a lot of turnover as it relates to credit card usage. If you start off using a Visa, you're probably going to be a Visa user for life.
"Well, of course, (athletic departments) already know they have a captive audience because the individuals are alums. They figure, if we can get these people coming now and create engagement with our alums then they will be more likely to want to stay with the product and stay tied to the university and the program going forward."
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