MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Even the mighty Southeastern Conference is working harder to coax fans out of their living rooms and into stadiums.
Despite winning the last five national championships fans around the college football-crazed region are weighing the couch and flat-screen TV option vs. the in-person game experience, tailgating at a raucous stadium.
Nearly every SEC football game is televised so some fans are choosing to stay home — especially for potentially ugly nonconference mismatches. All but eight games last season were televised beyond pay-per-view.
“The lounge chair and big-screen TV are the best seat in the house,” insists Alabama fan Shane Roberson, who lives in Destin, Fla,. and has held season tickets since 2005.
Even opening matchups like Alabama-Kent State and Elon-Vanderbilt are only a click of the remote away, at least for fans in the nine-state region.
Missouri State-Arkansas and Montana-Tennessee are available online or by pay-per-view.
Since SEC teams have counted tickets sold rather than actual attendance, there’s no way to gauge the count of ticket-bearing fans — either visitors or home — who take the homebody route. The league touts that stadiums were collectively 98.5 percent filled last season.
Nonetheless, there are enough empty seats for it to be a topic of discussion in football offices.
“I say all the time, ‘Hey, we’re competing against hi-def,’” Auburn associate athletic director Scott Carr said. “It’s reality.
“There is no comparison to actually being there and having the opportunity to tailgate with your friends and relatives. You can’t replace that sitting on a couch with hi-def television, but it certainly can provide one more reason not to come.”
The stagnant economy also helps to make the lounge chair a more appealing option.
Tennessee fan Joe Stanley grew up in north Georgia attending games; now the IT project manager who lives just outside the Arkansas state line in Missouri said cost of tickets and travel has kept him home most fall Saturdays.
He and his wife plan to go to one Vols home game and two games at Arkansas, about 30 minutes from his home.
Fans are “still looking at $160 just to go to a local game,” Stanley said. “It makes it a no-brainer situation I can spend $160 (on cable or satellite) to see every game without dealing with the crowd and the nonsense.”
Carr said it has taken a little longer to sell out season tickets in recent years, saying he thinks it was initially “98 percent economy, 2 percent TV.”
“Now that the TV thing’s out there, I would say TV is probably more of a factor today than it was when it first came out,” Carr said.
Auburn had two home games that weren’t listed as sellouts during its national championship run last season. The precursor to the SEC title game matchup with South Carolina was a couple hundred shy.
Of the 85 SEC home games last year, 36 were not sellouts.
Sure, teams like Alabama, LSU and Florida have little or no trouble unloading season tickets in a league that has four of college football’s eight biggest stadiums. Those three members of the recent national title club, along with Georgia, reported sellouts for all 27 home games in 2010.
It’s often a case of the rich, well, staying rich. Florida and LSU said they exceeded their stadiums’ listed capacities in every home game. Struggling teams like Vanderbilt, Mississippi and Tennessee combined for just three sellouts.
At Georgia, everyone who contributed $250 to the Hartman Fund got season tickets for this season, associate athletic director Alan Thomas said. He said that number — the threshold based on the lowest amount paid — was about $2,000 last year, and that was a fifth of the 2008 figure.
Tennessee will have an actual count of fans filing into 102,451-seat Neyland Stadium in 2011 after putting bar codes on its tickets.
The Volunteers started reaching out to fans in July who have had tickets in the past or “have some kind of connection or affiliation with the university,” including three-figure donors that might otherwise not have gotten a personal touch, said Chris Fuller, an associate athletic director at Tennessee.
He said that seven-week phone effort netted 2,200 season ticket sales and brought in about $1 million.
“I think live attendance is a big-time topic not only in college athletics now but across the board,” said Fuller, formerly a vice president for the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. “Everybody talks about discretionary income is a factor. I think discretionary time is a big-time factor with everybody’s modern schedule.
“When you host 41 games (in the NBA), I can tell you that it’s a big factor, but I think even when you host eight football games it’s a factor too. I think live attendance at sporting events is a big topic in our industry in general.”
SEC commissioner Mike Slive acknowledges that the megabucks TV contracts with ESPN and CBS present a balancing act of exposure for the league and making “sure that our fans come to the stadium.”
Schools are also working to cut out some of the hassle when there are 100,000 people in one place. Auburn hired the Disney Institute for a daylong session on customer service this summer for 35-40 staffers in hopes of enhancing fans’ game day experience, Carr said.
Still, the comforts of home have become a formidable opponent for the SEC.
At Alabama, Roberson holds onto his tickets even if he might only make it to one or two games now that he has two young daughters. There’s some 20,000 fans on the waiting list to snap them up if he doesn’t.
James Evans, an Auburn fan living in Charleston, S.C., said he goes to fewer games nowadays because so many are on TV. He made the 7-hour trek for the first South Carolina game last season and plans to attend the SEC title game rematch in Columbia this season.
He mostly watches games at a restaurant with other members of the local Auburn club.
“It’s just so convenient, you can sit there at table with giant-screen television surrounded by fans of just your school,” the emergency room technician said.
The added bonus: “They’ll bring you your chicken wings and they’ll bring you your drinks.”