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Expanding the playoff in FBS: But first, the JMU dilemma

college football playoffThe clamor over the final spot in the College Football Playoff usually ends up with a point being made about how lower divisions settle such disputes – by having more than four teams involved.

So, you do eight, or 16, or like they do at the FCS level, 24. You can’t expect fans to want to travel to neutral sites three, four or even five weekends, so what they do at the FCS level and below is hold games up until the national title game on campus, akin to the NFL playoff system, where only the Super Bowl is played on a neutral field.

And actually, you’d expect this kind of system to make even more money than if you tried to send teams to faraway cities using the current bowl structure, since fan bases are used to buying tickets for games at their home stadiums, and those who like to travel with their teams knowing how to negotiate their way in and being able to do so.

Talk about it being the best of all possible worlds. Instead of arguing endlessly about whether Alabama or Ohio State is #4, and feeling like we’re leaving the wrong one out, the debate is over nos. 23, 24 and 25, where, hey, you don’t make it, you had plenty of chances. And instead of having three games that matter, and roughly 40 that are glorified exhibitions, you get more than a dozen that play into a championship game, and if you still want to have your bowls, well, there’s an NIT for those who don’t get invited to the Big Dance, right?

We see the system work on the field at FCS up close and personal here in Virginia, where defending national champ JMU is the top seed in the 2017 playoffs.

But while the playoff system at FCS works on the field, it doesn’t seem to be working at the box office, which we also see evidenced at JMU.

The Dukes drew 16,449 fans for its second-round playoff game with Stony Brook this past weekend, a playoff record at Bridgeforth Stadium, but still just 65.8 percent of the stadium’s 25,000-seat capacity.

Disappointing as it was to have more than 8,000 empties, JMU still boasted the second-highest attendance for the second weekend in the 2017 FCS playoffs. North Dakota State drew 18,067 in its 19,000-seat Fargodome for its second-round game with San Diego, still leaving just short of 1,000 tickets on the table.

Three hosts – South Dakota State, Wofford and Sam Houston State – were below 41 percent capacity and under 8,000 tickets sold for their playoff games.

And this is a trend, looking at recent numbers that saw the 2016 playoffs register a 22.6 percent drop in attendance from the high-water mark set in 2015.

Apologists for the FCS system point to playoff games not being included in season-ticket packages and not being on the schedule among the reasons why you see the seas of empties, but using JMU as an example, it has been rather obvious dating back to at least the midway point of the 2017 season that the Dukes were going to be in position to host at least one playoff game, and honestly, as a fan, don’t you allow yourself to be deluded in thinking so even if that’s not the case?

It was pointed out to me on Twitter this past weekend that the student section at Bridgeforth was full, with the empties in the alum and donor sections, which I’ll accept as being true since I wasn’t there, but this only exacerbates the problem. That means even more money drifting into the ether, an unsold ticket to a football game being like an unsold hotel room on a Friday night: they don’t sit on a shelf in a store to be purchased later.

Tickets to playoff football games, you assume, sell themselves. That’s certainly the assumption of people like me who want to see the FBS institute a playoff system more like what we see in FCS, with more teams involved, with games played on campuses at least in the early rounds.

What we’re seeing on the business side of things from the last two years in FCS is worth exploring, at least. Are FCS schools pricing their tickets too high, maybe not doing enough in terms of marketing, just assuming, as I do, that the tickets should sell themselves? Is the relatively low attendance a factor of FCS fans not taking their championships as seriously?

I don’t buy that last one, again using JMU, which led FCS in attendance in the 2017 regular season.

I will say that in researching this article, I came across headlines from beat writers covering not only FCS teams, but FBS programs outside the Power 5, and even a long-time SEC power like LSU, which has seen a steady decline since expanding its stadium a few years ago.

Leafing through those articles, I see reasons given for the decline – 70-inch TVs in more living rooms, exposure of games on computers, tablets and smartphones, fans balking at paying big money for tickets, parking and $5 hot dogs – that are issues not just for college football, but for the NFL, other spectator sports, live theater, movie-theatre owners and music concert venues and promoters.

Yeah, there’s a lot competing for our dollars and eyeballs. We all get that.

I’m not sure that explains JMU having 8,000 empties for a playoff game, given how well the school did selling tickets for its regular-season slate.

Figuring out the root cause of why playoff tickets don’t sell at a school like JMU with a rabid fan base, and a long history of success on the field and off, can go a long way to figuring out whether an expansion of the playoff system at the FBS level is at all doable down the line.

Story by Chris Graham

 
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