With title-game ticket prices plummeting more than 90 percent, should college football be worried?

Dan Wetzel
Columnist

Ticket prices on the secondary market for Monday’s college football national title game are cratering – get-in prices hit $150 Tuesday on StubHub and experts say it should continue to drop. By comparison, last year’s get-in price peaked at about $1,700.

“Prices are trending lower than we have ever seen before,” SeatGeek.com’s Chris Leyden told Yahoo Sports. “Demand is down.”

And that’s just part of it. The semifinal games weren’t competitive and delivered comparatively low television ratings.

The system was again clumsy, staging the semifinals on Dec. 29 while continuing to cede prime New Year’s Day slots to lesser games run by private bowls. Things are so rough, even normally staid power brokers are lobbying for an eight-team playoff to shake things up.

About the only thing everyone can agree on – and this is no small thing – is that the two best teams are facing off on Monday. Unbeaten 2018 champion Alabama vs. unbeaten 2017 champion Clemson. It’s their fourth consecutive playoff encounter, third in the title game.

“This is clearly the two best teams,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “I mean, this is the way it should be.”

And yet, in what may be the ultimate embarrassment, the game could be played in front of empty seats at Levi Stadium.

That isn’t the way it should be.

Alabama head coach Nick Saban (L) and Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney will meet for the national championship for the third time in four years on Monday. (AP)

Part of this is nearly unavoidable circumstance. Part of this is a poorly constructed playoff courtesy of the compromised leadership of the game. As such, some things should be considered worthy of change, while others need to be brushed off as bad luck.

When it comes to gameday ticket prices, this is about geography and familiarity.

A year ago Alabama and Georgia conveniently met in Atlanta and the average ticket price on SeatGeek hit a whopping $3,046, nearly two-and-a-half times the $1,262 average the year before for Alabama-Clemson in Tampa, Florida.

Proximity to the fanbases was everything. Any money not spent on travel can be spent on tickets. If Atlanta hosted again this year, ticket prices would be high. This year’s current average, as of Tuesday afternoon, was a respectable $1,043, but that won’t last as prices are plummeting.

“Tickets sold in the past 24 hours have gone for an average of just $533 each,” Leyden said.

Levi’s Stadium happens to sit on the other side of the country from the participating clubs. Travel costs just to get to San Jose are considerable – $1,000 flights are the minimum from the Southeast. It doesn’t help that neither Alabama or South Carolina have major airports – the old joke in Alabama is you can’t even get to heaven without connecting through Atlanta.

A drive would take … well, it’s about 2,600 miles from South Carolina, so you better get started.

Both are public schools in smaller states, regional universities but not necessarily national ones (although Alabama actually boasts more undergrads from out of state than in). There is no denying the quality of the teams – but the Bay Area is no one’s idea of a college football hotbed so who knows how many locals even care?

A Monday, 5 p.m. PT kickoff doesn’t help area football fans. And there is little-to-no pent-up demand. Just reaching the title game doesn’t feel like a once-in-a-lifetime event; it’s more like an annual game at this point. Clearly a lot of ‘Bama and Clemson backers are content to stay home. Next year’s title game is in New Orleans.

Simply put, this is about the worst possible scenario. It exposes a truism about college football – it lacks the true national following of the NFL. College football could give up on trying to grow interest and just make sure the title game is played in the South, or at most the Midwest, as a nod to the most likely participants.

Or it could try to market the sport in underdeveloped regions by bringing a coveted game such as this to the Bay Area where maybe some new fans are caught up in the excitement.

Along that vein, college football is trying. The weekend in San Jose will include numerous events downtown for fans coming in from near or far. Maybe it helps. And while secondary ticket prices are down, that’s just part of the story.

Last year’s title game drew an audience of 28.4 million, the highest non-NFL sports broadcast of the year, surpassing even the Opening Ceremony of the Winter Olympics. If this game is competitive, it will deliver a similar number. The sport has many, many fans.

Still, there remains a clunkiness to the playoff that isn’t helping. The small nature of the field has left vast swaths of the country left out in recent years. The majority of the participants over the first five years have come from the Southeast, including all of the title-game participants since 2015. Neither the Big Ten nor Pac-12 has had a team even selected for the playoffs since 2016.

This still feels like an invitational more than a national free-for-all.

Then there is the timing. Because college football leadership is unwilling to confront the bowl industry, they are forced to contort the tournament. The playoff was curbed at four teams in part because the bowl lobby didn’t want home sites used for the first round. That limits participation.

Meanwhile, the Rose Bowl refuses to move from its coveted 5 p.m. ET kickoff time on New Year’s Day and the Sugar Bowl is equally unwilling to give up the 8 p.m slot.

New Year’s Day remains the traditional time fans seek to watch college football, yet two out of every three years that means secondary games. It’s confusing and counter productive.

College football could force the issue and stage the semifinals on New Year’s Day on its own, but that would take courage and a willingness to upset old cronies who profit off the bowl games. It could give the Rose and Sugar annual rights to the semifinals, but then the Orange, Fiesta and Cotton would be upset and, again, this is about protecting millionaire friends as much as anything.

For awhile it naively believed it could “change the paradigm of New Year’s Eve” by staging the games then. America had other plans though. TV ratings tanked. Now it doesn’t know what to do with a playoff that was built by committee and consensus rather than common sense.

The result this year is a combination of self-made problems and unavoidable ones, namely a too-familiar matchup in an unfamiliar location, driving ticket prices down.

“We have not seen prices this low at this point for a title game before,” Leyden said.

And they are likely only getting lower. Whether that should concern college football remains to be seen.

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