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From all obvious angles, college football looks healthier than ever. Television money has boomed during the last decade. Postseason revenue, thanks to the new College Football Playoff, is set to double for major conference schools. The SEC Network just launched with availability in 92 million homes. The Football Bowl Subdivision has swelled to 128 members, with a handful of others positioning themselves for an invitation. Even the bowl business is thriving, with 39 postseason games on line for 2014.
But lurking behind the boom that has seen college football grow into America's second-favorite sport is a trend that could very well be a warning 10, 15 or 20 years down the line.
The people athletics departments count on to be their lifeblood -- students, who turn into alumni, who turn into season ticket buyers and donors -- are seemingly less and less interested in spending their Saturdays in football stadiums.
"Is it different than it was when I got here 30 years ago? Yeah, it's different," Florida athletics director Jeremy Foley said. "Back then, you sold a ticket, opened the gates and they came."
Now it's not that easy.
At Michigan, student sales were off so significantly this spring (an estimated 5,000 season tickets, according to MLive.com) that the school made some of that allotment available to the general public. Iowa has been so desperate to draw students, it recently offered entry into a tuition giveaway drawing in exchange for buying a season ticket. Even Alabama has had issues filling its student section, prompting complaints from coach Nick Saban last year.
"It's a very real concern," Oklahoma athletics director Joe Castiglione said. "It certainly gives reason for pause, because right now the demand for tickets may still be high overall in the marketplace, but within that segment the demand isn't as strong. It's an ongoing issue the last couple years, and we're trying a lot of different things to attract students to create a stronger connection."
Though not every program is experiencing a student malaise -- Minnesota, for instance, experienced an increase of 10,000 students across its seven home games last year in correlation with a surprising 8-5 season -- the data suggest athletics departments are finding it harder to draw students to the stadium and keep them there.
What that trend means is a matter of debate within the industry.
Is it simply a function of whether a team is winning or losing? Is it about where student seats are located? Has the fan experience gotten stale? Is it because attending a college football game essentially requires a full-day commitment? Is it because most college stadiums are not equipped with enough wireless connectivity to support the typical student's desire to Facebook and Instagram every moment of their lives?
All of those questions are being asked at the highest levels of athletics departments with surveys and focus groups to help guide marketing efforts and improve the game-day experience for students.
But the bigger potential issue is difficult to quantify and even harder to fix: Are the so-called "millennials" simply not as interested in college football?
"You've never seen (television) ratings higher, so the games are being watched," Purdue athletics director Morgan Burke said. "But schools that traditionally thought they never would have to have a sales arm as part of their athletic department now have a sales arm. That tells you something. We're as concerned as everybody else that this generation somehow doesn't have the same affinity for football and that it can hurt you at the gate down the road."
In some ways, schools have done this to themselves. College football is owned by television and increasingly available on streaming video. The Pac-12, Big Ten and now the Southeastern Conference have their own networks, guaranteeing that practically every game is televised. Even some of the smaller leagues such as the Mountain West and American Athletic Conference have deals to live stream a large portion of their content that isn't picked up by national television.
Though the television problem affects all ages, college athletics already captured a large segment of older fans before nearly every game was available in high-definition on a variety of devices.
The factors and potential consequences are different projecting the younger generation. If schools are struggling to get their millennials to come to the stadium now -- when tickets are plentiful and cheap -- how can they reasonably expect to convert them into ticket buyers and donors down the road?
"The likelihood of someone who didn't go to games when they're an undergrad becoming a fan at age 40 is probably 1 in a million," Pittsburgh athletics director Steve Pederson said. "If you didn't participate at that time, I don't know why you'd begin later on in life."
As college football increasingly becomes a TV sport, the entire paradigm might have to change. Partial season ticket packages and smaller stadiums might become the norm, as opposed to the donors schools can count on to shell out thousands of dollars year after year just for the right to buy their seats.
"I hear concern from various (athletics directors) that their season ticket base is aging," Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner John Swofford said. "You need to step back and take a look at the reasons and really understand what (younger people) want from that game-day experience.
"And if I'm an athletics director now and I'm building a stadium or a basketball arena, I'd be very careful about the size of it. For years, people always felt bigger was better. And I don't think that's true anymore, nor do I think it will be true going forward."