The time has come for the NCAA to return the championship weekend to smaller stadiums and venues.
Seventh-seeded Duke's 16-10 rout of top-seeded Syracuse in Monday's tournament final at Lincoln Financial Field was marred by an announced attendance of 28,224 – the smallest crowd to watch a title game since championship weekend was moved to professional football stadiums for the 2003 campaign and since 2002.
The weekend attendance of 79,179 (28,224 for the Division I final, 22,511 for the Division II and III finals on Sunday and 28,444 for the Division I semifinals on Saturday) marked the third consecutive year in which the crowds got smaller and smaller.
Previous attendance figures were blamed on the absence of a popular program like Syracuse, Johns Hopkins and Virginia and the presence of stifling heat and humidity. But the Orange, the NCAA leader in national titles with 10, advanced to the championship final, and the weather was cool – some might say downright chilly – in Philadelphia all weekend.
There may be other reasons that carry more weight with regards to declining attendance. One is ticket prices. As John Jiloty of Inside Lacrosse wrote Tuesday morning, the most inexpensive all-session ticket when the three-day event was moved to M&T Bank Stadium in 2003 was $40 with parking costing $25.
The cheapest pass for this past weekend was $85, and the price at M&T Bank Stadium next May is $79 with parking set at $55.
Another factor is the power of ESPN to broadcast the games into homes across the country. The technology for delivering the games to television sets is more advanced than ever, and viewers can enjoy the action and commentary without leaving their homes.
So what are the options for the NCAA? Currently, the minimum threshold for a stadium to bid for the right to play host to championship weekend is 40,000 seats. Anthony Holman, the NCAA's associate director of championships and alliances and the championship administrator for DI men's lacrosse, told Jiloty that the requirement could be lowered to entice more bids, but speculated that it would not dip below the number of fans who watched Saturday's Division I semifinals.
As Jiloty pointed out, that would eliminate venues like PPL Park in Philadelphia, which seats 18,500 and Red Bull Stadium in Harrison, N.J., which seats 25,000. But sites like Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis (34,000 seats), Rutgers' High Point Solutions Stadium in New Brunswick, N.J. (52,000) and Maryland's Byrd Stadium in College Park (54,000) could become more attractive options.
Both Holman and Jeff Jarnecke, the NCAA associate director of championships and alliances, told Jiloty that the Final Four would unlikely be moved out of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions.
Moving to smaller stadiums seems to be the best short-term move for the NCAA. The number of empty seats at Lincoln Financial Field was alarming, and it could not have looked good on television. Packing smaller venues would bring back an electricity to the three-day event.
"I think being in an NFL stadium is kind of neat for the kids, but I also can see that if you had it in a smaller venue, it might seem like there's a bigger crowd, and the crowd might be more on top of the players and maybe that would seem to make it a little bit louder," Maryland coach John Tillman said Tuesday morning. "I can see both ways with it. I don't have a strong opinion one way or the other. But I do think that it is something that as coaches we will certainly talk about and look at because we obviously take a lot of pride in that weekend and trying to make it a great one."
There is little that can be done about television. Fans will come to watch or they will stay home to watch. But perhaps a move to smaller sites would help lower the cost of ticket prices, which might make it easier for families and cost-conscious fans to shell out hard-earned money.
The NCAA plans to announce host cities for championship weekend from 2015 to 2018. Bids will be accepted until Sept. 16 and the cities will be named in December.
The NCAA has a prime opportunity to make the right decision. The future popularity of the sport could depend on it.