Kolpack: Loss of traditional powers hasn't hurt FCS football at the gate
FARGO—One by one, some of the top heavyweights in the FCS left the building. It was like taking Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield out of boxing and replacing them with a bunch of cruiserweights.
There just doesn't seem to be much left to excite the fight fan and the ratings have reflected that. Anthony Joshua has the WBA, IBF and IBO belts, making him the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.
How many of you knew that? How many of you even heard of Anthony Joshua?
That doesn't appear to be the case in the FCS—the Football Championship Subdivision. True, Appalachian State and Georgia Southern left after the 2013 season. Old Dominion bolted after 2012 and also around that time North Carolina-Charlotte took the leap.
And with their departure went four of the highest-drawing programs in the FCS. In their last year in the division, Appalachian State averaged 24,894 fans a game; Old Dominion 20,037; Charlotte 15,541 and Georgia Southern 14,828.
Yet, figures recently released by the NCAA indicate—despite the loss of some top dogs—the FCS isn't suffering at the gate. In fact, it's increasing.
Average per game attendance for 2017 was 8,223, up from the 2013 average of 8,112 when the FCS had more stadium-friendly heavyweights in the division. The story with the FBS last week was opposite—attendance is in decline, down at just over 1,400 a game from 2016. The average of 42,203 is the lowest per game since 1997.
It's down across the board. It certainly doesn't help FBS that the transitioning FCS teams don't have big stadiums. But the Power 5 schools are also seeing a downward trend in attendance.
Don't look now, but those former FCS traditional powers are being replaced in the stands by the likes of Florida A&M, Prairie View A&M and North Carolina A&T, all of whom finished in the top 10 in attendance. Prairie View averaged 5,382 per game in 2013; it was eighth this year at 17,803.
The Prairie View figure is skewed in the fact a neutral-site game vs. Grambling at the Cotton Bowl that drew 55,231 counted toward its home attendance. But the NCAA has always done that so consider it a wash in the yearly average.
For instance, Southern University (La.) finished fourth in the FCS attendance in 2013, but that also included a neutral-site game against Grambling that drew 47,385 at the Superdome in New Orleans.
Florida A&M saw an increase of almost 8,000 a game in that five-year span and was third in the FCS attendance this year at 19,048—more than NDSU's 18,333. Florida A&M's Bragg Memorial Stadium, located in Tallahassee, carries a capacity of 25,500 and the Rattlers' game with North Carolina A&T had about that many people.
"People realize you can see some really good football games with a lot of high-level talent," said NDSU athletic director Matt Larsen. "Look at the number of guys in the (NFL) Combine and all-star games from the FCS level, there's a lot of talent there. So I think the fact you're seeing good attendance is because of the quality of the product."
Also helping are better non-conference matchups like NDSU playing Eastern Washington in a home-and-home the last two years. The Bison start a home-and-home series with Delaware next fall when the Blue Hens come to Fargo, with NDSU playing at Delaware in 2019.
Other clashes of note next year include Montana State at South Dakota State, Northern Iowa and Western Illinois at Montana, North Dakota at Sam Houston State and South Dakota at Weber State.
"You're starting to see more matchups that you typically wouldn't see," Larsen said. "I think that's helped drive things in term of fan enjoyment."
The Bison put some enjoyment into their seven-game home schedule next fall. They open with triple-option Cal Poly, host FCS newbie North Alabama followed by the Blue Hens for the non-conference portion. Missouri Valley Football Conference home games are South Dakota State, Illinois State, Youngstown State and Southern Illinois.
NDSU will sell out just because of the game-day event it has created. It's the place to be on Saturdays. As for a good chunk of the rest of the FCS, it's hanging in there nicely.