Forget the Super Bowl... college football is the REALLY big draw for US Sport fans
The NFL may be the commercial Goliath, but college football attracts more fans to games
One incredible quirk in American sport is that the nation’s most popular professional league, the NFL, where the jewel in the crown is the annual Super Bowl, is far from the biggest crowd-puller.
The NFL is the premium TV property in the USA, dominating any list of most-watched programmes, of any genre, in any year.
As 2024 dawned, it was 100-per-cent certain that the 58th Super Bowl, staged in Paradise, Nevada, last night — and contested by the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers — would be the most-watched event in America in 2024. That was regardless of who was playing in it.
We’ll come back to the colossal cultural importance of the NFL and the Super Bowl but there’s another arm of US sport that sells way more tickets, and has entire communities obsessed.
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The 2023 regular NFL season average paying attendances of 69,478 fans per game across its 32 teams and 272 regular season games. That is huge. It’s by far the highest average attendance for any pro sports league in the world.
The next best-attended league is the Bundesliga, Germany’s top soccer division, where the most recently completed season in 2022-23 had average attendances at almost 43,000 fans per match.
And yet the biggest crowd puller in all of American sport, and global sport is … college football. Or in other words, gridiron teams from US universities playing against each other.
No fewer than 19 university teams had bigger average home attendances in the 2023 season than the NFL’s 2023 average of 69,478.
Seven of those college football teams, from the Michigan Wolverines to the teams representing the universities of Penn State, Ohio State, Tennessee, Texas, Louisiana State University and Alabama, had average attendances in 2023 of more than 100,000 fans per home game.
Michigan’s average attendance in 2023 was 109,971. The stadium’s official capacity is 107,601 but on 10 occasions since 2010 alone, attendances have topped 113,000. This isn’t because tickets are cheap: in 2024 the average ticket price per game will be $82.50, which is about £65, or 75 euros.
Some soccer fans will be familiar with Michigan’s stadium, nicknamed The Big House. A 2014 summer friendly match between Manchester United and Real Madrid attracted more than 109,000 fans, while a 2016 Real Madrid-Chelsea game sold nearly 106,000 tickets and United versus Liverpool at the venue in 2018 sold more than 101,000 tickets.
Another mind-blowing statistic is that between 1975 and the start of the Covid pandemic in 2020, the Michigan Wolverines played 293 consecutive home games in front of paying crowds that never dipped below 100,000. The average attendance across 44 years was 106,918 fans per game.
Make no mistake, the NFL and Super Bowl are phenomenal: the 57th Super Bowl in February 2023 had 115 million TV viewers inside the USA alone. The next most-watched programme of 2023 in the USA was also an NFL game, but with less than half the audience, and 29 of the 30 most-watched shows in 2023 were NFL games, interrupted only by the 2023 Oscars in 15th place, with 19.4m viewers.
Among the 20 most-watched TV shows in the history of American television, 19 of them have been Super Bowls. And the 20th was the last-ever episode of the war comedy-drama M*A*S*H in 1983, which drew 105.9m viewers. (Some revisionist estimates now say the Apollo Moon Landings in 1969 and Richard Nixon’s resignation speech in 1974 are also in the top-20 list but they are just that, estimates. Super Bowls reign supreme).
Another statistic about the primacy of the Super Bowl stands out. The 2024 event’s main broadcaster, CBS, sold out their entire inventory of advertising slots by early November 2023, with an average cost of $7m per 30-second advert. Typically, there are 50 minutes of ads in a Super Bowl broadcast, from start to finish, or 100 slots banking $700m in revenue, from one gridiron game.
And yet, college football as a centrepiece in US culture is a phenomenon with rocket boosters. Sixteen of the biggest 20 sports stadiums in the USA, measured by capacity, are the homes of college football teams. No NFL stadium appears on that list before No.16, which is the 82,500-capacity MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, home to the New York Giants and New York Jets.
At the start of 2024, no fewer than 36 college football coaches in the USA earned basic annual pay of $5m or more. And at least 84 of them were earning $1m+ per year. For sports fans pretty much everywhere else in the world this will be mind-boggling: that university sports team coaches earn seven figures basic.
Nick Saban at Alabama was earning $11.4m dollars a year to coach their football team. He just retired from that and will now work as an ESPN pundit. Dabo Swinney at Clemson University in South Carolina earns nearly $11m a year, basic. In 2022 he signed a contract extension to stay in his post to 2031 in a deal worth $115m.
TV contracts to screen college games are worth billions per year, which underpins the universities’ ability to spend up to hundreds of millions of dollars per year on their sports teams.
So why is college football so popular?
History is of paramount importance. It’s a cliche that Americans often marvel at Europe’s history, from medieval castles to the Roman Empire and Ancient Greece, while Europeans scoff that Americans think anything over 150 years old is hugely historic.
US collegiate sport dates back to the 19th century… the first Super Bowl didn’t happen until 1967
But US collegiate sport has a rich history, with a football game between Princeton and Rutgers University in November 1869 viewed by many historians as the first collegiate gridiron game, even though it incorporated elements of soccer and rugby. The first Super Bowl didn’t happen until 1967.
Many of the major college football rivalries of today date back to the 1880s. Michigan first played Notre Dame in 1887. The Army versus Navy game dates back to 1890. That fixture is one of the most enduring rivalries in college football. The Army-Navy game has often been attended by the US President. It’s been televised nationally since 1945.
The US Army, Navy and Air Force teams all play in college football leagues. Their respective coaches as 2024 dawned were Jeff Monken (Army), Brian Newberry (Navy) and Troy Calhoun (Air Force). They respectively earn $2m, $1.6m and $1.7m a year.
They are the three highest-paid people in the entire US military infrastructure, albeit with privately fund-raised salaries. It’s common for this fact to be met by spluttering US Navy men fuming that the department of defence don’t pay their wages, if though it was never stated they did. The point is these are teams affiliated to the three key military branches and their coaches earn multiples of actual high-ranked soldiers. For context, a four-star general, the highest-ranked soldier in America, earns $212,000 a year.
Other college football rivalries, among many, include the ‘Battle of the Brothers’ (Utah v Utah State, dating back to 1892); ‘Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate’ (Georgia v Georgia Tech, dating back to 1893); and ‘Battle for Highway 92’ (Alabama v Mississippi State, dating back to 1896).
Layered onto the importance of history in college football is the collegiate affiliation of students who have passed through universities where football has been such an integral part of their college life. These alumni run into many millions at the biggest universities.
College football is massive especially in parts of America where there have been few or no professional teams, including in the Midwest and South.
The game-day experience is also fundamental, not least the tailgating tradition of cooking food and drinking out of the back of your car. Throw academic and city rivalry into the pot and college football’s popularity becomes understandable.
All of college football’s key attractions can arguably be collated under the heading ‘community’.
NFL is the commercial Goliath. But the vast majority of NFL players reach that big stage via college football — and college football is essentially the unpaid amateur pyramid that supports and supplies the premium product. That is why fans flock to it, in gobsmacking numbers.
A version of this feature has been made into an animated video by Tifo Sports