Cal Football attendance in 2021 and why I should never be optimistic ever
The glass was once half-full because it had been spilling out all over me.
Everyone knows the best way to say goodbye is a quick calc-you-later, so I have to write one more numbers post before my time on this site ends this season and what better topic than Cal Football attendance—an evergreen focus of fan anguish and hand-wringing?
Unfortunately, the NCAA won’t be releasing their attendance figures for a few more months, so the only way for me to get this post out given the timing is to use numbers from the wholly convenient and wildly unreliable Wikipedia.
The following graph (Fig. 1) shows the per-game average attendance for each Pac-12 school and the conference average. With attendance booming at Washington, I really can’t fathom why they ever got rid of Jimmy Lake—give him a 15-year extension! Unfortunately, the Bears come in below the Pac-12 average; though the UC Berkeley students among our fanbase are certainly well-accustomed to coming in below the average on an exam, this is still troubling for the football team.
Perhaps of greatest concern is that the gap between California and Stanfurd attendance is shrinking; Figure 1 shows how close the Bay Area rivals were in 2021 compared to this same analysis in 2019. That being said, I’m put somewhat at ease when you look at our schedules against in-state rivals—which were the biggest crowds in Stanfurd Stadium by a large margin at 47k and 49k, whereas no other home game was able to crack 32k. Early on in the season, Stanfurd still managed to have an winning record (2–1) while they hosted a UCLA team that was nationally ranked and nationally relevant with a win over LSU; they also got the Big Game, which always draws—plus, Cal was still hanging on by a thread to bowl contention at the time. On the other hand, there was less variation in Cal’s attendance based on opponent (35k to 42k if you throw out the Sac State game) and our one visit from a Californian rival was a late-night game against USC that was rescheduled on short notice and when the two teams were guaranteed to be bowl-ineligible.
Moving on (Fig. 2), we have a comparison between this year’s (unofficial) data and the NCAA’s official attendance data for 2019 from our last breakdown—since that was the last year that fans were allowed to attend Pac-12 games. Almost all of the schools saw decreases compared to their 2019 attendance; on average, the Pac-12 attendance in 2021 dropped by 5.7% compared to 2019. The team with the biggest percent decrease compared to 2019 was Washington State, which lost 16.1% of their 2019 crowd. The next biggest percent decreases were for the Golden Bears and the Wildcats at 11.9 and 11.7%. Only UCLA and Utah saw increases, with the former likely being attributed to Chip Kelly finally somewhat figuring things out for the first time in Westwood.
So, how does the 2021 data look relative to Cal’s historical data? Figure 3 shows the attendance at Memorial Stadium for NCAA-official numbers from 2002–2019, a COVID-cancelled 2020, and Wikipedia-stated 2021. As previously mentioned, the crowds at Strawberry Canyon took a bit of a hit compared to 2019—which makes me feel pretty damn foolish for once being optimistic about the future of Cal Football and its attendance in 2019. Life—always there to sweep the rug out from under you.
It’s tough to pinpoint why exactly Cal’s attendance is dropping—and it’s the job of people far smarter than me who are getting paid by the athletic department to figure out why. Across the conference, there’s an almost-universal drop with ten of the twelve teams seeing decreases of varying magnitudes compared to their 2019 numbers (Fig. 2). This suggests there may be a common cause for the drops and the big thing that should be on the front of all our minds (and faces) is the coronavirus. It’s possible that COVID awakened an epiphany in West Coast fanbases that there’s more to life than the anguish that is college football (which should especially resonate with you as a Cal fan). Alternatively, it’s possible that this subset of fans feels uncomfortable being so close thousands of strangers in a venue with no mask enforcement—even if it is outdoors.
Refocusing on Memorial Stadium, the one way that I can polish this data is with continued hope and optimism—which is crazy because I just bemoaned the last time I felt optimism for our attendance because life has taught me that hope is hopeless. But besides just winning, I see one possible way for our numbers to start improving. With Justin Wilcox reportedly turning down an offer from the moneybags that is Scrooge McDuck, Golden Bears have taken to the internet to rejoice and express a renewed sense of vigor that someone chose us. If this enthusiasm can translate to ticket sales, if the team can keep winning, and if we get some better luck in one-score games, then hopefully all the components are there for things to turn up
I agree the #1 reason for lower attendance is covid. None of my friends went this year bc we all have young kids who can't get vaccinated yet. I do wonder if the numbers represent actual attendance or "tickets sold." I have 3 season tickets but attended none, similar to many of my friends.
As for increasing attendance, there's really only one way: win and they will come.
As it turned out I only attended three games in person this season - Nevada, Wazzu, and SC. Two were painful losses. Looking around, it seems the crowds were smaller than the announced figures. Winning games obviously will help with attendance, and the demise of Covid someday. Also, since every game is now televised there is less incentive to attend. Obviously if the commissioner can re-negotiate the TV contracts to increase the pool of money this will help offset athletic department expenses.