By Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As the 2014 U.S. college football season kicks off, athletic departments face one big worry - that fans of one of the nation's most popular sports are watching it from sofas or bars, rather than filling stadiums.
Even as the value of television contracts and merchandise sales soars for top teams, university administrators sweat the empty seats, given that ticket sales are still the top revenue generator for college sports.
They are turning to cash prizes, better Internet access in stadiums, improved scoreboards and fan focus groups as they fight to cling on to their share of an increasingly saturated U.S. sports market.
"You can't just rely on, 'We are the University of X, Y and Z and our football team is playing today' and fill up" stadiums, said Haynes Hendrickson, president of Turnkey Intelligence, a sports marketing firm in Haddonfield, New Jersey.
Falling attendance among students is a special warning sign for college football since undergraduates who skip games are unlikely to become season-ticket holders after they graduate, experts said.
"You want your students to attend the games, because they become a fan for life," said Bob Vecchione, executive director of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics.
Figures from the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which oversees college sports, show the number of fans going to games has been sliding for several years. Per-game attendance in the NCAA's Division I, which groups the biggest schools, fell to 28,427 last season, down 3.5 percent from 2008.
For Division I's powerhouse Football Bowl Subdivision, whose 127 schools enjoy billions of dollars in long-term television contracts, attendance dropped to 45,192 per game last year, a decline of almost 3 percent over six seasons.
Fans increasingly want to be connected to the Internet to follow other games and comment on the one they are watching, experts said. That's easier done at home, in a bar or a fraternity house, than in a stadium.
"We do know that the ability to tweet, Instagram, text - those things were important to people that are attending these games," said Jeremy Sharpe, an associate athletic director at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Attendance at Arizona games has fallen 9 percent from 2008, even as the Wildcats posted a winning record over those six seasons. The school has now upgraded cellular phone service at Arizona Stadium and enhanced its video screen display, Sharpe said.
In 2013, Arizona gave out cash prizes to students in its rooting section who stayed for entire games. This year, students who stayed to the end of the first game, a 58-13 win over University of Nevada-Los Vegas, were eligible to win a flat-screen TV, Sharpe said.
Ninety-four percent of athletic directors and other college sports professionals polled by Mortenson Construction Co of Minneapolis in 2013 said their stadiums now had WiFi access for fans, or would have it in two or three years.
Those polled estimated that 35 percent of fans at football or basketball games followed the game on their smartphones, and expected that percentage to double in three years.
RICH GET RICHER
Dwindling attendance is inevitable as winning programs get more ticket and television money, and weaker schools fall further behind, said Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.
"It's just going to be much, much more difficult for any of the bottom-tier schools to rise up and be competitive," he said. "What's happened is that students and alums who traditionally have been the fans aren't interested in losing teams."
At the University of Maryland, game-day attendance sagged 14 percent last year from 2008 as the Terrapins posted an overall losing record. The school responded in part this year by upgrading its stadium's video displays and cellular phone coverage.
Attendance got a boost in 2014 following Maryland's switch to the Big 10 from the Atlantic Coast Conference. Season ticket sales are up by about 25 percent, and sellouts are expected for games with Ohio State and Michigan State, said Zachary Bolno, a senior associate athletics director.
But for Maryland student Francoise Douala, 20, of Baltimore, football games are take-it-or-leave-it social events.
"I don't really understand football unless someone's making a touchdown," she said. "It's like, 'Okay, we won, I could have read that online after the game.'"
(Additional reporting by Annika McGinnis in College Park, Maryland; Editing by Scott Malone and Bernadette Baum)