Kevin Prince has experienced a rollicking Rose Bowl, fans jamming the massive stadium to near capacity, as well as smaller crowds that still outnumbered those of nearly every other college football team on the West Coast.
What the former UCLA quarterback has observed in recent years left him wondering: Where did everybody go?
“When most of the stadium is empty, it’s not a good look,” Prince said. “It does change the dynamic and the feel and the atmosphere for sure. So it’s sad to see.”
UCLA’s average home attendance of 51,164 last season at the 80,616-seat stadium was its smallest since 1999, continuing a steep decline that started in 2017. Last season’s crowds were down 33.2% from the school-record 76,650 the Bruins averaged in 2014, when they went 10-3 and were ranked as high as No. 7 in national polls.
Three consecutive losing seasons are just part of the explanation. Increased donation requirements, uncertain game times that make planning difficult, weekday games that snarl traffic and a slew of other sports and entertainment options in Southern California are among the issues that have driven fans away from the venue that Sports Illustrated recently called the greatest in college football.
UCLA (0-1) entered this season having announced kickoff times for only two of six games at the Rose Bowl, including its home opener Saturday at 1:15 p.m. against San Diego State (1-0). Some starting times may not be known until as few as six days before games as television networks jostle for the best matchups in the best time slots.
“You can’t plan your weekend, which is so precious with family time,” said Greg McGinity, a UCLA fan from Redondo Beach who hasn’t been to a game at the Rose Bowl since 2012 because of the uncertainty. “The game could be at noon or it may be at 8 o’clock and you may not be able to get home until midnight.”
UCLA can’t be blamed for the starting times because it has no control over the issue; donation requirements are another matter. The athletic department sharply increased mandatory donation requirements attached to some season ticket packages in 2016 in an effort to offset the rising costs of the school’s 25 sports teams.
Some longtime season ticket holders revolted. Steve Prince, Kevin’s father, gave up the season tickets he had held in the family since his freshman year at UCLA in 1963.
Before the increase, he had split one $1,500 yearly donation for the four season tickets he shared with a friend for seats at the 50-yard line. Prince said that amount ballooned to a $1,600 yearly donation per ticket in 2016, causing the average donation per seat per game to go from $62.50 to $266.67 over a typical six-game home schedule.
“It just wasn’t worth it,” said Prince, who now mostly watches games on television from his home in Fallbrook.
A UCLA athletic department representative said the increase came only after a policy review that involved surveys of season-ticket holders in addition to interviews with every other Pac-12 Conference school, a focus group and a national review of Power Five institutions.
“The change was made with an eye toward the future, and the necessity of generating new, sustainable revenue,” the representative said. “The department understood and anticipated a certain amount of attrition, as tends to happen with any major program change.”
Dwindling crowds have been an issue throughout college football in recent seasons, reaching a 22-year low in 2018, when every Power Five conference except the Atlantic Coast Conference saw a decline in attendance. UCLA also has the unique challenge of playing its home games at a stadium located 27 miles from campus, prompting many students to ride free buses to games.
“You’ve got students who want to enjoy their weekend and do other things if the product’s not great,” said Kevin Prince, who played from 2008 to 2012. “So I think just the fact that it’s truly an all-day event and if you’re going to sacrifice your whole day to go to a game, you want to have it be worthwhile.”
Some of the smallest crowds have come as a result of scheduling games on weekdays, requiring some fans to leave work early and contend with congested freeways during rush hour if they want to attend. The Bruins drew only 41,848 for a Friday game against Utah last season. In 2017, when UCLA went undefeated at home, it drew a season-low 50,287 for a Friday game against California.
This is another issue out of UCLA’s control because Pac-12 television contracts require member schools to host two weekday games in a three-year span.
UCLA has invested in efforts to improve the fan experience while working with the Rose Bowl and the city of Pasadena in recent seasons, completing more than $186 million in renovations and upgrades.
Scores of season-ticket holders were also relocated from the sunny side of the stadium to a shady section before the 2017 season to improve comfort during day games. Tickets have been offered at a steep discount on Groupon and some $35 tickets for the San Diego State game went for just $19.19 as part of a centennial celebration.
Many fans received a robocall from former Bruins quarterback and Pro Football Hall of Famer Troy Aikman asking them to come out and support the team.
Roughly 25,000 season tickets have been sold for 2019, the athletic department representative said, including a renewal rate of 80% to 85% that’s consistent with the school’s average over the last five years.
UCLA has also targeted fans unwilling to commit to season-ticket donations through the creation of a Blue Zone that provides reserved seating for home games via mobile-device passes that go for as little as $149 for the season. More than 1,000 Blue Zone seats, located either in the first nine rows or the upper reaches of the stadium, have been sold.
Estimating how much revenue UCLA generates off its home crowds can be tricky because announced attendance figures don’t fully reflect the number of fans who paid to watch the game. The athletic department representative said the announced attendance accounts for scanned tickets as well as non-ticketed groups including teams, bands, spirit squads and credentialed media and staff.
Tom Keiser of Pasadena is among those who have watched the Bruins play for free. He attended a game against Utah in 2016 with his grandson after receiving complimentary tickets as part of an elementary school giveaway.
“That’s called papering the house, when there’s [an event] and there’s not enough people to show up and it’s going to look bad,” Keiser said. “They give the tickets away just hoping somebody will show up.”
Even amid its recent decline, UCLA remains one of the top draws on the West Coast; the school’s home attendance last season trailed only Washington, Oregon and USC in the Pac-12, even though the Bruins must compete with the Trojans and 11 professional sports franchises in the region vying for the same entertainment dollars.
USC’s attendance also suffered in 2018. The Trojans averaged 55,449 fans per home game, the lowest mark at the Coliseum since 2001.
It was only three years ago that UCLA ranked No. 23 nationally in average home attendance, drawing 67,459 per game in 2016 while trailing only USC among Pac-12 teams. From 2005 to 2016, UCLA ranked in the top 28 nationally in average home attendance every year except 2011.
Over the last two-plus seasons, huge home crowds have become as elusive as a national ranking for a team that’s gone a combined 9-17.
Those among UCLA’s Westside fan base calling for the team to move its home games to the new Los Angeles Stadium in Inglewood will be disappointed to learn that the school’s Rose Bowl lease runs through June 30, 2044, and does not include an opt-out clause. UCLA isn’t abandoning the stadium it’s called home since 1982 anytime soon.
Less definitive is when the Bruins will next host a big home crowd. School officials would not provide an estimate for Saturday’s game against San Diego State, though it seems unlikely UCLA would draw significantly more than the 38,391 who attended the 2018 season finale against Stanford. That was the Bruins’ smallest home crowd in 21 years.
The Bruins’ home game with USC last season drew 57,116, the smallest crowd for the rivalry game since 1950.
One potential solution to the disappearing crowds doesn’t require much creativity.
“The No. 1 thing obviously is just winning, right?” Kevin Prince said. “Winning changes everything, so if they all of a sudden rattle off six wins, you’re probably going to see a jam-packed Rose Bowl.”