There’s always a crowd. Fans, worried parents, proud grandparents, cheerleaders, rabble-rousing students, maybe even the mayor, all packed in the stands create a memorable part of the high school athletics experience.
Hank Gola’s book about the 1939 Garfield High School national championship football team paints a vivid picture of a crowd of 19,000 at Foley Field for a Garfield vs. Bloomfield game. Today, that number almost seems made up.
Eighty years later, the games, rivalries and schools have remained largely the same. But what’s happened to the crowd? How did we go from 19,000 people at a game to about 1/20th of that on a good day?
A look at the numbers reveals that high school sports are experiencing a steady decline in event attendance. While there may not be any singular reason for that downturn, it will spark ripple impacts across the entire spectrum.
At the local level, more than a dozen athletic directors surveyed all see the same results. They don’t have tangible numbers – a lot of events don’t require admission – but it’s clear to them that empty seats are plentiful.
“Overall there are less people coming to events,” Northern Valley/Demarest athletic director Greg Butler said. “Teams having successful seasons, rival opponents, and tournament games will bring crowds but still not to the extent of crowds in the past.”
NJSIAA sees empty seats
The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, New Jersey’s governing body for high school athletics, keeps attendance numbers for its state championship events. In numbers it supplied to NorthJersey.com and the USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey, it’s clear that there has been a decline.
Even acknowledging that weather and match-ups are factors, the proof is there. The state boys soccer finals brought a paid crowd of 3,284 in 2015. It brought almost 700 fewer people in 2018.
The boys basketball group championships at Rutgers brought 10,259 people through the doors in 2017, but just 7,381 in 2018.
Football gate receipts reported by the NJSIAA showed a drastic drop-off of more than $100,000 from 2015-17. This year’s new “Bowl Game” concept, with 13 games played at MetLife Stadium, did not seem to connect with the schools. Final totals were not yet available, but the attendance was clearly sparse.
While most people assume football is New Jersey’s number one sport, the true revenue producer for the NJSIAA is the state wrestling finals in Atlantic City.
The 2019 event added girls wrestling to the format for the first time and shifted from a Friday-Sunday schedule to a Thursday-Saturday format. The NJSIAA announced a record crowd of more than 41,000 for the full event.
That was great news for the NJSIAA because it had seen total attendance in Atlantic City wane from 32,588 in 2015 to 30,230 in 2018. It seemed even lower because most of the crowd doesn’t stick around for the last few matches, leaving those to be contested in front of thousands of empty seats in Boardwalk Hall.
“I would definitely say, as I have gone around in my 14 years that, yes, our attendance was very good when I first came here,” NJSIAA Executive Director Larry White said.
“We’ve talked about it at the national level. When we had all the [state association] executive directors meetings in New York, we basically said, ‘what are we going to do?’ We have to think about it, because obviously, it is our major source of revenue.”
Where have the student fans gone?
Many athletic directors said that while parents and adults remain supportive, it’s the students that don’t seem to come.
“Crowds have been way down in the past five years or so,” West Milford athletic director Joe Trentacosta said. “Mainly with student spectators, I’ve noticed the drop off. Maybe they are busier more so these days than a few years ago.”
Fort Lee junior Jordan Sarnoff, a member of the NJSIAA’s Student Advisory, said kids his age have other options than going to the game that night.
As someone who lives and breathes sports, I don’t mind a three-and-a-half hour baseball game, but most people my age can’t sit through it,” Sarnoff said. “Blowouts, while common at all levels of sport, and the perception of what kids think is a ‘bad game’ leads to people not wanting to come. I think the sweet spot for high school sporting events is no more than an hour and 45 minutes. The only exception to this is football.”
Sarnoff also brings up the fact that sports fans, even high school ones, consume events differently now. The NJSIAA has multiple streaming agreements where fans can watch gamesfrom their devices. And if there is no livestream, Twitter or Periscope streams from other outlets provide instant updates, analysis and video.
Looking at other factors
A long time ago, Major League Baseball owners feared putting games on television and radio because it would harm paid attendance. Of course, it did just the opposite. It increased interest and created new generations of fans.
High school sports don’t exist in the same universe.
Parents and students come and go as they enter high school and move on. Yankees fans are Yankees fans for their whole lives; parents in Cresskill may only be rabid Cresskill basketball fans while their kids are in school. High school athletics constantly have to appeal to a new audience.
“We have too much competition with electronics and other forms of media,” Clifton athletic director Tom Mullahey said. “Years ago, high school games were the only place kids could go mingle. Now, much of it is done online.”
One also wonders if today’s high school star athletes can connect in the school community like they once did.
Many athletes in 2019 only know sports. Ask them for their second favorite thing to do behind playing basketball or baseball, and they struggle for an answer. If you’re playing sports in high school, you probably aren’t involved in any other extracurricular activities. This type of isolation might be what keeps other students from turning out.
“School culture in regards to sports is probably the biggest factor,” Dumont athletic director Mike Oppido said. “Some schools travel better than others in regards to spectators.”
High school athletics remain one of the pillars of American society. It’s where lessons are learned and friendships are made for a lifetime. But if there’s no one interested in seeing the result, how much of a future do these events have?