In 2018, the Mountain West had its worst football attendance ever, although it was far from alone in the struggle to get fans through the turnstile.
According to CBS Sports, the MW's average attendance of 23,862 fans per football game last season was a 4.4 percent drop from the season prior and the worst in the conference's history. Across the nation, attendance was 41,856 per game (down 347 fans, less than 1 percent overall). But it also marked the fifth straight season national attendance fell. The high-water mark came in 2008 when the average attendance was 46,971 fans per game. Eleven years later, attendance was down 5,115 fans per game last season, a decline of nearly 11 percent.
Regionally, the MW's average attendance of 23,862 ranked seventh out of 10 FBS conferences behind the five power conferences and the AAC, the league's chief rival for the top Group of 5 spot. The MW's 4.4 percent decline last season was the second largest of the 10 FBS conferences behind only the Pac-12, which saw a 6.1 percent decrease. The Sun Belt had the third-largest decline at 2.5 percent.
So who was to blame for the MW's attendance decline? We can look at it two ways. First, here was the average home attendance per MW school last season.
2018 MW attendance
1. Boise State, 33,068
2. Fresno State, 31,503
3. San Diego State, 31,439
4. Colorado State, 29,504
5. Air Force, 27,701
6. Hawaii, 25,682
7. Wyoming, 18,880
8. Utah State, 18,717
9. Nevada, 17,181
10. UNLV, 16,823
11. New Mexico, 16,587
12. San Jose State, 14,255
There's a gigantic split between the top six teams here and the bottom six. The top six are all at 25,000 or more. The bottom six are all at fewer than 19,000. The difference between the sixth and seventh spot is nearly 7,000 people per game, a huge difference. The Mountain teams averaged 24,076 fans per home game; the West teams averaged 22,814 fans per home game. Edge Mountain.
We also should evaluate how much each MW team went up or down in attendance from 2017 to 2018 to track why the conference's attendance dipped so much. Here are MW attendance trends from 2017 to 2018.
2018 MW attendance trend
1. Boise State, +6.2% (up 1,942 fans per game)
2. Hawaii, +5.9% (up 1,438 fans per game)
3. Fresno State, +2.8% (up 871 fans per game)
4. Nevada, +2.7 percent (up 459 fans per game)
5. SJSU, +0.3% (up 49 fans per game)
6. UNLV, -3.6% (down 626 fans per game)
7. Air Force, -5.0% (down 1,453 fans per game)
8. Utah State, -6.9% (down 1,391 fans per game)
9. Colorado State, -8.0% (down 2,558 fans per game)
10. Wyoming, -8.4% (down 1,734 fans per game)
11. San Diego State, -20.1% (down 7,908 fans per game)
12. New Mexico, -21.7% (down 4,607 fans per game)
The chief contributors to the decline were SDSU and New Mexico, which both saw declines of at least 20 percent. Wyoming and Colorado State, which was in its second season in its new stadium, also saw big declines. And Utah State, which went from 6-7 in 2017 to a nationally ranked 11-2 record in 2018, somehow saw a dip of 6.9 percent.
Nevada was a pleasant surprise after seeing a 2.7 percent increase, although it still ranked ninth out of 12 MW teams in average attendance. Boise State, Hawaii and Fresno State had the biggest increases, but eight of the 12 MW teams either stayed level (if we're counting SJSU) or declined. The number of MW teams with 19,000 or fewer fans per home game went from three in 2017 to six in 2018 (that's half the conference).
As noted above, this is a national trend as the television product is so good it hurts actual attendance. Drawing fans is not as simple as just winning games.
"Winning is not a strategy," Brad Wurthman, Virginia Tech's senior associate athletic director for external relations, told CBS. "That's our general mantra. It's nice to win, but I tell our staff all the time, 'Build the model (because) when coaches catch lightning we take advantage of it.'"
Utah State would be an example of winning not being a cure-all. And all of these attendance numbers are probably inflated by 20 to 30 percent if you were using actual attendance rather than tickets distributed. The MW, and the Pac-12, are in tougher spots than the rest of the nation as those conferences are asked to play a lot of night games for TV purposes. And when it comes to the MW, that means a lot of cold night games, although Nevada's attendance for night games is actually better than it is in day games over the last 10 seasons.
Attendance is an issue, an issue without an easy solution.