When the Pac-12 added Colorado and Utah in 2011, the conference split into two six-team divisions, thus creating a conference championship game. The benefits were endless. Championship high-stakes football! TV deals! Money, money and more money!
The first year was a bit anticlimactic. You see, in 2011, the USC Trojans won the Pac-12 south with a 7-2 record, but were ineligible to play in postseason games due to NCAA sanctions. So the slot went to UCLA, who went just 5-4 in the conference. Despite the dull matchup, nearly 60,000 Oregon fans packed Autzen Stadium for the game.
They tried to make it as “neutral” as possible, even throwing a huge UCLA banner up onto Autzen Stadium.
The Ducks won decisively 49-31, eventually going on to defeat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.
The following year, 31,622 fans attended the Pac-12 Championship between No. 8 Stanford and No. 16 UCLA. Again, the conference tried to keep this game as “neutral” as possible, even giving UCLA an entrance filled with pyrotechnics. This is probably the loudest Stanford Stadium has ever gotten. The stadium was only about 60% full, but that’s just Stanford football games every week.
In 2013, the No. 11 Arizona State Sun Devils hosted No. 7 Stanford. The 69,535 fans in attendance (97% full) at Sun Devil Stadium that year are the most of the five games played. The inaugural 2011 game at Autzen Stadium was the only game to exceed stadium capacity at 110%.
Then, in 2014, the game was moved to Levi’s Stadium, the shiny new home of the San Francisco 49ers. Now, the conference had a beautiful NFL stadium to host its championship at like the other major conferences. There was just one major problem. They couldn’t fill the stadium. Like, not even remotely close.
The 2014 Pac-12 Championship between No. 2 Oregon and No. 7 Arizona was set to be a thrilling matchup with major playoff implications. The issue was that fans seemed perfectly content to watch from home instead of trekking to Santa Clara on a Friday night.
Only 45,618 fans showed up for that game, leaving nearly 23,000 seats (almost 35% of the stadium) empty. Watching the teams charge out onto the field with pyrotechnics and tens of thousands of empty seats was a bit pathetic, to be honest.
Probably going to be a similar attendance at Levi’s Stadium to the 2014 game when there were over 20,000 empty seats. pic.twitter.com/K7q1Cth8Kq— Sean Larson (@seanlarsonATQ) December 2, 2016
The next year, even with two California teams playing (one being Stanford, which is a 20 minute drive from the stadium), there were still about 10,000 empty seats.
Tonight’s championship between Washington and Colorado should be another one featuring 20,000-plus empty seats. The other day on an Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle to San Jose, every passenger on board found free tickets to the game on their seat. That’s how bad it has gotten. The conference is literally giving away tickets to people coming to the area.
“Hey, we know you probably have better things to do with your Friday night, but want to come to Santa Clara to watch a conference championship game? No? Ok, just thought we’d offer.”
The turnout at Levi’s Stadium has been a flop every year the game has been there. And with the exception of the game at Stanford Stadium (because their fans probably didn't even know they were playing that night), attendance has otherwise been phenomenal when it is played at one of the team’s stadiums.
Location has been one big issue as many fans don't want to spend the money on flights and hotels when they can just as easily watch the game at home or at a bar. The Friday night schedule has also been a disaster. Guess what, Larry Scott? People still work on a Friday! Some people are even still at the office at 6:00 PM! My co-workers are usually there until well after 7:00! If Scott is willing to call everyone’s bosses and get us all a paid afternoon off to come down, maybe the stadium could at least be 80 percent full.
It’s time to bring the game back to the college campus. If you bring it back to a college, even if you keep it on a Friday, you'll get a packed student section at the minimum. I was in the student section in 2011 at Autzen and I can tell you, the campus was buzzing that day. It was the place to be in Eugene that night.
Bringing the game back to the college campuses would also give teams something to play for. Tonight’s championship has HUGE implications for both teams. I think Colorado has a good shot at upsetting Washington tonight. But put that game in Seattle with 70,000 fans and that joint will be rocking. The Huskies would win decisively. Want an edge at winning the biggest game of your season? Be the best in the conference all year long and earn that home-field advantage.
It’s time to make this game fun again. Pack it with the local, rowdy fans and don't limit it to those who can afford absurd airfare and hotel rates, which will probably cost you at least 500 bucks if you only stay one night. If the Pac-12 had hosted this game at Husky Stadium, they would've gotten a sold out stadium to show off to the rest of the nation. Instead, you'll probably be able to hear the peanut vendor walking up and down the empty aisles at Levi’s Stadium tonight.