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The Pac-12 Championship’s crowds keep proving this game should go back to campus

If you have a hard time filling up an NFL stadium, just let the better division champ host this game instead.

It’s Championship Weekend, and to kick it all off at the Power 5 level, No. 11 Washington takes on No. 17 Utah in the Pac-12 Championship from Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. Both teams enter this game 9-3, with Washington clinching a berth in the game with an upset Apple Cup victory over Wazzu last week, Utah clinching it earlier this month vs. Colorado. It’s also pretty cool that this is Utah’s first Pac-12 title game appearance ever.

What might be a little disappointing about this game, which has a Rose Bowl berth on the line, is that the crowd turnout is again unimpressive. From right before the scheduled start time:

As you can probably guess, attendance has been an issue before. Here’s a look from the USC-Stanford matchup in 2017:

The 2016 game between Washington and Colorado, which had a Playoff berth on the line for UW:

And 2014’s game between Oregon and Arizona:

2015’s game between Stanford and USC had an attendance of 58,476, but a lot of that was probably due to both teams being in-state, with Stanford’s campus just 13 miles from Santa Clara. And there were still plenty of seats available.

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Championship Game-Southern California vs Stanford Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

But there are a few reasons for this consistently poor turnout.

Levi’s Stadium isn’t exactly the best venue

The $1.3 billion-dollar project has underwhelmed. As described in February, the host stadium of Super Bowl 50 has a ton of glaring issues.

There's the screwed-up turf. There's the fact that half the stadium is positioned such that anyone sitting there stands a good chance of being baked to death beneath the Santa Clara sun.

There's the humdrum reality of having a stadium an hour's drive south of the city its team is named for.

There's the traffic -- oh, the traffic -- that turns 101 and 280 into parking lots.

There's the fact that the actual parking lots around the stadium are somehow worse, fewer and more expensive than Candlestick's to the point that the stadium had to buy overflow parking spots from the neighboring Great America.

Kevin Jones, formerly of KNBR in San Fransisco, described the stadium to SB Nation as such:

“It's a stadium in the middle of Silicon Valley meant more for champagne schmoozing and caviar corporate crowd than the actual beer and nachos football fans.”

Oh, and Levi’s is pretty far from both Utah and Washington — 767 miles from Salt Lake City and 838 from Seattle.

The game kicks off at a ridiculous time

Kickoff for this game is set for 8 p.m. ET, which means it’ll be 5 p.m. local time. I don’t know about you, but I’m willing to bet there aren’t many average American workers who can easily make a 5 p.m. football game on a Friday, so even local casual fans will have a hard time getting in.

The Pac-12 has put this game on Friday night in the past as well, probably to avoid the bigger Big Ten and SEC games on the Saturday TV schedule.

Tickets to 2016’s game were literally being given away ...

On Thursday, The News Tribune reported that Alaska Airlines gave passengers on a flight from Seattle to San Jose, Calif. two free tickets to the game.

Alaska Airlines is one of UW football’s biggest sponsors, given the 10-year, $41 million deal struck for the the naming rights to Alaska Airlines Field at Husky Stadium. But you have to assume that if there’s enough for 144 passengers to each get two tickets (Flight 362 from Seattle to Santa Clara was on a Boeing 737-400, which has 144 seats) there must be plenty available.

In 2018, tickets were going as cheap as $28 for two!

... so what’s the solution?

Just move it back to campus sites. Award a home game to the division champ with the best conference record or Playoff ranking.

That’s what the American, Conference USA, and the Mountain West — all mid-majors with tougher tickets this weekend than the Power 5 Pac-12 — do.

And it’s what the Pac-12 itself used to do, before it tried to go the Big Ten and SEC route and fill up an NFL stadium.

Our Oregon blog writes:

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.

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.

Hopefully the Pac-12 wises up and does just that.