PhotoSpin, Inc / Alamy
An aerial view of the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
It’s foliage season in Ann Arbor, but the colors that really get locals excited each fall are blue and yellow — for the University of Michigan’s football team.
Every Saturday, millions of fans across the U.S. stream into college football stadiums like Michigan’s Big House to chant, cheer and stomp for the home teams. While winning helps, the best places to watch college football are based on more than any record. The stadiums must be outstanding, whether for their history or sheer size, and the teams need traditions. Toss in rousing fight songs, stunts and postgame hangouts, and you’ve got an experience worth traveling for.
The stadium attendance numbers speak for themselves. College football drew a combined 49.6 million fans in 2010 — more than twice the number of the NBA (21.3 million) or the NHL (21.4 million) and nearly three times as many as the NFL (17.4 million). Major League Baseball filled more total seats (73 million), but its per-game average was a fraction of what big-time college football draws.
The comparison with pro football is especially telling. The NFL averaged 66,960 per game during the 2010–2011 season, the third straight year that attendance has declined. Twenty-two college football teams top that, including five programs (Michigan, Ohio State, Texas, Penn State and Alabama) that averaged more than 100,000 per game. Overall college football attendance is up nearly 25 percent over the past decade.
There’s also a sense — despite a few recent scandals — that college football is much “purer” than the pro game. Its history stretches back to 1869; Philadelphia’s Franklin Field is the oldest college stadium still in use and the site of the first radio and television football broadcasts. Watching the UPenn Quakers defend their home turf feels like a throwback to the days when players really were student-athletes.
College football is peppered with larger-than-life historic figures like coach Knute Rockne and running back Archie Griffin, but it’s always ready for new legends. In a little more than a decade, the Oregon Ducks have remade themselves as a national powerhouse to the delight of their roaring fans. The highest noise level recorded inside Autzen Stadium was an eardrum-shattering 127 decibels, right between a jackhammer and a jet plane.
Join the game-day crowds at one of these top stadiums for that kind of exhilarating rush — and maybe even history in the making.
More articles from T+L: