When people feel a program is in decline, they quite simply stop spending their money. Whether you call it voting with your feet or with your wallet, the point is, when something isn't worth the cash to you anymore, you stop doing it. This can happen with magazine subscriptions (like THuff's Playboy stash or B-Dowd's Playgirl collection), it can happen with television (Tim still pays for Cinemax, but only for the documentaries) and, obviously, it can happen with sports teams.
Going to any sporting event at the collegiate or pro level is expensive. Even when tickets seem "reasonable," you still have to get there, which for alums can mean long drives (with $4/gallon gasoline) or flights, hotel rooms, meals, etc. This is to say nothing of the multiple days not at home and the resulting foot-tapping from the spouse.
So we think these attendance figures are startling, despite the fact that they shouldn't be surprising. Below are attendance figures for the past eight seasons plus the athletic department's fantasyland estimate for 2011.
2003 -- 58,000
2004 -- 63,000
2005 -- 63,000
2006 -- 55,000
2007 -- 59,000
2008 -- 56,000
2009 -- 50,000
2010 -- 48,000
2011 -- 42,000
That's a precipitous drop in recent years. I would hazard a guess that 2011's average will be a lot lower than 42,000 if things continue in this scary direction, and if it gets down to 40,000 then that's a 20% drop in just two years. And a 37% drop in just six years! Even if the average ticket in Ross-Ade is $20, an assumption of 23,000 fewer seats would equal lost revenue of $460,000 per game or more than $3.2 million over the course of the season's seven home games. And, obviously, this is to say nothing of lost concession sales, team apparel, parking fees, the influx of dollars spent in the community, etc.
As has been discussed, some programs can handle a down year or two, or a "rebuilding" phase. And Purdue actually was a program like that -- look at the numbers as recently as '07-'08. Those weren't world-beaters, but the fans had seen enough success and near-success that they wanted to come out to see the team to be there when the fun happened. That is no longer the case, quite clearly.
The answer is not new unis, it's not fun taglines for the billboards and it's not even "we gotta get five star recruits!" No, the answer -- at least for now -- is to make the product on the field exciting. Until it is that -- and not infuriating -- the fans will continue to vote with their wallets.