I call the Senior Bowl “Disney World for people in the football world.” If you’re in the business, you just have to be there. But I noticed something funny about my trip to Mobile this week. No one was there.

OK, some people were there. Plenty of people. Teams still sent scouts, and several GMs and head coaches, but not nearly as many as I’ve seen in the past. I was looking around on Tuesday, the first day of practices (and quite a cold day), and the sparse nature of the stands was unmistakeable. In fact, the shaded side of the field had barely any scouts at all, which many attributed to the temperatures (a friend told me the press box was quite crowded). All of that is understandable.

I tried to find out if registration was down this year, and I didn’t have any luck, so I just have to go off what I saw and what others said. One Senior Bowl veteran called it “uncharacteristic” of the usual numbers, and another agreed that this week it “definitely felt like it was lacking numbers.” I spoke to several scouts who agreed that there were fewer people in town than usual.

It’s odd, because the news on the fan side seems better than ever; the game is poised to move to a new venue in 2021, and ticket sales for this year appear to be robust. Still, presuming my eyes (and the eyes of so many others) weren’t playing tricks on me, here are five reasons why crowds might have been down.

  • One thing that was unmistakeable was the lack of assistant coaches. In past years, teams have sent their entire coaching staffs, lock, stock and barrel, to Alabama. Maybe this has become a net negative. Scouts often lament spending four months developing a complete picture of a player, only to see the board changed in February after vocal coaches spend three days watching practices in Mobile.
  • Could this be attributed to a coming work stoppage? Maybe. I don’t recall a similar dip in advance of the 2011 CBA negotiations, but it’s certainly not unusual for teams to tighten their belts in anticipation of a work stoppage. It seems like scouts are always the first group looked at when it comes to cuts.
  • There’s no denying that analytics are becoming a bigger part of the game, and teams are having to look at their budgets to see how they allocate funds to traditional scouting vs. newer numbers-driven methods.
  • The Patriots model (which requires less opinion-forming and more numbers-gathering from its scouts) has become undeniably prevalent among teams. However, in the past, even teams that share the Pats’ scouting philosophy still sent their staffers to the game.
  • Scouting numbers seemed to be down at other all-star games, as well, during this cycle. Maybe this reflects a new philosophy as the GM-head coach model flips and head coaches put less emphasis on evaluators.
  • The AFCA conference has continued to grow, and has eclipsed the Senior Bowl as the primary place to get a new job. Over the past several weeks, we’ve heard of many college head coaches declining to go to Nashville simply because they have staff openings and know the conference will be one unending solicitation.

There were other reasons some people I spoke to gave, from bad weather to staff vacancies. In so many other areas, the game has incredible momentum, and the future seems bright. Here’s hoping this is a fluke and not a trend.

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