"All across the country, the people athletic departments count on to be their lifeblood--students...are seemingly less and less interested in spending their Saturdays in football stadiums."
-Dan Wolken, USA Today Sports
Athletic departments across the country are struggling to keep students in the seats, even as college football has hit its popularity zenith. A number of possible driving forces have been cited to explain the sagging popularity of student tickets--general malaise, the comforts of home, a "millenial" revulsion towards places without good WiFi--but whatever the cause, athletic departments are worried about the future.
"The likelihood of someone who didn't go to games when they're an undergrad becoming a fan at age 40 is probably one in a million," Pitt AD Steve Pederson told Wolken. Storied programs, from Michigan to Alabama, struggled last season to fill their student sections despite both programs' relative success and popularity. This bodes ill for athletic departments, who count on students to drive both the attendance and atmosphere of their games, and who they expect to keep drawing to the stadium long after graduation.
Programs willing to make concessions, like Minnesota, Memphis, and Pitt, have managed to ride out the current trend by getting creative with what they offer as part of the student-fan experience. The Panthers heavily promote student tailgates, as well as giving future potential donors--graduate students--discounted tickets for the club level. The Tigers offered 2012-13 graduates two free tickets, a move which saw attendance jump by 4,000 a game. The Golden Gophers, meanwhile, boosted attendance the old-fashioned way--they started winning games. An 8-5 record gave Minnesota a 10,000-student attendance increase over the course of its seven home tilts.
Then, there's this to consider...
"A home-and-home series between the teams could have attracted far more attention from students and created more of the atmosphere that could keep students in the stands, not at home."
- Kevin Trahan, Forbes
Schools don't seem to be helping themselves in the ticket market by scheduling neutral-site games, either. The trend of holding games off-campus has spiraled upwards in recent years, and this season will see a number of high-profile contests taking place far from either school. In the immediate future, this makes financial sense--there's a lot of TV and licensing money to be gained by playing in, say, Dallas Cowboys Stadium. But the heart of Texas is a long way from Alabama, and an even longer way from Ann Arbor. The Tide and the Wolverines played a Week 1 game there to open the 2012 season, a choice panned by Trahan in the above quote.
As previously cited, Michigan and Alabama are two of the high-profile schools that have failed to fill their student sections in recent years. Trahan posits that an increased number of neutral site games, along with weak OOC scheduling in light of the new playoff format, will only continue this downturn. "Bringing bigger games to campus might mean schools miss out on some revenue right now, and it might mean a few more losses, but that's a small price to pay if it means salvaging the connection with the next generation of fans," says Trahan.
Big collegiate athletic departments are hardly money-averse, so it's difficult to see them turning down the kind of money (a cool $5 million) Wisconsin will get for playing LSU...in Houston. LSU has weathered the ticket storm at home, selling out all 74,350 available seats. It seems unlikely that they'll be able to recreate that in Texas. But even if this one pans out, is it worth setting the wheels in motion that will continue to alienate the next generation of fans?
Of course, Ohio State isn't absent blame, either...
"About 60,000 tickets have been sold for the Aug. 30 game."
- Ryan Sharrow, Baltimore Business Journal
As of Thursday, 60,000 of the 71,000 seats in M&T Bank Stadium had been sold for the Buckeyes' season opener against Navy. The neutral-site matchup is more like a home game for the Midshipmen, as their campus is just down the road from M&T. Navy Athletic Department spokesman Scott Strasemeier said that he hopes that number will eventually hit 70,000.
The Naval Academy plays games at M&T semi-regularly and generally draws a sellout crowd. Playing such a high-profile opponent lends credence to the move, as the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium only seats 37,000 people. In this way, Navy is atypical of the TV revenue-chasing crowd, as the move will bolster the game's attendance rather than necessarily cut it (as will be the case when LSU and Wisconsin face off in Houston's Reliant Stadium, which seats fewer than Tiger Stadium or Camp Randall).
Still, the move isn't without consequences: The Grand Prix of Baltimore has cancelled its 2014 and 2015 races at M&T in light of the scheduling conflict brought on by this game, and it will likely not return to the stadium.
"It's not like they have to go burn the jerseys...[but] it would make sense to get fans to switch to other numbers."
-Chris Boring, Boulevard Strategies (via The Dispatch)
Student ticket sales aren't the only revenue area experiencing a dip heading into the 2014 season. In light of Braxton Miller's season-ending injury, Columbus retailers are feeling the squeeze as they are left with piles of unsold No. 5 jerseys. College Traditions, a Buckeye-themed store close to the stadium, could take a hit of up to $100,000 if they can't move Braxton merchandise. The store has about 1,000 No. 5 jerseys in stock, which sell for $90-$140.
The owners of College Traditions expect that they'll be able to sell the jerseys eventually. If Braxton makes good on his promised 2015 comeback, they'll only have to wait a year. Otherwise? They'd better hope the Buckeyes don't undergo any significant uniform changes before OSU has another star player who wears No. 5. In the meantime, they are exploring the market for No. 16 (JT Barrett) and No. 97 (Joey Bosa) jerseys, in the hopes that their breakout potential carries over into merch sales. Since there are by rule no names on the jerseys, College Traditions was able to weather a similar storm with a surplus of No. 13 jerseys once Maurice Clarett left the university.
(This is hardly the place for editorializing, but know who else won't see any money from Braxton Miller jersey sales this year? Braxton Miller.)
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