My husband and I took a long-awaited trip to Italy in April and caught the travel bug once again. As we were searching for our next trip, we noticed that ticket prices had almost tripled for some routes (including the one we’d just been on a few months ago). That’s because everyone else has caught the travel bug too now that COVID restrictions have largely lifted. As a result, the willingness to pay for these experiences is significantly higher.
Moving a little closer to home, the addition of USC and UCLA to the Big Ten will mean the conference is literally a national brand stretching coast to coast. Will we find Big Ten fans regularly willing to foot the travel costs to follow their teams to cross-country games? That’s a story for a different season, but for now, suffice to say that all indicators point to a record year for attendance at Big Ten football games.
All eyes might be on the conference’s impending media rights deal, which was already expected to be record-setting on its own before the announcement of USC and UCLA joining the fray. However, the thirst for the in-person experience, which had in some ways been waning before the pandemic, means the Big Ten schools can reliably count on another source of revenue this season.
Already, Iowa announced that five of its seven home games are sold out, including two non-conference matchups against Nevada and Iowa State. While we’ve not seen similar announcements from the rest of the Big Ten programs, we could anticipate that programs like Michigan, coming off a banner year, and Michigan State, with lots of enthusiasm around Mel Tucker, will see similar results ahead of the start of the season. Even teams like Illinois, which will see Brett Bielema returning for his second season as head coach, have reason for excitement.
There’s also the question of Penn State, which, like Michigan State, gave head coach James Franklin a massive extension, but which has struggled to meet expectations in recent seasons. Will fans continue to flock to white out games? Probably. Will they be keen to attend a noon game against the Ohio Bobcats? Less likely.
And then there’s Nebraska, which claims the longest sellout streak in football. The Huskers might be struggling on many fronts, but fans will certainly show up for the Huskers’ Sept. 17 matchup against former Big 12 foe Oklahoma.
Will this spirit trickle down to teams like Rutgers, Indiana and Maryland? That much is unclear, but these games could prove accessible for other reasons — mainly for fans of other teams. Given that the going rate for Ohio State vs. Notre Dame tickets is $240+, perhaps we’ll see more Ohio State fans making the six-hour trek to Evanston to see the Buckeyes on the road at a much lower price. Having attended several Northwestern games in 2018, I can acknowledge that the majority of fans in the small stadium are often cheering for the road team. Perhaps even Northwestern will see a sellout of several hot games with away team fans traveling in. And even if they aren’t sellouts, it will probably be enough to set an attendance record.
Granted, this record would be a challenging one to set because the bar is already so high. Three programs — Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State — have averaged 100,000+ fans per game in recent years (2020 excluded). However, the other 11 programs in the conference could see a rush of ticket sales — if Iowa is any indication, at least.
This year could perhaps be an anomaly, as sellouts are somewhat counter to the trends we’ve been seeing in live sports in recent years. The at-home experience (from elite broadcast talent to better TVs and more) has become so comfortable, but we’ve been at home so much in the last two (plus) years. Whether the desire to spend on out-of-home experiences continues once folks have gotten it out of their system remains to be seen, but the demand is certainly there now.
Revenue generation doesn’t stop at tickets, though. In terms of alcohol sales, this could also prove a boon for the member schools, about half of which have implemented alcohol in their concessions repertoire in the last decade or so. Moreover, in-stadium sponsorships become even more valuable and competitive, another key driver for program revenue.
Even beyond the stadium, the ecosystem of bars, restaurants and shops that operate around college football — those that suffered the most when there were no fans at games in the 2020 season — look to benefit from this increase in traffic.
The global trend of high willingness to pay for entertainment will of course extend to college football, and the Big Ten is well positioned to capitalize on it. The record year is well within sight.