Thursday, August 31, 2006

College Football – That’s the costly ticket

The college football season begins tonight with 16 games scheduled. ESPN’s ‘family’ of networks will televise the four of their planned 25 weekend games tonight, topped off with Monday night’s game at Miami’s Orange Bowl, an interstate battle with Florida State meeting the University of Miami Hurricanes. School isn’t even in session at many of the institutions for ‘higher learning’ where football will be played this weekend. With the NCAA allowing schools to play an extra game this year, the only surprise is that more schools won’t be playing this weekend. One game will be held Friday, 53 Saturday, three on Sunday with the final game Monday night at the Orange Bowl on ABC.

When all the tickets are counted from this weekend’s rush to the box office, millions of tickets will be sold to the 74 games that will be played. And as any college football fan will tell you, the cost of attending a college football game is anything but cheap these days. More then ever, football has become the key economic driving force that fuels college athletic departments today. Long gone are the days when attending a college football game was affordable.

Ranked number two in ESPN’s pre-season poll Notre Dame travels to Atlanta for their season opener against unranked Georgia Tech. The Georgia Tech athletic department all too aware how valuable a ticket Notre Dame is wherever the Irish play, packaged the Notre Dame game with two other games, in a three game package. Tickets for Saturday night’s nationally televised game where only available if you purchased season tickets for Yellow Jacket football or the three game packages. The game will be played at the Yellow Jackets on campus stadium – 55,000 seat Bobby Dodd Stadium. In the last three seasons of home games, Georgia Tech has sold out a total of five games. As a direct result of Georgia Tech hosting Notre Dame, three games for the current season are already sold out.

It’s not as if Georgia Tech has a big problem selling tickets. The football team sold more then 40,000 full-season tickets this year. The 12,000 three game ticket packages sold out in two and a half hours. The Ramblin’ Wreck are playing seven home games this year. The beauty of three sellouts in advance of the start of the season, it forces anyone interested in attending a football game to buy tickets for one of the four remaining home games.

The secondary ticket market is ablaze for the Saturday night’s game.

"It's ridiculous what Notre Dame does for [ticket demand]," said Sean Pate, director of public relations for StubHub, an eBay-style cyber-superstore for (legally) reselling tickets in an Atlanta Journal Constitution report. "Really, the Notre Dame factor is far and away the heavyweight of college football [ticket sales]. It changes all the dynamics."

“With all due respect to Georgia Tech, when you see them selling that well compared to those glamour games in the early part of the season, obviously Notre Dame is driving that interest," Pate said.

The University of Tennessee Volunteers play their home games in Neyland Stadium. The stadium capacity is 104,079. Saturday night the Volunteers, coming off a 5-6 season, play their first game at home against California.

If you wanted to buy tickets to the Vols home opener Wednesday night, tickets according to the school’s online ticketing service are limited ‘scattered single seats located throughout the stadium’. Tennessee’s SEC games against Florida, Alabama and LSU are all sold out. A losing 2005 season on the field meant nothing to the fortunes off the field. Tennessee raised ticket prices 10 percent and for the first time added a $250 surcharge on any sideline season tickets that where sold.

In many regions home to both an NFL team and a major college football program the college football tickets at more expensive then NFL tickets. It’s also become much costlier to run a big time college football program.

For a season ticket in the premier club seating area at LP Field, home of the Tennessee Titans, fans have to pay $4,050 -- a one-time fee of $1,500 on top of the $2,550 price tag for the eight-game package.

Some 160 miles east in Knoxville, the University of Tennessee is now offering high-rolling fans seats in the new East Club, which has 422 outdoor, theater-style seats under a cover. The cost: $4,000 a year for the seats, plus a $25,000 donation payable in equal installments over five years, bringing the total annual price tag to $9,000 for each of the first five years. The section has an adjoining hospitality club room with private restrooms, pre-game and halftime buffets. (Food isn't included in the Titans plan.)

According to a recent Wall Street Journal report, football is costing Ohio State $26 million annually. Ranked number one in many of the pre-season polls, a simple but direct message greets anyone looking for Buckeye single game football tickets for the 2006 season – “We do not anticipate a public ticket sale occurring for the upcoming football season. Thank you.”

The Buckeyes play their home games in Ohio Stadium (nicknamed the horseshoe), with a capacity of 101,568. The Buckeyes play their first game Saturday (needless to say at home) against Northern Illinois. The Buckeyes play six more home games. The school hasn’t played a down of football and has already sold 710,976 tickets for the 2006 season.

Buckeye 2005 season tickets cost $406, an average of $58 per game. Last year for the school’s seven home games the athletic department generated $41,236,608 or $5,890,944 per game. Taking the Wall Street Journal estimate that it costs Ohio State $26 million to run their football program, if the program is generating more then $41 million ticket revenue, the football program at Ohio State not only pays for itself but for many of the other programs Ohio State’s athletic department offers.

Maryland is coming off back-to-back 5-6 seasons. Last Thursday Maryland announced the school had sold the naming rights to their football stadium for $20 million. The naming rights of the field at Byrd Stadium were sold to Chevy Chase Bank for $20 million. The $20 million sponsorship fee is a key in the stadium’s $50.8 million stadium expansion project.

According to a report in The Baltimore Sun, Maryland sold 15,759 season tickets in 2001, when Ralph Friedgen took over the program and led the Terps to the Atlantic Coast Conference championship. Friedgen, who was brought in to resurrect a program that had two winning seasons in 16 years, immediately had three consecutive 10-win seasons, and sales jumped to 31,542 last year. The Terps' made appearances in the Orange Bowl, Peach Bowl and Gator Bowl during Friedgen’s first three seasons as head coach.

The back-to-back losing seasons didn’t stop the Maryland athletic department from an increase in season-ticket prices, and adding two additional home games. The number of tickets sold to date has dropped to 29,455. Maryland will continue to sell season tickets, but associate athletic director Brian Ullmann attributed the decline to fewer family four-pack sales, which increased from $330 to $504.

"It's not a big surprise to us," Ullmann said. "We know those are the most price-conscious customers. We saw a significant amount of those ticket holders not renew their tickets. That accounts for the difference.

"It wasn't in our Terrapin Club or loyal season-ticket base, the people that have been with us for a long time," he said. "Those don't drop off."

Ullmann estimated Maryland football is still "a couple thousand away" from selling out Byrd Stadium on season tickets alone -- a feat the men's basketball program has already accomplished.

"We would love to have that situation in football," Ullmann said. "If we get back to a bowl, it will happen."

Regular-season tickets have jumped from $215 last season (which included the season opener against Navy) to $256 this year. The Terps have seven home games, including Florida State and Miami.

"I think in some ways I'm blessed to be at a place that understands what we're all about," Friedgen said. "They want to see kids graduate. It's not all just about winning."

Consider these tricks of the ticket selling trade football fans are facing at these schools:

Iowa -- tickets have an additional surcharge of $50 to $600 (again that's in addition to the cost of the actual ticket. The average ticket price is $46. The surcharge imposed for the first time is an annual fee for the right to buy season tickets.

LSU -- tickets have an additional surcharge of $100 to $500. The average ticket price is $37. The school is adding a additional 3,200 seats, and students are getting a taste of what it will be like when they graduate and want to attend games -- student ticket prices have increased by 70 percent.

Miami -- tickets have an additional surcharge of $75 to $500. The average ticket price is $36. And if you're looking for tickets for Monday night's game against Florida State, you have to buy tickets for the game the following Saturday (September 9 against Florida A&M)

Michigan -- tickets have an additional surcharge of $100 to $500. The average ticket price is $37. Michigan's athletic department is still dealing with the firestorm created after the announcement the Big House's 107,501 seating capacity would be affected by the addition of 83 luxury suites. The surcharge has raised an additional $10 million in the last two years alone.

Okalahoma State -- tickets have an additional surcharge of $100 to $2,500. The average ticket price is $49. According to a Wall Street Journal report the school borrowed $100 million to renovate their football stadium, and have more then doubled the cost of their box seats and increased their mid-field seats by 60 percent to pay off the loan. OSU has raised prices for season tickets 28% to $295 for six games. For club-level seating, the cost of a season ticket is now $395, up 71% over last year. Season ticket sales have dropped by a reported 10 percent.

Many of the games that will be played over the next five games feature games along the lines of Northern Illinois game Saturday at Ohio State. A glorified scrimmage that will generate nearly $6 million in ticket revenue for Ohio State. Northern Illinois; has NO chance whatsoever to win their game at Ohio State. The game is a classic example of a big payoff for the school (victim) heading on the road to play at a big named football program.

The University of Buffalo Bulls will open their season at home tonight against Temple. More then 20,000 fans are expected at UB Stadium. A report in Wednesday’s Buffalo News reminded readers traditionally the school doesn’t have a problem selling tickets to its home opener; it’s the games that follow. Last season, they drew 17,620 for their loss against Rutgers and only 8,279 showed up for the next home game, a 13-7 loss to Akron. The low point was against Ohio University when only 5,814 attended.

Because the Bulls averaged just 8,914 in attendance, they were put on notice by the NCAA after falling below the minimum required average of 15,000 fans per game. NCAA bylaws state Division I-A schools must average 15,000 fans, in actual or paid attendance, once every two years on a rolling basis. Should UB not average 15,000 this season, it will receive a letter of noncompliance. The notice states the school will have to meet the mark over the next 10 years or be placed on restricted membership, which takes the team out of contention for bowl games.

The Bulls play in the Mid-American Conference. If wining is a key to help sell tickets, three road games on the Bulls schedule are guaranteed loses. The Bulls will be cannon fodder when they visit Auburn on September 23, Boston College on October 28 and Wisconsin on November 18. Buffalo’s athletic department is guaranteed $600,000 for the Auburn and Wisconsin games and likely close to $500,000 for the Boston College game.
''It's all about the money -- any administrator will tell you that,'' Rich Rodriguez, the head coach at West Virginia told The New York Times. Buffalo dropped West Virginia from its schedule, without even a courtesy phone call, to earn an extra $300,000 to play at Wisconsin. Mr. Rodriguez added: ''It's not for the excitement of college football. Let's not kid ourselves.''

The New York Times report mentioned a few additional perks above and beyond the guaranteed win bigger schools enjoy when they’re hosting powerless opponents. Buffalo will take the money and run, and not care about the traditional home and home series.

''I don't think it's realistic to say we're going to play Nebraska, Florida State and U.S.C. every year,'' said John Chadima, Wisconsin's associate athletic director. ''Everyone is trying to search for a team like Buffalo to come in and play them. Both sides realize there is a good guarantee involved with that.''

Former Nebraska star Turner Gill was part of three national championships as a coach at the University of Nebraska and a Heisman Trophy finalist as a player, is Buffalo’s rookie head coach. Talk about having to stand and deliver.

The college football few can recall a bygone era, a time when the focus of campus life during the fall was the football team. Students lived for those games. Alumni went back to their Alma Mater for homecoming weekend, a chance to relive their past. Tickets – forget about Alumni weekend, they come with a surcharge. Students, get ready to experience the reality being dealt to LSU students, a 70 percent increase in the price of your student ticket. Are you ready for some college football – let the games begin and let the dollars start rolling in.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited in this Insider Report: The Wall Street Journal, The Baltimore Sun, The Buffalo News and the New York Times