SBJ/Feb. 17-23, 2014/Colleges

College football breaks trend of gate declines

College football attendance stabilized in 2013, but the overall average across FBS schools still was the second lowest since 2003.

All home, neutral-site and bowl games averaged 45,671 fans this past season, an increase of less than 1 percent over the average of 45,440 in 2012. Still, the slight uptick stopped the bleeding for college football, which has seen its attendance steadily decline since a plateau was reached in 2007.

Nowhere is fan behavior more curious than at Florida State, a school steeped in football tradition whose team just completed a national championship run and an undefeated season.

Despite its on-field success and the play of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston, the Seminoles saw attendance decline for a second straight season.
Their average of 75,421 was down by more than 3 percent compared with 2011.

Stan Wilcox, the first-year athletic director at Florida State, sees tickets sales and revenue from 82,300-seat Doak Campbell Stadium as one of his primary challenges. A home schedule in 2014 that brings Florida, Clemson and Notre Dame to Tallahassee will help, but Wilcox also is looking at premium-seating projects that might even reduce capacity while creating more amenities.

“We’ll hopefully get back to a point where we’re selling out and that becomes the trend,” Wilcox said.

Michigan was the nation’s leader in attendance for the 16th straight season with an average of 111,592, followed by Ohio State, Alabama, Texas and Penn State.

Seeing more empty seats, even in the home of the national champion, doesn’t surprise Bernie Mullin, whose Atlanta-based firm, The Aspire Group, operates tickets sales and marketing at more than 20 colleges.

“It’s becoming more and more difficult, but there are ways to counter some of these trends of decline,” Mullin said. “You’re dealing with an aging fan base on one end and then you’ve got millennials on the other end who would rather participate than spectate. You’ve got to have a more sophisticated, comprehensive program to engage the younger fans because that’s the future ticket-buyer.”

Declining attendance has led many schools to adopt new methods to sell tickets and maximize revenue. Michigan, Purdue, California, Washington and South Florida are among a handful of schools that use dynamic pricing to move individual game tickets.

Many more use some form of variable pricing to maximize value from their best games.
“We’re seeing a lot of schools incorporate variable pricing, but it’s not across the board yet,” said Matt DiFebo, vice president of IMG Learfield Ticket Solutions, which works with 27 schools to sell and market tickets. “Compared to just a few years ago, though, there’s certainly a more sophisticated approach to maximizing revenues. I don’t know that schools were all that focused on it in the past, but as they get better at it, you see ticketing work with marketing, development and other areas to better integrate their sales effort. It’s much more of a year-round process now.”

Most schools say the primary softness in the market remains in student tickets and sales to young alumni. Georgia reported last season that it would reduce the student ticket allotment from 18,000 to 15,000, and set aside some of those tickets for young alumni.

“All of the surveys I see show that the average season-ticket holder is 50-plus,” DiFebo said. “There’s a whole segment of the fan base that schools are having difficulty reaching.”

Kentucky, as part of its $110 million in renovations to Commonwealth Stadium, plans to reduce overall capacity from 67,606 to 61,000 as part of an effort to increase the amount of premium spaces and overall demand. The Wildcats’ student allotment will decrease from 10,000 to 5,000.

“We’ve been all over the map with our attendance, so we tried to focus on creating somewhat of a tough ticket, and creating a better experience,” said Mitch Barnhart, Kentucky’s athletic director. “We looked at a lot of NFL stadiums that are in that 65,000 range and we put a lot of time into studying amenities. We want there to be as much value in that ticket as possible.”

Others in the SEC are going the other way, despite the nationwide trends. Five schools — Arkansas, LSU, Mississippi State, Missouri and Texas A&M — are engaged in projects to expand their stadiums.

“While the SEC should be fine for a long time, it will be interesting to see if the new ACC schools can increase attendance and interest with a defending national champion,” said Bill Sutton, founding director of the sport and entertainment business management MBA at the University of South Florida. He added that more midweek and night games to accommodate TV schedules are taking a bite out of attendance.

“In short,” he said, “if you have inventory and you do not have your own sales team or have outsourced ticket sales, you better do so quickly.”

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