Sep 21, 2013; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Colorado State Rams quarterback Garrett Grayson (18) scrambles out of the pocket against the Alabama Crimson Tide during the second quarter at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

The Issue of Filling College Football Stadiums

We are at an interesting point in the history of college football. Ticket prices are soaring and stadiums are expanding while the at-home viewing experience has enhanced to the point where many are just staying home. It’s an interesting dynamic that has as many layers as an onion, which I will attempt to peel in this piece.

Mississippi State is expanding their stadium to seat 61,337 fans this fall. But are they fans or just warm bodies? Has the increased cost of a ticket forced many out of the market to attend games? Have corporations gobbled up so many tickets it’s lead to casual fans attending games while the hardcore everyday fan is left watching at home? Is what’s good for the bottom line good for the program?

Going to Games vs. Staying Home

Kentucky is in the process of down-sizing their stadium. That’s not only unheard of in college football, it sounds like blasphemy within the SEC. As part of an effort to make the in-game experience better for their fans they will have 6,942 less seats starting in 2015.

It’s an issue college athletic programs are having to deal with. How much should they build? How much is too much to charge for a ticket?

It’s an issue, not a problem. Stadiums are still selling out on a consistent basis – but many fans are opting to stay at home.

It’s pretty simple really. With HD TV you can have a crystal clear view of the game from your living room, all the while eating your own food, drinking your own beer and sitting in your own recliner. If you had planned to eat the same food, drink the same beer, and sit in the same recliner on any other Saturday of the year you spent $0 extra to watch the game.

On the other hand, say a trip from Jackson, MS to Starkville for a game cost you $35 in gas, $15 to eat at the Little Dooey, $35-70 for a ticket and they didn’t sell beer in the stadium plus you had to sit on a hard bleacher. That’s just for one person – and you probably aren’t going to go alone so throw in an extra $75 to cover your significant other. And this isn’t factoring in the folks who pay for a tailgating setup or have their own which cost additional money – perhaps averaging another $2-300 per family per game.

However, there’s nothing like going to a college football game. The sights, the sounds and the experience. From the band playing to being able to see the entire field and everything going on. Being able to socialize with friends and family – see the Dawg Walk, experience the chills as they run out of the tunnel – high five a stranger next to you when State scores a touchdown. There is just nothing like it – a great experience.

But is that great experience worth the extra $2-500 per game 6-7 times per year? And that’s if you’re within driving distance. If you’re from the coast or out-of-state there are likely hotel prices to figure in.

That is the question. Can college athletic departments convince 60-100K people to fork over that money a handful of times every year when they can watch a high-quality version from home for practically nothing?

Individuals vs. Corporations

So if college stadiums are battling TV for your presence at a football game, why are prices going up so much?

Corporations.

Maybe at Mississippi State games this hasn’t reached as big of an issue as others around the SEC (due to a lack of big companies), but it will be here soon enough.

Corporations are buying large blocks of tickets and giving them to their customers and employees. That allows schools to raise ticket prices because money to a business is a lot different than an individual. Spending $10K a year for a block of 20 tickets is nothing to a large or even mid-size company – but $2,000 for a family of four would break the bank for most, especially when you consider that’s just for the ticket to get in the game.

As the ticket prices increase, people of lesser means begin to be phased out. You might say the blue-collar fan is being pushed aside in favor of the white collar fan. Or you might say the family atmosphere is being pushed aside for a business one.

If a parent can’t take their young son or daughter to a college football game because the cost is too high, that is a shame.

Leaving the Game Early

It might seem odd that so many fans would leave the stadium early until you consider some of the following that may be applicable:

  • there is a HD TV at their tailgate
  • their beer is at their tailgate
  • their boss gave them the tickets

Then, of course, there’s the issue of students leaving early. While most pay an athletic fee in their tuition, they are actually only forking over $3-5 per game for premium seats. It’s like the concept of credit cards vs. cash – you don’t feel like you’re spending that much money when you’re sliding a piece of plastic, but if you actually have to hand Benjamin’s to the cashier it’s a little harder to pull the trigger on a purchase. The bulk of their ticket price is lumped in with a tuition their parents are paying for, or they will pay back in student loans sometime in the future….so in the here and now they just paid a nominal fee so it doesn’t feel like they need to get their money’s worth.

Squeezing Students Out 

As prices soar, athletic departments are finding new seats for the student section. Most schools have placed the majority of students in the endzone, reserving the high dollar seats for alumni who will pay the hefty ticket price to sit there.

Students leaving early is an across the board thing – it happens everywhere. But more of a bottom line issue is they don’t pay as much for tickets even with the fees built into their tuition. If they aren’t paying as much and leaving early, I could see student sections across the country start to dwindle.

Solution?  

I don’t know that there is one. This is kind of a “it is what it is” situation. Athletic departments aren’t going to decide they want less money and lower ticket prices. The at-home experience will only continue to get better as technology develops and game broadcasts improve.

I don’t like the fact that it feels like we’re making games less about family time and more about socializing. But then again I’m a 30 year old with young children and not in college nor have kids old enough to enjoy socializing. Everyone has different tastes at different points in their lives, and no matter how much schools try to accommodate everyone, it’s hard.

My wife works for a big corporation and we’ve received premium tickets to a game before. They were really nice and that is a great perk. I don’t see anything wrong with it, although I’d hate for someone to take those tickets and walk out in the third quarter while a kid and his dad in their maroon jerseys are throwing a football in the Drill Field because they can’t afford to go.

What I’d suggest to anyone who can’t afford season tickets is to pick out one or two games per year to attend and watch the rest at home. You can have a lot of fun at home but you’re missing out on some good times attending a game. Conversely, you may be spending too much by going to all the games and need to stay at home. I’ve talked to people who work in ticket offices who have said they’ve seen people max out three or four credit cards to ensure they pay for their season tickets….I don’t think that is good for anyone.

Then there are always people who can afford to go to games and that’s great too. If people want to hand out business cards, see old friends or just watch their team play – it’s all part of it these days.

College athletic departments will have to continue to strike a delicate balance as they plan for the future. When is enough construction? How high can they get prices before it backfires? Are they alienating hardcore fans? It will be interesting to see how it unfolds, only time will tell.

 

Tags: Mississippi State Bulldogs

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