I usually do not take the time to write about things such as sports on this blog just because that is not the aim or purpose for the blog. There are people out there smarter than me about sports and the issues surrounding sports, so I try not stick my nose in places I know it has no place.
With that said, there has been a recent development in the University of Georgia’s distribution of student tickets for football season that I have to comment on for my own sanity and the sake of getting the idea out of my head.
For those unaware, the University of Georgia’s Athletic Board met Thursday, May 24th, to discuss new athletic renovations, finances and other issues concerning the athletic department. One of those other issues was student turnout to home football games.
President Michael Adams brought up, once again, that students were not holding up their end of the bargain since student attendance has been suffering as of late. I won’t go into all of the details but please read the synopsis of the conversation the board had as it gives a good summary to introduce you to the conversation.
The bottom line is the board is not happy that students are showing up late to games or not at all. This has not only been a problem recently, but, as I have talked to my dad—who graduated from the University of Georgia in 1981—I have found out the problem is more than just a recent one. He said even back then students did not show up or showed up late. It has been a long standing mindset, not just a recent occurrence.
What has been a recent occurrence is the frequency in which University of Georgia football games are aired on National Television. In my opinion, this is why the conversation has heated up in the past five years, and here is why.
Television wants to sell games to fans across the country. They want to sell match ups that everyone wants to see and rivalries that will attract attention. They want both fan bases tuned in every second to boost ratings and, more importantly, increase advertising profits. It’s a business.
So, when the University of Georgia plays the University of South Carolina in early fall—although the schedule has changed to where the Bulldogs will play the Gamecocks later in the season now—eyes from across the country are tuned in because it has usually been one of the first major SEC games on television and, more recently, predicted the fate of the SEC East early on in the season. So, people watch, and this means great exposure for both teams and their fan bases.
That is until you look at the stands, according to Michael Adams and the board.
I am not saying that the low attendance is not true. In fact, I agree with them that student section has been low in attendance, but only in one of the student sections. Unlike many other programs in the SEC, the University of Georgia has two separate student sections. One in the northeast corner of the stadium (sections 109-114, 307-316) and one in the west end zone (sections 138-143). The northeast corner, from field to last row, is usually packed with students—over the limit in the 100s sections, I would say. The empty section that Adams is referring to, I believe, is the west end zone.
Why is this important? Because anytime the Bulldogs or opponents score a touchdown in that end zone, the extra point is kicked through those uprights, and the cameras are on that end zone for what seems like forever in television time. If the student representation is sparse in that shot, no matter how many fans are actually in Sanford Stadium, it reflects badly on the University and athletic program.
I believe the University and athletic department has tried to solve this image problem one way by moving the Redcoats band from their traditional place (section 112-113) to sit in the west end zone (section 141). By filling up the middle section of the west end zone and pushing the students further to the outsides of the student section, it appears to make the west end zone look more full, thus more people. But, with the band leaving two sections open in the larger student section, this creates a gap students want to fill over there because it is closer to the energy and excitement created in the student corner, thus filling a gap there while creating a larger one in the west end zone.
All that to say, yes, there is a problem. Michael Adams is right in seeing that there are holes in the student sections at games. Their proposed solution to this problem is to give home game, student ticket priority to first-year, first-time freshmen. They claim that freshmen “are perceived as being more eager to attend and likely to follow through on their ticket.” (1) Therefore, they should be given first priority for student tickets instead of home ticket passages being based on the accumulated number of University credit hours being the determining factor—like it has in past years.
Before we tackle this issue, let’s look at the numbers that the University is looking at.
According to the University, there are 18,026 student seats available in Sanford Stadium. A report last fall claimed of the 35,000 students enrolled at the University of Georgia, 19,000 registered for a chance to receive season tickets. Of those 19,000 registrants, 16,000 students received full season packages for home games while the remaining 3,000 received split packages (half of the home games). The 3,000 recipients of split packages include freshmen and seniors who are not considered full time students (must be taking 12 hours+ to be considered a full-time student).
While this does not give us any insight into whether or not students are showing up for the games or not, it does show that the University’s argument that freshmen are going home and complaining that they did not get football tickets holds very little water. If there are 18,000 seats available and 19,000 people applied and looking at how they split the tickets up, then everyone who applied has the opportunity to go to a game. Granted, it may not be every game, but they are going to SOME games. Some are better than nothing in my book.
I was an unfortunate recipient of the half season package my freshmen year, and I was not happy about it. But, I was able to go to all the games because I was able to buy a cheap ticket or got one donated to the donation pool from someone who did not go. I was able to make it to all the games; I just had to make it a priority.
Bob Bishop, athletic board member, believes that every freshmen should get a ticket no matter what. I agree with Bob. Freshmen should experience the culture of football at the University of Georgia. They should learn to love it and be excited to be a part of it. I do not agree that they should get it before everyone, even alumni.
It’s like the coveted “Employee of the Month” parking spot at work. Everyone knows that just because you are the new guy, that does not entitle you to that spot. In fact, you being the new guy usually means you have the furthest parking spot from you office, and, as you work your way up, your parking spot moves up. In the same way, freshmen are not entitled to anything as freshmen. If you pamper them as incoming freshmen, they feel entitled for the rest of their years as a student there. Let them “do their time” so that when they get the opportunities later they appreciate them more.
Regardless if you give freshmen first priority or not, you still have the problem of seats being filled. Just because you give freshmen tickets, does not necessarily mean they will save the day and fill the seats. So let’s look at the seating problems that the University of Georgia has run into.
I did some research and found a list of the student sections for all the SEC schools. While the numbers are from the 2010 season, they will help give a general picture as to where the University of Georgia stands amongst its rivals (excluding the University of Alabama who did not report their statistics).
First, we will look at price of student tickets. The top five most expensive full home season, student tickets package in the SEC are Auburn tickets ($116), followed by LSU ($108), Ole Miss ($84), Florida/Tennessee ($70), and Arkansas ($65). The University of Georgia ranks number six with a $48 full home season package. Amongst the SEC schools, they are below average ($56) on the ticket prices for their package.
Next, we will look at the number of tickets each school allots for students at these home games. The largest number of tickets available to students is Florida (20,750) followed by Georgia (18,026), Auburn (16,000), LSU/Tennessee (14,000), and Mississippi State (11,000). The SEC average for tickets available to students is 11,752. Based on these numbers, the University of Georgia Athletic department has the potential to make $856,248 from student tickets alone.
But, as we all know, stadiums range in size. For example, The Swamp (home to the University of Florida Gators) holds 88,458 while The Dawg Pound (home to the Mississippi State University Bulldogs) holds only 55,082. It would seem obvious the larger stadiums would have larger student sections, so in order to compare results on a level playing field, we will look at the percentage of total capacity which the student section occupies.
The largest percentage of total capacity in the SEC is Florida (23.5%) followed by Mississippi State (20.0%), Georgia (19.4%), Auburn (18.3%), and LSU (15.2%). The average percentage of total capacity in the SEC is 13.9%.
Great. So now we have a bunch of numbers, but what do they all mean and what correlations and implications do they have for the current state of student tickets at the University of Georgia? Let’s take a look at what this helps us see.
The University allots the second most tickets in the SEC, only behind the Gators, and they are third in the percentage of the stadium the student section occupies (behind the Gators and MSU Bulldogs). This means that Georgia is at the top of two of the most important categories when it comes to size, yet their prices for these tickets are below average. All of this means, there are a lot of seats available with little incentive for students to keep committed to their purchase because the purchase was not financially significant. We know that the cheaper things are the easier it is to shrug them off as purchases and neglect them. The more of an investment something is, the more we cherish and appreciate it. For example, you will treat a 2012 Maserati GranTurismo with a little more care than you would a 1995 Honda Civic. The same thing goes with football tickets: the more you invest into them, the more of a priority they will be for the purchaser. Alumni season ticket holders know this because they donate thousands of dollars for their seats on the south side of the stadium and they are full—whether they use them themselves or sell them to others—every game. Increased financial investment creates a greater loyalty to the purchase.
While the problem may well still be students not showing up to games, the problem as I see it is bigger than that: there are too many student seats. Strictly by the numbers, if Sanford Stadium holds 18,000+ students but cannot seem to fill that many seats on a weekly basis, then it seems like the University needs to cut down on the number of seats available to students.
I know this is not a popular suggestion for students because everyone wants to go to all football games. But, if the University is so concerned about students filling the stands, they must create a demand for those seats. The only way to create a demand for those seats is by cutting the number available.
I think the place you start is in the west end zone. I know it is not the only section that is sparsely seated (I’ve been told sections 313-315 are somewhat empty as well) but, if the University is so concerned with its image on television, then it needs to offer a solution that actually solves the problem, not just penalizing the whole student body for something that they cannot control—whether or not their peers show up to games.
Here are three solutions that make sense to me after looking at the numbers and thinking about the implications. We will start with the simplest change and work our way to the more complex option.
- Raise Price of Student Tickets – I can hear students groaning and clamoring for picket signs to start a new “Occupy” movement at the Arch right now. But, if it is true that more significant financial investments tend to hold loyalty, then an increase in ticket price will cause students to think twice before purchasing home season packages on a whim or because they have nothing better to do on Saturdays in the fall. It has the potential to open up more seats for freshmen—who, according to the Athletic Board, want to go to games—because those that do not really care about tickets will not be buying them. Not to mention, the Athletic Department would be making more money as a result. Even if they were increased to $70 for a full season package (how much University of Florida and University of Tennessee students pay), the Athletic Department would make $405,572 more than last year—an almost 50% profit increase! Not sure if it would completely solve the problem of empty seats in the student section and the students probably would not like the increase, but the board sure would.
- Reform the West End Zone for Current Season Ticket Holders – If the problem is the west end zone, and you have seen that I think it is, then there is another solution to filling it up: reform the seating from student seating to booster seating. Open up sections 138-140, 142-143 to season ticket holders. Make them available to purchase like other seats for season tickets. They are not terrible seats because you get to see the players enter in front of you every game, you are right in the end zone, and it’s one of the easiest places to exit the stadium after games. Plus, you know the sections would be full because there are more boosters and season ticket holders out there who want seats. There would be no shortage of people in line to buy packages. Again, the Athletic Department would end up making more money because there is a minimum $250 donation to the Hartman Fund to just have your name put in the pool for season tickets plus payment for the tickets purchased. Let’s say there are 5,000 seats available in those sections. For students to sit there, the University would make $240,000. If they were changed to general season ticket holder seats (average price per game $55), the University would make upwards of $1,500,000. That is almost six times as much money! The student section would then be unified in the northeast corner (like almost every other SEC stadium) and seat 13,000 (which is still above average in SEC stadiums) with a percentage of the stadium at 14.0% (still above average). This solution will also fill in the other empty pockets in other parts of the student section. The band can move back to their original section to make students fill more open spots or they can stay in the end zone. That is up for debate, but in this system the University and alumni win and more demand is created amongst the student body for students to actually show up.
- The Young Alumni Fund – This solution is the most complicated but most rewarding, in my opinion. It is similar to reforming the west end zone with a little twist. The estimated 5,000 seats in the west end zone would still be removed from the student section thereby uniting the students in the northeast corner again. The band can move back if it fits better, but the west end zone seats would be distributed to a new fund called The Young Alumni Fund. The idea behind this fund is students graduate from the University of Georgia but never fully leave Athens, or the University, behind once they walk through the Arch. There will always be a special place in their heart for Athens and, for many, the football tradition that surrounds campus. Chances are just because you graduate does not mean all of your friends are gone too. Everyone has ties back to the University and reasons for coming back, especially on game days in the fall. Students want to be a part of the football tradition even after they graduate. Many graduates, because of the economy or other choices, end up sticking around Athens an extra year, move to Atlanta in hopes of a job, or move back in with parents to save money. So they are around and want to be involved. The problem is graduates do not have the money to donate to the Hartman Fund AND pay the amount of money for season tickets, but they still want to enjoy the games with their friends who are still in Athens or reconnect with friends with whom they graduated. Therefore, have the Athletic Department create the The Young Alumni Fund. This is a fund created specifically for recent graduates (open only to students for the following two years after undergrad graduation) to be a part of the Bulldog Nation right out of the gate. Graduates would be able to buy west end zone tickets at a discounted cost (75% face value) from the University after a minimum donation of $125 is made to The Young Alumni Fund. The system can work similar to the Hartman Fund, create a new system with incentives for larger donations, or it can work on a “first come, first serve” basis. The University would end up making around $830,000 compared to the current $240,000 for the west end zone seats, an almost 30% increase in profit. Not only does this make the Athletic Department more money, but it encourages graduates to stay connected to the University and rewards them for doing so. In essence, the University would be raising the next generation of boosters by teaching them the system early and showing them that they care about the alumni, even the most recent graduates who still have a connection to campus. If the University believes in its students, then the students will be more likely to believe in their University… especially after graduation. To me, this seems like the best option for the future because it is raising a generation of graduates who want to reinvest into their University.
When it comes down to it, there are always going to be people who do not show up to games, whether students or season ticket holders. The only sure-fire thing that will keep the seats full is winning seasons, SEC championships, National Championships, and a more competitive non-conference, home schedule. While these solutions may help today, unless competition and winning continues, the University of Georgia will never reach the levels that the University of Alabama or other SEC rivals have reached. Sure, the fans will always be callin’ the Dawgs as loud as they can and students will always show up and bleed red and black, but until there is an incentive to actually be at games, attendance will continue to suffer.
Giving ticket priority to first-year, first-time Freshmen does not solve this at all. It only fills the stadium with bodies and makes juniors and seniors who have put in the hours and time at the University over the years more frustrated and resistant to anything the University does. It causes the University to lose students who deeply care about the campus and the football program.
And nobody wants that.