If You Brand It, Will They Come?

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Student season ticket sales are down. Are you surprised?

A few years ago, when I was still in college, I confessed an unpopular opinion to my girlfriend at the time.  I told her that I really didn't like live sporting events.  Granted, my own reasoning stems from a mild case of agorophobia that tends to manifest itself in those situations.  I liked the comfort of home, even without the proliferation of HDTV technology and rising ticket prices making the home experience more appealing.

Nearly a decade later, the rest of the sports-loving world has caught up with me.  Waning ticket sales are a growing worry in professional and college sports as HDTV options look better and better at home and in sports bars, and greatly undercut the cost of attending a game live thanks to higher ticket prices and all the costs associated with attendance.  This isn't anything new.

Michigan hasn't been spared from this, as evidenced by the athletic department's ever more creative ways of packaging worse and worse groups of games together to try to entice people to buy, as well as the sliding deadline to renew student season tickets.

Now, word has come out that indeed, student season ticket sales are trending downward. Quoth David Ablauf from Nick Baumgardner's article this morning on the decline in sales:

"We're projecting that number to be somewhere between 13 or 14,000 for student ticket numbers this year," Michigan associate athletic director of media and public relations Dave Ablauf said. "(That number was at) about 19,000 last year. We don't have a finalized number (yet), that's just an approximation because all the incoming freshmen haven't put in their orders yet.

The article is filled with a lot of boilerplate about how things aren't as bad as they seem now, and that may be the truth.  Michigan Stadium has continued to pack over 100,000 in for each of its games, keeping the streak that began in 1975 alive.  People still buy tickets and MIchigan still put together some impressive attendance numbers last year in games against Notre Dame (115k) and Ohio State (113k).

But what happens in years when those games aren't on the schedule, like say 2014, where Michigan will play its three main rivals (OSU, MSU, ND) on the road?  Without those marquee games, can Michigan still pack in fans at such a high rate?  Would you pay more money overall and endure the hassles of game day to see games against Utah, Miami (OH), and Maryland?  Can the night game against Penn State pack enough fans in to bolster overall attendance numbers if people bail on a mediocre home slate and instead watch from home?

And look at Penn State, a team with a stadium nearly as big as Michigan's (capacity: 107,282) that averaged just 96k in attendance during the 2012 season.  Last year, with a similarly underwhelming home schedule to what Michigan is rolling out in 2014, Penn State saw its fans turn out in high numbers for just one game: the night game against Michigan that drew 107k fans.  No other home game topped the six figure mark.

Now, Michigan isn't in serious jeopardy of taking that large a step back in attendance, but that doesn't mean overall numbers won't lag.  And even with this lag, Michigan is still doing very well selling tickets to its games thanks to large increases in ticket prices that have upped profits despite lagging attendance.  Season tickets this year are 280 dollars for students.  I had season tickets through 2007 and I cannot ever remember paying over 200 dollars. The athletic department is worrying all the way to the bank.

The major issues is that college football's golden era of attendance is rapidly coming to a close, and the suits making decisions have doubled down on the strategy to squeeze more and more money out of the games and try to create atmosphere by overwhelming that which already exists.

Michigan has, in the past few years, added piped in music to the gameday experience while marginalizing the role of the marching band.  It has put in bigger video boards that also allow for bigger and better ad placement.  It has hassled fans trying to bring bottled water and seat cushions to games.  And when that ad placement inside the stadium isn't enough, it has gone to gimmicks such as a giant macaroni noodle outside the stadium to advertise Kraft Mac and Cheese during a pre-season event (no word on whether it would have stayed for gameday or not had complaints not rolled in).

Ablauf said that the Kraft noodle, which has the company's "You Know You Like It" slogan printed on it, was brought in to help kick off the events.

"It's on site for the event," he said. "Fans can take their picture with it, it's something different."

Yes, it is something different.  That in and of itself isn't justification for anything.

This isn't just Michigan's problem.  The growing trend across the country is worrying athletic departments everywhere, and not just in terms of ticket sales today or next year.  In an ESPN article on the subject last year, Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione spells out the problem perfectly:

"We have to solve this because we are talking about the season ticket-holders of tomorrow,...But interests and attitudes are changing so rapidly it's not easy to quickly identify what we need to do."

Ultimately this may be a losing battle.  The agoraphobics and HDTV enthusiasts may just grow in numbers thanks to the ease at which they can still see every minute of game action from better angles in the comfort of their own homes.  The cost of putting on Michigan's game day experience may just be too high to sustain while bringing fans back with lower ticket costs, less invasive advertising, and more emphasis on football and the gameday atmosphere that many of us older fans grew up with.

If the whole thing dies and Michigan eventually ends up playing in front of a half-full stadiums, I will be very sad.  Not for the lost revenue or the lack of the "wow factor" that I guess is supposed to be a big part of events (like anything could be a bigger wow factor than just walking into a buzzing Michigan Stadium before kickoff to watch the band perform and the team run out).

No, I'll be sad because something else is dead.  The real spirit of Michigan football is the fan support and atmosphere that is focused on the game itself.  And in ten or twenty of fifty years when that is dead, we'll only have to roll the heap of branding and forced game experience off of the corpse of the Michigan gameday experience, which was ultimately crushed dead by the very thing that was meant to save it.

But at least then I'll get to enjoy a game at Michigan stadium in peace and quiet.  Once everyone else is driven out, us agoraphobics will finally get the live gameday experience we've always wanted.

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