Reversing the U's sagging ticket sales a complex issue

  • Article by: MIKE KASZUBA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 19, 2012 - 7:29 PM

Packing Williams Arena isn't so easy anymore, but Gophers officials are trying to revive soft ticket sales.

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A sparse crowd at the Gophers vs. Richmond basketball game in Williams Arena on Nov. 18.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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After spending the fall looking at thousands of empty game-day football seats at TCF Bank Stadium, University of Minnesota officials are wrestling with a slide in season-ticket sales in another high-profile sport -- men's basketball.

Non-student season-ticket sales at Williams Arena have fallen from 9,286 in 2007 to 7,136 this year, and student season-ticket sales have also slumped. Student season-ticket sales -- only 1,182 were sold for this season -- are at a six-year low. The Gophers played North Dakota State last week in front of an announced crowd of only 10,472, and at a Sunday night game against Richmond in November, the student section contained scores of empty seats.

Fans and university officials insist attendance will increase once the team begins its Big Ten schedule and support grows for the Gophers (11-1), who have climbed to No. 13 in the Associated Press national poll. Thanks to strong single-game sales, the Gophers' Big Ten home game against No. 6 Indiana is already sold out, and only a few hundred tickets remain for No. 2 Michigan and No. 20 Michigan State, school officials say.

But season-ticket figures show that lowered fan interest now spans multiple years -- coach Tubby Smith is in his sixth year -- and might have been accelerated this year by a new, expanded season-ticket plan that charges fans an additional $400 preferred seating fee for a $627 season ticket.

Average men's basketball attendance in the 14,625-seat Williams Arena, now 84 years old, fell to 11,316 in 2011-12, a drop of more than 2,000 fans per game over the past two years. And school officials acknowledge that a "sellout" occurs when the arena's 13,300 "clear view" seats are sold -- and not when the remaining obstructed-view seats are sold.

"We may have had a little bit, a small amount, of attrition," said Norwood Teague, who became the school's athletic director in June. "I'm confident we can turn this around."

Teague, however, said the school was studying the lack of student support for football and basketball in particular, and acknowledged that "we've had some challenges in that area."

National trend?

Teague also said he was intrigued by the struggles other colleges have had drawing fans. Duke, despite winning a national men's basketball championship in 2010, has had a decline in students attending games. While insisting he was not using it as an excuse, Teague said the phenomenon bears watching.

"Some will say it's because there's so much [sports] on television, and there may be some truth in that," he said. "But I'm not going to conclude that that's causing any of our problems. It may be a generational thing."

Establishing a trend at Minnesota is difficult, because the concerns over basketball ticket sales are the latest in a series of attendance issues that offer good and not-so-good news.

Across the street from Williams Arena, public and student season-ticket sales for men's hockey are back over 10,000, the highest level in six years. The news is important because fans buying non- student season tickets for hockey -- like basketball -- now also have to pay an extra fee under a new seating plan. Even more noteworthy is that much of the increase in season tickets has been fueled by students. While only 1,192 students bought season tickets two years ago, 2,581 did so this year.

The final figures for football after the 2012 season remain discouraging. School officials said that after selling 10,248 student season tickets for football in 2009, the team's first season in on-campus TCF Bank Stadium, they sold only 3,888 this year. Non-student season tickets fell to under 30,000 for the first time since 2007, and average attendance likewise dropped from 50,805 in 2009 to 46,637 this year.

Nationally, other colleges appear to be having problems similar to the Gophers in selling basketball tickets.

An announced crowd of only 7,941 watched the Gophers beat Florida State in Tallahassee in November. Wisconsin, with 11,643 non-student season tickets sold this year, is wrestling with its own decrease.

Others, however, say they are heading in a positive direction -- a trend that might be directly tied to winning.

At Iowa, season-ticket sales for public and students have increased by 500 tickets in each category, with student season ticket sales reaching 2,222. At Ohio State, currently ranked No. 7 in the country, non- student season-tickets sales are up 6 percent, to 9,986 tickets, and student season tickets are sold out for the second consecutive year.

At Indiana, public and student season tickets total 21,035 this year, up from 15,387 a year ago. So many student season tickets have been sold for Indiana's 17,472-seat Assembly Hall that not all of them can attend any specific game.

"We divide up the students to 7,800 per game. They get 12 of 16 games with the rotation," explained Jonathan David Campbell, a school spokesman.

Public and student season tickets at Michigan this year total 9,576.

"We have considerably more season tickets this year than we did last year," said David Ablauf, an associate athletic director at Michigan. "We've got most of our games sold out."

Said Teague: "Winning is very, very important."

Hoping for upswing

As he stood on a corner near Williams Arena before a recent Gophers basketball game, Jim Damman tried to sell tickets and talked of the demand.

"Been really slow," he said. "Until the Big Ten [season] starts, it's nothing." But he quickly added: "I think it's going to be better."

University officials say new revenue raised by the preferred seating program instituted this year was about $815,000 for men's basketball ($401,000) and men's hockey ($414,000). The increased revenue from the two sports is close to making up for the loss in ticket revenue resulting from the drop in season tickets, said Garry Bowman, director of athletic communications.

For some, however, the blame for the drop in non-student season-ticket sales lies with the preferred seating programs. Under the plans, which a school spokesman said most other Big Ten universities already have adopted, longtime public season-ticket holders must now have to pay a "gift," or fee, in addition to the cost of the season tickets.

In addition, public season tickets have also moved to a point system -- which award points, for example, for being a varsity letter-winner, past financial support to the school and the number of consecutive years fans have bought season tickets.

"We're true fans," Patricia Wilmot said. Wilmot said she and her husband did not renew their season tickets after learning that, even if she did, her seats would be switched further from the basketball court based on the new seating system.

"We're disappointed, but what are we going to do?" she added.

After 62 years as a basketball season-ticket holder, Marion Anderson preached patience as she sat waiting for a recent Gophers game to begin. She said she lost her long-time seat, three rows closer to the basketball court, when the new seating plan took effect.

"I'll make new friends," she said of the fans she is now surrounded by in her new seat.

The team and the crowds, she added, will come around, too.

"We haven't gotten into the [heart of the] season yet," she said.

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