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Penn State Football: Selling the 2013 Team Just the Ticket O’Brien Needs

by on June 30, 2013 11:00 PM

With Penn State’s 2013 home opener against weakly Eastern Michigan just 62 days from now, second-year coach Bill O’Brien obviously faces a number of challenges.

But one of his toughest may not be fielding a top-flight team with only 67 scholarship players. Or starting a quarterback without any major college experience.

For years, PSU was one of less than 20 athletic departments that were self-sustaining. Those days may be numbered. That makes the man or woman who sells the Nittany Lions one of the most important persons on Penn State’s Intercollegiate Athletics roster.

The sanctions are difficult and unfair in many directions. But for a lot of reasons, filling Beaver Stadium may just be the ticket O’Brien – and Penn State -- needs. And there are millions of reasons why.

The numbers are big, the challenge is growing. Average attendance at Beaver Stadium has dropped by more than 12,000 fans since 2007.

In 2011-12 – the latest fiscal year at Penn State for which numbers are available, from the U.S. Dept. of Education – Penn State football grossed $60.2 million and had a net income of $36 million. That’s $17 million less in profit than the previous year. Overall, last year PSU athletics netted just $14 million on $108.2 million in revenue. Complicated accounting issues aside, non-football enterprises lost $22 million.

Thus, Penn State needs O’Brien, who just received a $935,279 bonus, to fill Beaver Stadium. And not just to pay for “field hockey sticks,” as Joe Paterno used to say. Penn State football essentially funds all 31 varsity sports, 78 club teams, tens of thousands playing IMs, the sports programs at the Commonwealth campuses, and a fair share of the golf courses and gyms at PSU.

That’s not all: Over a five-year period Penn State has to pay $60 million in NCAA fines and $13 million in Big Ten fines.

O’Brien is aware of the responsibility, as he noted this spring: “It’s way bigger than football…when you look at the athletic department, everybody realizes that football is the sport that generates the most money.”

Financially, Penn State may never see the ATM football days of Paterno again. In 2010-11, football grossed $72.7 million and netted $53.2 million. That climaxed a rise in football profits, in millions, from $29.4 in 2007 to $37.2 to $42.6 to $50.4 to $53.2 – a total of almost $213 million over five years. That’s all profit, too.

Football revenues dropped $6.5 million last season. A repeat or worse would be far from palatable, especially when your head coach got a salary increase of $2.155 million over the next four seasons. It won’t get easier, either.

Let’s get serious. O’Brien can’t do it alone. He’s in Year 2 at Penn State, with sanctions galore. Paterno’s astronomical numbers, accompanied by a tight belted policy, took years to accumulate. But O’Brien is certainly trying: There’s the Coaches Caravan, dozens of public appearances, several behind-the-scenes upgrades, a solid relationship with the football lettermen, consistent and unprecedented media access, full attention to his radio responsibilities and a scandal-averse on-message mantra that he’s been chanting for the past 19 months.

But he seems to be a One Bill Band. What he needs is a Guido D’Elia, the former Paterno consigliere who brought Penn State football branding and marketing into the 21st century. D’Elia had many detractors and supporters – sometimes the same person on the same day. He often ruffled feathers, but he lived the job 24/7, always remembering that the university was about the students. He sold the program – and tickets -- every day.

Meanwhile, Penn State’s students continue to respond. They bought 21,000 season tickets last year and are on track to do so again for 2013, despite a computer glitch that impacted sales of student tickets on Thursdays. A mulligan will allow them to buy 1,500 more on Tuesday.

D’Elia’s successors have worked hard, but the job selling football – which supports an athletic program that has never been deeper, won more titles across-the-board and been so academically successful -- is tougher than ever, for a number of reasons:

-- The aforementioned sanctions, which will eventually impact Penn State’s success on the field.

-- The STEP program, Penn State’s controversial fund- (but not friend-) raising football seat licensing program that was instituted a few years ago. While some adjustments have been made, the prices have increased for a standard seat. And so has the support and satisfaction of many long-time season-ticket holders, many of who have dropped their tickets. So while overall revenues may have gone up, the number of fans in the Beaver Stadium stands has dropped. And that doesn’t look good to recruits or TV cameras.

-- At an average of 96,370 tickets sold per game in 2012, Penn State still ranked fifth the nation in attendance. But capacity is down – only 90.16% in 2012, ranking it No. 30 among the top 33 teams in the country last year.

The slide actually began after the 2007 season, when Penn State drew 108,917 fans, second in the nation. Since then, attendance has fallen by 12,187 fans. Ouch. The big hit came in 2012, when the average Beaver Stadium crowd was 96,730 – a drop of 4,697 (4.3%). That’s a loss approaching at least $4 million, counting tickets, seat licensing, parking and concessions. And that’s if attendance holds steady

-- A 2013 home schedule that is anything but robust. Three opponents had a combined record of 10-27 last season – Eastern Michigan (2-10), Illinois (2-10) and Purdue (6-7). Marquee matchups are against Michigan (a 5 p.m. Homecoming kick) and Nebraska (Nov. 23, the first day of a week-long Thanksgiving break). And Central Florida, a Sept. 17 game, is definitely marketable; the game has a 6 p.m. kickoff, while UCF had a 10-4 2012 record and a head coach in George O’Leary, who is one of O’Brien’s closest coaching friends.

-- A 2014 home schedule that includes Temple (4-7 in 2012, and its third head coach in four seasons), Akron (1-11) and Mass (1-11) and Maryland (4-8). Granted, the Terrapins will be new to the Big Ten next season and a novelty of sorts, having not played Penn State since 1993. And even at that, Penn State was 28-0-1 against the Terps since 1962. Besides, it is not a rivalry if not one of the kids in the student section ever saw the two teams play each other.

The future is now, at least with 2013. O’Brien has done a lot since he came to University Park last January. But cold-calling isn't his bag -- unless it's third-and-long at Wisconsin in November.

Filling Beaver Stadium will continue to be a tough ticket, for O’Brien and everyone else. But after getting the quarterback position straightened out, it’s Job One at Penn State.



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979. He is a senior lecturer in Penn State's College of Communications and teaches a pair of classes in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism: “Sports Writing” and “Introduction to the Sports Industry.” He created and taught for several years the Center’s course on “Joe Paterno, Communications and The Media.” Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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