Penn State Football: Lagging Ticket Sales Lead to Numerous Questions
BALTIMORE — Penn State is entering Year 2 of the controversial Seat Transfer and Equity Plan (STEP), its tiered seat licensing system.
Last year, a little more than 70,000 season tickets were sold, and the student section sold out an additional 21,000 tickets. Overall, attendance — Penn State finished fourth nationally behind Michigan, Ohio State and Alabama — decreased by an average of almost 3,000 per game from 2010.
The Nittany Lions averaged 101,427 fans per game but only filled 95.17 percent capacity, according to an NCAA accumulated attendance report released in February.
At this point, Penn State has said football sales are lagging behind the 2011 pace. One ticket office source said fallout from the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal and the firing of longtime coach Joe Paterno have affected renewal rates.
So while first-year coach Bill O’Brien tours the alumni hotbeds this month on the Coaches’ Caravan selling his program, athletic department officials are like worker bees behind the scenes, working the phone lines and swooping in to turn maybes into yeses. It's no secret ticket revenue is the key to Penn State football’s $53 million profit, and in October, the school partnered with IMG College Ticket Solutions to assist in the marketing and sales of all ticketed sporting events.
Season ticket holders who are not among the 70 percent renewing online have until May 14 to re-up, and the Coaches’ Caravan tour is expected to pique interest and generate more sales.
At least that’s the hope for Joel Diamond, assistant ticket manager for athletic ticket services, and John Nitardy, director of major gifts and annual giving of the Nittany Lion Club, who both gave updates on the state of ticket sales here during one of the early stops on the caravan tour.
John Nitardy, Nittany Lion Club
Q: Is it too early to say how much of a success or non success STEP has been at this point?
A: Overall, we had to do something, and I don’t look at it as a success or not. We have to get out and we have to hustle tickets and donors. Overall I think it’s a success, but I don’t necessarily look at it that way. It’s something we had to do. If you look at the history of the university, in the mid 80s we added the $100 per seat donation program because we needed to generate more money to support the athletic program. We didn’t implement it, and we didn’t force it across the board. We had exceptions and grandfather clauses and all sorts of stuff. In the early 90s we added the north end zone because we needed more money. Later we added club seats, suites and eventually you’re running out of options. There’s nothing else to add and more seats and you really don’t want to because we created our own little monster there now. We talk about 106,000 seats people expect you to fill all the time, we have to gauge that before we need to generate to support the program.
We have to sell the tickets, and with that comes donations. Right now we’re gonna surpass what we did last year, and it’s our best year ever from the fundraising standpoint, but we do have tickets to sell. So if we can get a nice medium between that, yeah it’s successful because we need to generate more money. We made about $4 million last year and possibly $5-6 million this year to help support the program.
Q: There are little nuances that people perceive as red flags, such as a no waiting list.
A: But you had that when they had a few down years. People are getting into seats they would never have gone into two years ago or 10 years ago they got into at a very reasonable price. If you look at it and say how do we generate money, our program that we implemented is right about in the middle of the pack of our conference, yet we’re a big program. We could always go in there and say let's chairback the whole lower bowl and make the value of that seat bigger. Do you wanna do that, too? I don’t know. It’s so expensive, and you can’t compare 10 years ago to now because we didn’t have the Stub Hubs and you didn’t have all these brokers out there and you didn’t have hotels charging you two night minimums and asking you to pay $400-500 a night. So things have changed, and with all that going on we just have to find a happy medium.
We're trying to find that and as we get out, we got Joel's group and the IMG group in there aggressively selling tickets, which we haven't had them do before. This (caravan tour) itself is gonna be helpful. It's been great getting the coaches out in front of people. A lot of that too is we gotta win, we gotta get a good schedule. That really impacts. If you're playing a weaker opponent, you don't have your traditional season-ticket holder. You have the transmit because they're saying, 'I can't go to seven games. I'll go to four and sell my three.'
Q: Was the IMG partnership another need you identified as a must have?
A: Greg Myford did that, and Greg looked at all the different components and he and I worked very closely on the STEP thing as far as the whole team of people, but Greg really identified we don’t have enough personnel to really do that, and in the long run we have tickets to sell. We’re gonna benefit by having them in there because they can be proactive where we were being reactive. A good example is last year we ran out of time. We were so concerned of implementing STEP and getting the people that already had season tickets set up and in their seats and getting them rearranged in the stadium, and we ran out of time to really go out and promote. By having IMG, they’ve been doing it since December.
Joel Diamond, athletic ticket services
Q: Describe the relationship between IMG and how you guys are partnering up.
A: We’ve brought them on board to be our sales arm. What they’re doing is they work closely with the Nittany Lion Club, athletic ticketing, marketing and we develop the whole program and our sales program. Mostly what they’re doing is doing a lot of outbound calling coming on the caravan, the Blue-White Game, giving us a presence to give us an opportunity to sell more and more tickets and make sure people know we do have more tickets available.
Q: Why did the decision to bring them on board first come last fall?
A: It’s something we had talked about for the last couple of years, and it was just a timing issue, not just for football. We were looking at other ticketed sports. We knew we were going into hockey. We have men’s and women’s basketball. Wrestling right now has carried itself pretty much, women’s volleyball, gymnastics. We went out and did a request for quote with a few companies and IMG were the ones we were able to bring on board.
Q: White sheets of paper were scattered across seats for the Blue-White Game. Are those all available seats?
A: We tried to show sections that were available to people, but because of the process, we couldn’t offer anybody a specific seat now. Come on board with us, we can pretty much guarantee you a seat in these sections. Most of them were in the upper deck. There’s some seats available in all the zones, the black zone, the red zone and the blue zone.
Q: Well, the obvious question is how are sales doing. We heard [acting athletic director] Dave [Joyner] say they’re a little behind last year. Greg [Myford] said similar things.
A: Well they’re a little bit behind, but we’re excited about it. IMG, last week after the Blue-White Game alone, I think in the neighborhood almost 500 tickets were sold and we continue to do that. These (caravan stops) are good even for us to make sure people are aware that we do have some tickets available in every section. And now is the time to jump on board because of the new program with Coach O’Brien and there are some opportunities for people who haven’t had a chance before to get tickets.
Q: Do you have a rough estimate so far of how many tickets have been sold?
A: I don’t know the exact numbers, but I know we’re picking up on that. It’s doing pretty well. We’re pleased with the sales they’ve done and we’re looking hard to coming into the upcoming months as we get closer to football and that’s gonna continue to grow and grow and grow.
Q: And you really can’t overstate the importance of this, given the state of the university. It needs money.
A: It’s an opportunity again for people to get tickets. Things have changed a little bit since the inception of the STEP program and for different reasons some people no longer have season tickets, so I look at it as an opportunity. It’s a changing of the guard somewhat of people who have had prior season tickets to current people that are buying season tickets.