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Mitch Vingle: WVU and football ticket sales

There seems to be outrage in some quarters over WVU’s current football season ticket sales.

“Basically we’re at 29,100 right now,” Mountaineer associate athletic director Matt Wells said Tuesday. “We are down. Last year, we ended up around 32,500. So we’re down in that 10 percent range. And we were down from the previous year.”

No one is trying to sugarcoat the situation. The Mountaineer football program has taken a downturn. Preseason predictions are anything but sparkling. Season ticket sales are down.

But, um, duh. What else would one expect?

Actually, a number like 29,100, considering the last couple of WVU seasons, seems pretty impressive to me. And if you do a little research and have a little perspective you’d come to the same conclusion.

It’s impressive in regard to the fans. It’s impressive in regard to Wells and his staff.

“If this is a down year,” Wells said, “it’s a sign our program and season ticket base is healthy.”

That’s correct. Express outrage over WVU’s recent football performance if you wish. It’s certainly warranted. Head coach Dana Holgorsen is squarely on the hot seat, and the Mountaineers are staring straight down the barrel of Alabama and a rugged Big 12 season.

But let’s de-fog the fogged.

First, some perspective. Understand that even though the Mountaineers are in a big-boy conference, they are not among the big-boy attendance leaders. Odds are, they’ll never be in that group with such a small state populace.

Last season, Michigan averaged 111,592 fans to home games; Ohio State averaged 104,933; Alabama averaged 101,505; Texas averaged 98,976. There were 16 schools last season that averaged 80,000 or above, with Notre Dame last on that list.

Get me? If you look at the top 30 schools in attendance last season, Ole Miss was last with an average of 59,393. In the history of WVU’s program, the Mountaineers surpassed that average number three times. Three.

And here’s a kicker: Among those 30 schools, there were but two from the Big 12: Texas and Oklahoma. That’s a Big 12-presence of six percent. (Oklahoma State barely missed getting in.)

Let’s drill even deeper. It might be disheartening for WVU fans to see Clemson, which was destroyed by the Mountaineers a couple years ago in the Orange Bowl, selling out — 52,000 — season tickets to Death Valley. Texas Tech surpassed its school record of season ticket sales in April by topping 34,000.

But both programs are on a perceived uptick. Clemson went 11-2 last season and finished No. 8. Coach Kliff Kingsbury, meanwhile, has the Red Raider Nation fired up.

Winning sells. Again, duh.

Go back into WVU archives. The top Mountaineer drawing team of all time — 60,649 home average — was the 1989 team that followed the Mountaineers’ appearance in the national championship game. That 1988 team, which went 11-1, was right behind at 60,497.

Keep going back. No. 3 was the 11-2 2007 team that will be remembered as Rich Rodriguez’s last. No. 4 was the season before, when Pat White was in full bloom.

Last season’s attendance numbers in Morgantown finished No. 22 on the school’s list. That’s certainly not great, but consider WVU lost six of its last eight games — in addition to Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey — heading into the campaign. The team was coming off a dreadful performance in the Pinstripe Bowl.

Yet the school drew an average of 52,910 — more than the 9-4 team of 2002 that made the Continental Tire Bowl. It drew more than the 2003 team that went 8-5 and made the Gator Bowl.

More perspective: College football attendance across the nation hasn’t exactly been on a spike. Although attendance stabilized last season, the overall 2013 average at FBS schools was the second lowest since 2003.

Those of us age 50 and above are still buying tickets, but the younger generation certainly is not. You’re seeing drops in season student ticket sales at places like Michigan from 21,000 to a projected 13,000-14,000. Schools are trying dynamic variable price tactics for individual game tickets. Some are reducing the student ticket allotment. (WVU saves 10,000 seats for students and distributes 12,500 tickets, with the understanding there will be no-shows.)

So what is the average FBS home draw?

Try 45,192 last season. The season before, the number was 44,970. WVU, again, drew 52,910 and — God and Nick Saban willin’ — is probably on a similar path for 2014. Remember, Wells and his staff are selling a team that lost six of its last seven games with no bowl following a team that lost six of its last eight the year prior.

If you don’t think winning matters, check the Big 12 attendance leaders from last season and compare their league finishes. Texas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State led, respectively, in attendance, and all finished in a tie for second place on the field of play. Kansas, meanwhile, finished in last place both on the field and at the turnstiles. TCU was next to last on the field and at the turnstiles. The only oddity was Baylor’s first-place finish on the field and eighth-place finish at the gate. (The stadium capacity was 50,000, though, with an average home draw of 45,948. And the price of admission just changed for fans of the Bears. A new $260 million stadium opens in Waco on Aug. 31.) WVU finished sixth in attendance within the league.

“I thank the fans for their support,” WVU athletic director Oliver Luck said Tuesday. “There are ebbs and flows in college football. You’ve seen teams like Tennessee drop off before. We’re hoping to get back to where we were.”

If, by the way, you’re wondering about ticket sales to the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome against Alabama, Wells said his school has sold “a little more than 20,000 of the 24,000” the school has been given to sell.

“We feel pretty comfortable there,” Wells said.

WVU is receiving $3.2 million to play in the game and, as part of the contract, is responsible for selling all 24,000 tickets. The school eats the cost of leftover tickets. Wells said average home games net proceeds of about $2.7 million. So consider it a wash — with the bonus of exposure on ABC.

So express outrage over ticket sales if you wish, but the cold, hard numbers say WVU is managing the ebb pretty well.

Now it’s time for Holgorsen and his team to flow.

Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, mitchvingle@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.


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