Community Interview: Everything you wanted to know about ticketing in college sports
Is it more important to maximize revenue, or attendance? How much does "Fan Experience" matter? We all chatted with Dr.Nels Popp to better understand the ticketing world
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I’m really excited to share today’s Community Interview. You all asked some smart questions to Dr. Nels Popp of the University of North Carolina. Dr. Popp is an expert on ticket sales in college athletics.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
With the financial hit many college/pro programs are taking, does our ticketing professor see ticket prices rising to offset losses or lowering to get more buy-in? Are we going to see a trend towards quality (margin per ticket) or quantity?
Dr.Popp: I love this question, but I really don’t have a great answer. My guess is that a handful of schools will use the pandemic as a reason to raise prices a little to make up for budget shortfalls. However, one thing I’ve learned about ticket pricing strategy within college athletics is that administrators are very concerned about the public perception of their decisions. In major league sports, the number one objective when it comes to ticket pricing is to maximize revenue. In the college space, however, administrators are concerned about how pricing will be received by different constituents, including community members, alumni, season ticket holders, and students.
Major league franchises are located in major metropolitan areas, where there are ample prospective ticket buyers who can afford higher prices. That’s not necessarily true in college athletics; one worry is if you outprice too much of the fan base, there may not be enough other people to buy. Also, as educational institutions that typically receive taxpayer support, universities and their athletics departments do not necessarily want to be perceived as trying to maximize revenue.
Overall, my guess is that most schools will keep ticket prices relatively the same for at least the first year or two. College athletics tend to be pretty conservative in making these sorts of decisions. I also think once fans feel it is safe to come back to college sports, they will do so in strong numbers due to pent up demand. I’ve seen surveys suggesting the pandemic will move people away from live sports as they discover other interests and I’ve seen surveys suggesting fans are desperate to get back to attending live sports. It’s pretty tough to tell right now, but I’m going to lean toward people wanting to go back to sports.
Reader Alex asks:
The move to paperless tickets is obviously ongoing, but there are many who feel that the ticket stub is a valuable collector's item and a great way to track games attended. How should the industry balance these two things?
Dr.Popp: The move to mobile-only ticketing was already well underway before the Covid pandemic, but the desire of operators to create a contactless entry into venues has meant many DI schools are now going strictly mobile. I think we are also going to see rapid growth in cashless venues; some fans might not be able to buy popcorn or hot dog with cash the next time they are able to attend a college sporting event.
We actually just completed a study examining fan attitudes towards mobile ticketing at a neutral site conference championship game last year where mobile tickets were the only way to get into the stadium. Nearly 30% of attendees indicated they preferred traditional paper tickets instead of mobile and having a keepsake souvenir from the game was cited as the top reason for this preference. One great idea I’ve seen within pro sports is to develop a collector’s item replica ticket that can be either picked up in the venue or sent to fans who request it after the game.
This would create a unique touchpoint with fans that is inexpensive to produce. Perhaps the memento ticket stub could include imagery from the game, such as a picture of a key touchdown or 3-point shot on the ticket itself, or it could even be personalized to include a photo of the ticket buyer at the venue superimposed on the ticket.
By the way, I also have a collection in my office of all the ticket stubs I have collected over the years.
Reader Gonza asks:
How do schools determine if they should sell tickets by game, or require season ticket packages? How common is it for schools to provide "rewards" for students who show up early, or stay the entire time?
I think most athletics departments would love to sell out a venue with all season tickets, as it is more efficient and requires less administrative/marketing effort. The reality, though, is that it is a pretty rare occurrence in college athletics. There are also some downsides to doing so.
One is limiting the number of potential new fans introduced to the product; few people will trial a new product by buying in bulk. Also, season tickets are typically sold at a discount compared to the face value of single-game tickets purchased individually, which means the athletic department is forgoing some potential ticket revenue by only selling season tickets.
One thing athletics administrators need to ask themselves is whether they are trying to maximize ticket revenue or put butts in seats. Many schools now sell mini-plans for their football and basketball programs; the school will include a premier game with one or two lower-tier games (in the case of football). In some instances, perhaps the only way to get a ticket to the premier game is to buy a mini plan. The idea is to encourage the buyer to spend more on tickets than she might have originally intended, which generates more revenue. However, the reality is that attendance for the non-premier games is likely to suffer because many of the people who bought the best seats may not be interested in attending the lower tier game. As a result, the non-premier game may be touted as sold out, but has thousands of empty seats.
Another result is that many of those ticket buyers will flood the secondary market (ie. Stubhub) with those unwanted tickets, often listing them for well below face value. Over time, this conditions ticket buyers to wait for cheaper tickets on the secondary market rather than buy from the athletic department directly, which can become a long-term problem. In addition, because all those seats have been sold, the athletic department cannot sell them to others who legitimately want to attend the lower-tier game (think group sales like youth sports teams, church groups, or company outings).
Regarding “rewards” for student attendance, I know several schools have tried to implement programs to track this. However, college students are notorious for figuring out ways to cheat the system.
For me, the more important question with student attendance has always been “why do we care?” If the answer is that students create a great atmosphere so we need them in the building, I would argue it is rarely 100% of the students who create the great atmosphere; instead, it is a much smaller percentage who lead the chants and paint their faces. If the atmosphere is the goal, then athletics departments should focus specifically on those students who actually create the excitement and find ways to reward this smaller contingent for their loyal support. I think the University of Illinois does a fantastic job of this with their Orange Krush program, in which only the most active and involved students get prime seats for basketball games, while students who are less engaged are relegated to the upper bowl of the arena. (We’ve actually done some research in this area and it is very apparent that not all students attend sporting events for the same reasons. Highly identified students are far more interested in being close to the action and feeling like they are a part of the atmosphere while students who are less identified attendees are often more interested in the social aspects of a game day.)
I’ve also heard that it is important for students to be present because they are the season ticket holders of the future. I would argue the data does not necessarily bear this out. At many schools, college graduates do not get hired and live in the same community as their alma mater after graduation, so they do not become the next generation of season ticket buyers, simply due to geographic reasons. They may visit the campus for a few games a year, but most season ticket holders are actually members of the local community, many of whom are not graduates of the school.
Finally, If students are not interested in arriving early, staying late, or attending at all, I don’t blame the students…instead, I blame the product. “Crowd shaming” students is not very effective and bribing them with rewards like t-shirts and pizza doesn’t really create rabid fans. Marketers either need to find what does appeal to the student consumer about attending a sporting event (did you know the Atlanta Hawks offer a Tinder night?) or they need to find other consumers (ie. shrink the student section and sell the seats to non-students).
Reader Phillip asks:
We have seen schools really spending to increase the “fan experience” at games. OSU improves the dining options. Arkansas State added a waterfall. UCF added a lazy river. Are we seeing these kinds of investments actually lead to increased sales? If so, is there data to show which improvements are actually most beneficial?
Dr. Popp: This is an excellent question, one I like to debate with students in my classes. If it was as simple as saying if an athletics department adds X, it will instantly draw in more fans, everyone would be doing it. There has been a lot of research done in this area, but it is challenging. One thing I would like to distinguish is that certain game-day improvements may not be geared toward drawing more fans, but rather, getting existing fans to spend more.
The UCF lazy river, or the Long Beach State basketball sand bar, or the Mississippi State football rooftop cabanas with no view of the actual football field are not really designed to attract a large chunk of additional fans. Instead, their purpose is to get a small number of fans to significantly upgrade their spending, and in that regard, they’re very successful.
Initiatives like free WiFi or allowing alcohol to be sold in-venue, on the other hand, are investments in trying to attract a larger number of people to attend. The research on alcohol sales does seem to suggest that when controlling for school type and opponent quality, alcohol sales do seem to have a small but significant effect on attendance. The impact of free WiFi, on the other hand, appears to be negligible, although it is becoming an expectation at venues. Free WiFi may not bring in more fans, but poor WiFi may serve as a deterrent.
Again, I would like to point out that attendance and ticket revenue are often thought of as measuring the same thing, but I would argue they are two separate constructs. A football stadium that draws 45,000 fans a game but has a capacity of 70,000 is seen to have an attendance problem, but it may generate significantly more ticket revenue than the school that always looks full because it averages 28,000 fans to its 30,000 seat stadium. While fans always clamor for better attendance, perhaps it would be better to adjust stadium seating and ticket pricing. Here at North Carolina, the athletic department recently converted nearly all of the football stadium to chair back seating, which greatly reduced capacity, but aided in producing a string of sellouts last season.
In addition, a much larger percentage of today’s sports fan does not want to sit on a metal bleacher with someone’s knees jammed into their back for three hours in order to watch every snap. Creating a better fan experience may mean taking out some seating to create “social spaces” where fans can move around, talk to multiple people, etc. Professional sports have embraced this element of game day, but colleges have been slower to adopt it. My opinion is the fan of tomorrow wants this flexibility and if college athletics doesn’t provide it, the fan disappears.
Over the years, I’ve heard from several college athletics administrators and fans suggesting they never want college athletics to become minor league baseball, where the game on the field is secondary to what is happening off it. Minor league ballparks have resorted to mascot antics on the dugout, sports bars in the bullpen, putting greens on the concourses, and kiddie bounce houses in the right-field corner. But you know what? Over the past decade, minor league baseball has had very stable attendance and actually saw an attendance increase in 2019. Meanwhile, college athletics attendance continues to dwindle year after year.
Is it better for fans to come for the lazy river or not attend at all?
Reader Tom asks:
In recent years, baseball coaches such as Randy Mazey at WVU and Eric Bakich at Michigan have made separate proposals to move D1 baseball from its mid-February start date to sometime in March. While no one would expect baseball attendance at northern schools to become the phenomena seen at places like Arkansas and Mississippi State, would it be reasonable to expect that playing more games in warmer
months could bring northern schools’ baseball balance sheet to something approaching the black with such a move? Would such a schedule move be able to take advantage of MLB’s recent cull of the minor leagues? Would there be attendance or revenue benefits for the big southern programs to such a schedule move, or have they likely maxed-out their ticket revenues with season ticket sellouts regardless of when the season starts?
Dr.Popp: In simple terms, yes, I think the proposed moving of the college baseball season, in general, would have a very positive impact on attendance. Attendance data already seem to support this as later season games draw much better (although some of this is likely due to conference games played later in the season often to determine playoff seeding or against rivals).
I think there are some important market variables that would impact how much southern teams could grow attendance…if the season extended too far into the summer, would hot weather keep people away, for example. I don’t have any fan demographic data to prove this but if the market also has a major or minor league franchise, I would imagine significant overlap between the fan bases, which would probably have an adverse effect.
Reader REDACTED asks:
- I keep hearing about the college sports attendance bubble-bursting due to Gen Z’s lack of adherence to traditional patterns of student attendance. With regard to season tickets in sports like football, basketball or the handful of baseball programs with significant attendance, does the grandfathering of season ticket holder status to
future generations increase the attachment of younger generations, or is it potentially decreasing future attendance by crowding younger people whose granddad wasn’t a season ticket holder for the last 50 years?
Dr.Popp: I think a common misconception regarding college sports attendance is that nearly all season ticket holders and donors begin their allegiance to their favorite college team while attending that university. A few years ago, one of my graduate students surveyed University of North Carolina athletics donors and found that over half of them did not even attend UNC as an undergrad. The average age donors said they first became highly identified as a fan of UNC athletics was 14.6 years old.
This was just a sample of one school, but I imagine it plays out at schools across the country; college sports fans often become attached to a favorite program before they graduate high school. Thus, it is important to expend some energy and resources on long-term marketing efforts directed toward kids/teenagers/families that may not pay off immediately.
I don’t believe the idea of allowing families to pass ownership of season tickets from one generation to the next does much one way or another to either cultivate or diminish the next generation of fans. If a fan who has grown up going to games because her grandparents or parents were season ticket holders now has the ability to “inherit” (buy) those season tickets, that purchase decision will be influenced more by past experience than the “opportunity” to acquire tickets because a family member was a season ticket holder. Also, I am not aware of too many places where it is so hard to get season tickets that “inheriting” them is the only option (maybe for Duke basketball or for the Green Bay Packers).
To me, the bigger concern with the grandfathering of season ticket ownership is the lost opportunity to move other ticket buyers up the ladder. Nearly all sports teams and athletic departments strive to move fans up the “frequency escalator” from a casual attendee to a season-ticket holder. When season ticket holders do lapse, there should be other ticket holders in the pipeline who can be encouraged to upgrade. If all prime seats, however, belong to fans who are second or third-generation season ticket holders, it does slow or halts the escalator, which can have long-term consequences.
Fans become frustrated if they want to upgrade but are never able to. I don’t think this problem is widespread, but it does happen. As such, it is important for athletics departments to have engagement programs at every level of ticket holder status. If a department only caters to the high-end ticket holder, while ignoring the mid-level ticket holder or failing to develop new business, the pipeline eventually dries up.
The more common mistake I see is departments spending all their marketing resources on recruiting new members while failing to spend time and energy on existing season ticket holders. It is far more efficient and effective to retain current customers than to acquire new ones. I’ve seen too many college athletics departments whose idea of customer retention is to send a ticket renewal letter at the end of the season. Season tickets should be a two-way relationship.
I would love to see athletics departments improve this area of the business.
Thanks again to Dr.Popp, and to all the members of the Extra Points community that shared questions. Other story ideas, business inquires, reader feedback and more can be sent to MattBrownOhio@gmail.com, or to @MattBrownEP on Twitter dot com.
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