Deep in the Pocket
August 12, 2006; Page P3
For fans of the University of Tennessee's football team, last season was a difficult one. Though the team was widely expected to be in the running for the national title, it finished out of the Top 25, and wound up with a 5-6 record.
This season is also shaping up to be a tough one for fans of the Volunteers -- in the pocketbook. Despite last season's woes, the team is now charging an extra 10% for some games. And, for the first time, all sideline season tickets require an extra annual fee of at least $250.
From the Tigers of Louisiana State University to the University of Michigan Wolverines, many top college football teams are forcing fans to pay more to get into games this season. With the latest price increases, some colleges are now charging more for their premium tickets than the pro football teams in the same town.
Prices are also surging on the secondary, or resale, ticket market. The average cost to see Penn State and Notre Dame on Sept. 9, a much-anticipated matchup, is more than $822 per ticket, according to StubHub.com, a market for secondary ticket sales. The highest-price ticket sold on StubHub last season, which was for the game between USC and Notre Dame, averaged $575.
|Now Kicking Off: The University of Iowa's ongoing stadium renovations include luxury boxes.|
Much of the price hike is traceable to the escalating cost of running a top college football team. Ohio State University's football expenses, for example, have grown to nearly $26 million. And universities, under pressure not to stick students with the tab for these spiraling expenses, are making teams foot more of the bill. That has put the onus on the football programs to find new sources of revenue to fund everything from stadium expansions to player scholarships.
Some of the latest ticket prices come with more amenities. The University of Alabama added skyboxes and a club-level area in one end zone of Bryant-Denny Stadium. Each club seat has an annual fee of $1,500 -- on top of the ticket price -- while each suite costs either $35,000 or $42,500 for the year, depending on the size.
But a number of the price increases don't contain any extra perks. Many of the biggest jumps are with season-ticket packages, which in college athletics, unlike in most pro sports, account for the vast majority of ticket sales. Most universities now charge an annual fee -- of anywhere from $50 to over $5,000 per seat -- on top of the price of the tickets themselves. (Colleges refer to these fees as "donations," and they are partially tax deductible.) But because demand for tickets exceeds supply at many schools, priority goes to the biggest donors, which means the actual cost of entry winds up being much higher.
Oklahoma State University's most well-heeled ticket holders had to pay $2,500 upfront this year just to be able to buy box seats, more than double last year's requirement of $1,000. At the University of South Carolina, the season tickets themselves are up a whopping 33%, to $40 a game. Even some students are being hit with the higher prices. At Louisiana State University, students will have to pay up to 71% more (or a total of $18) for some general-admission seats.
For the teams, it helps that demand for tickets remains strong. Last season, Division I-A football teams drew a total of 32.6 million fans, up slightly from 32.5 million in 2004. This year, Kenneth DeMoor, a University of Miami season-ticket holder for almost two decades, had to pay $400 extra for his four seats on the 50-yard-line of the Orange Bowl. Mr. DeMoor says he "wasn't thrilled" but says the fee is still below what Florida State University and the University of Florida charge.
|Louisiana State University is charging students more this year to see the action.|
Some fans, though, aren't so accepting. Fresh off a disappointing four-win season, Oklahoma State season-ticket holders in March received a brochure from the school titled "Cowboy Up: The Cost to Compete for Championships in the Big 12." The message: to cover the rising cost of running a competitive football program in one of the country's top conferences, as well as to help finance renovations of the football stadium and basketball arena, OSU was raising prices for season tickets 28% to $295 for six games. For club-level seating, the cost of a season ticket is now $395, up 71% over last year. So far, season-ticket sales are down more than 10% from a year ago.
When the University of Michigan announced plans to add 83 luxury suites, it sparked strong opposition from alumni including an organized campaign to "Save the Big House."
As teams look for new revenue streams, ticket prices are particularly attractive. Unlike income from things like TV rights and bowl games, teams don't have to share ticket proceeds with their conferences.
For years, colleges have awarded the rights to buy the best season tickets based on a candidate's tenure as a season-ticket holder: Fans with a longer tenure get first dibs on the best seats. But more colleges are now adopting a system similar to the pro teams, which offer so-called personal seat licenses, or one-time payments that give fans the right to buy season tickets.
Many teams say they have no choice but to raise prices. "If we didn't do something, the only way to cut costs even further was to look at dropping some sports," says Joe Parker, a senior associate athletic director at Michigan, which has a program that requires about 45% of season-ticket holders to pay a fee of $125 to $500 annually. He says efforts in recent years to cut costs helped put the athletic department in the black, but staying there was getting increasingly difficult.
Sometimes, watching the local pro team is now a better option financially than taking the family to the college game. For a season ticket in the premier club seating area at LP Field, home of the Tennessee Titans, fans have to pay $4,050 -- a one-time fee of $1,500 on top of the $2,550 price tag for the eight-game package.
Some 160 miles east in Knoxville, the University of Tennessee is now offering high-rolling fans seats in the new East Club, which has 422 outdoor, theater-style seats under a cover. The cost: $4,000 a year for the seats, plus a $25,000 donation payable in equal installments over five years, bringing the total annual price tag to $9,000 for each of the first five years. The section has an adjoining hospitality club room with private restrooms, pre-game and halftime buffets. (Food isn't included in the Titans plan.)
Still, some relative bargains remain at the college level -- and in some surprising places. Arizona State University angered fans recently when it raised the price of a season ticket along with the annual fee, which is now anywhere from $50 to $1,500. But that's mainly because the school for years has been giving tickets away -- literally, in some cases. For $200 and a fee that's still below the average for top programs, fans can get season tickets for a team that just missed the top 25 in some rankings.
The Big East Conference, with its lower-priced ticket plans, is still the Wal-Mart of college football. Syracuse University, the school that produced NFL great Jim Brown and current stars Donovan McNabb and Marvin Harrison, had to defend itself recently after it raised the cost of a season ticket to $180, or $30 per game.
Write to Russell Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org
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