Michigan is one of several attention-grabbing games Michigan State will play this season in East Lansing, which helps with ticket sales. Michigan, meanwhile, likely will feel the effects of missing out on home games against rivals like MSU and Ohio State this season. (John T. Greilick / Detroit News)
On most Saturdays each fall in Ann Arbor, the college football scene is resplendent.
Tailgates buzz with conversation and anticipation before heading to Michigan Stadium, where fans flock to see the Wolverines and the Michigan Marching Band, in full regalia, play “The Victors.”
From the maize and blue to the winged helmet, Michigan is rich in tradition.
But that tradition aside, Michigan is not immune to the challenges athletic directors and marketing officers across the country are facing these days, particularly when the on-field has disappointed and the matchups are less than compelling.
It is a problem that has struck Michigan acutely, with a less-than-enticing home schedule featuring Appalachian State, Miami (Ohio) and Utah. Student attendance has been on the decline. And while the renewal rate on season-ticket sales is about where it has been in recent years, they haven’t been as brisk as the days where there was a waiting list.
On the very basic of levels, the problem is what Paul Schager, associate athletic director at Michigan State who oversees the ticket office, calls “the high-definition challenge” — how to compete with the comforts of home, featuring massive high-def televisions, cozy seating, private restrooms, cheap food and beverages.
“It makes our jobs tougher, and you have to be more innovative,” said Hunter Lochmann, senior associate athletic director and chief marketing officer at Michigan.
These issues are not exclusive to Michigan or college football. Professional leagues are struggling with ticket sales, as well.
But, unlike the pro leagues which benefit from huge revenues from television deals, Michigan State and other universities must find ways to woo fans to the stadium. Michigan State, this year, does have the luxury of an attractive home schedule that includes Michigan, Ohio State and Nebraska — and the fact the Spartans are coming off Big Ten and Rose Bowl titles.
Michigan is fighting a particularly difficult battle this year, with a largely unappealing home schedule that doesn’t feature a rival. Plus, the student fan base mirrors what is becoming the norm nationally as attendance numbers continue to fall.
Last year, Michigan sold just under 20,000 student season tickets, and on average, 26 percent didn’t show up during the first — and last — year of general-admission seating. Michigan State sold 13,500 student season tickets, and 20 percent were no-shows.
This season, Michigan officials anticipate about 14,000 student ticket packages will be sold. The extra tickets have been repackaged and a number of “fan-friendly” group deals, as well as discounted group sales, are being offered.
“I know it’s a trend nationally, but just because there’s a trend nationally doesn’t mean we have to follow that trend,” Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said of waning student attendance. “We don’t have any of our big rivalry games, that could be an impact. Coming off a 7-6 season, that could have an impact.
“You turn the page next year, we have BYU, we have Ohio (State) coming back, we finally have Michigan State finally coming back to Michigan Stadium. You have to look at these things a little bit longer than a one-season situation to really know if you’re dealing with a trend or maybe it’s a one-year situation.”
This season, Penn State is the only “big-name” home opponent, and that will be held in prime time. That schedule makes it difficult for season-ticket holders, who pay between $75-$600 for preferred seat donations to justify the reason for the expense.
Michigan averaged 111,592 last season to lead the NCAA a 16th straight season, and Brandon said the renewal rate for season tickets has been normal this year.
Lochmann, charged with driving the marketing campaign to sell tickets and ensure a positive game-day experience, understands what he’s up against.
“If it wasn’t a concern, I wouldn’t be doing my job,” Lochmann said. “I always want to maintain the season-ticket holders number where we have had it.
“There’s always natural attrition. I think this year we’ll see more because of last season and people are unhappy with the schedule. The message we’re getting out there is the team will get better, and the schedules will get better. Don’t look at one season with blinders on.”
Michigan was on the short end of the rescheduling stick when the Big Ten went to two divisions and drew Michigan State on the road consecutive seasons. Michigan’s road schedule includes Notre Dame and Ohio State.
Schager said Michigan State ticket sales have been brisk and expects to sell out its season-ticket allotment and individual game tickets for most home games. He admits having Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska at home is easy to sell.
Also a plus for fans is that Michigan State, even after a successful 2013 season, did not raise ticket prices.
“In Mark’s mind, this is an opportunity to buck conventional wisdom. Our first job is to sell out the stadium on season-ticket basis,” Schager said of Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis.
“The schedule weighs into the demand. Tickets sales were not so great in ’13, and the numbers reflected it. In ’14, Michigan, Ohio State and Nebraska are here, so the demand is there. The curious part is where the demand comes from, we want it to come from the individual Spartan fan, but often who we find are the most aggressive are the brokers. They’re the first ones to jump on new offerings for season tickets. They know where their opportunities are.”
Michigan and Michigan State have partnerships with StubHub with ticket-exchange marketplaces on that site.
“You can’t be in the business without a relationship with a secondary market, you can’t have your head in the sand,” Schager said. “We have to be there.”
Connor Gregoire said fans buying tickets on the secondary market versus making a lump-sum payment for season tickets is something SeatGeek.com, a search engine for finding seats to live events, has seen across sports, particularly Major League Baseball.
“For most U-M games, you can find tickets on the resale market for face value or less in the last day or two before kickoff, if not earlier,” according to Gregoire, a communications analyst at SeatGeek.com. “Given that, it’s easy to see why a savvy fan would buy one game at a time rather than make one huge season-ticket payment to the university. By forgoing season tickets for the secondary market, you can choose just a subset of games to attend, pay as you go and/or choose to stop paying for tickets to future games if the season goes south.”
Hatching a plan
Then there’s the issue of student attendance.
Programs to attract students are getting creative. Wisconsin reportedly will spend $6.3 million to make Camp Randall Wi-Fi accessible, and Purdue is running a promotion for students who buy a VIP card, which gets students into football and men’s basketball games. By Tuesday, their photo will appear in a collage inside the “P” on the helmets.
The move to general admission was fairly disastrous for Michigan last fall, and former student body president Michael Proppe launched a survey of students midway through the season.
“It was so overwhelmingly negative, we knew we had to come up with something,” Proppe said.
The first survey that had 6,000 respondents was taken after the fourth home game and responses — including 76 percent saying they did not approve of general admission — were shared with the athletic department.
“It just didn’t really work,” he said.
A second survey administered with the athletic department gave a better gauge of what students want. They were asked to rank what’s most important for their game-day experience, and No. 1 was being able to sit with friends. Interestingly, students said having Wi-Fi was the lowest priority.
“That is such a misconception that putting in Wi-Fi is going to get students to show up,” Proppe said.
Michigan has a new student seating policy that will reward attendance loyalty. Students will be seated next season based on their attendance the previous season.
Michigan State has had its share of challenges in terms of student attendance.
“The challenge with the students, we know they’re going to attend in high numbers at the first game, and the Michigan game and Notre Dame,” Schager said. “But the other games, a noon game later in the year, or bad weather? One year, we had a big game against Wisconsin, day after Halloween. You’re fighting a losing battle, even if it’s a 3:30 game.”
Installing Wi-Fi at Michigan Stadium is not a priority because of the high cost, although Lochmann said officials promise better cell service this fall. Michigan State officials also believe Wi-Fi is too costly, and Schager said that won’t eliminate the problem of no-shows.
“For seven days, it’s a huge investment,” Schager said. “Is that really what people want? Is that what they’re coming for? Maybe we have to do a better job of saying those three hours are an escape.”
It is important these days to determine how to improve the experience, particularly for students who will eventually — schools hope — become season ticket holders of the future.
But if they’re not showing up now, what will that mean?
“This is a family experience,” Schager said. “It’s what people do here. Are there as many young kids going to the game as they used to? All these students right now, are those kids going to be like their parents before them, eager to bring their kids to Spartan Stadium? That will be the sign (of where things are) 20 years down the road.”