The University of Michigan football program has for years proudly extolled its streak of 100,000-plus crowds at Michigan Stadium games, which is at 258, but preserving that mark last season required an enormous number of complimentary tickets.
While comp tickets aren't a new thing at Michigan, the practice ballooned during the 2014 season, particularly in the final home game against Maryland, when nearly 17,000 free tickets were distributed. That counted toward the final attendance of 101,717, the sparsest crowd at the Big House since 100,862 saw Michigan play Memphis in 1995.
There were 62,879 free tickets distributed during the 2014 season that accounted for roughly 8.6 percent of attendance, a sharp increase from the previous season, when 2.8 percent of the attendance came from comp tickets. Even with the comps, the stadium surpassed its capacity of 109,901 only once, and that came in a night game against Penn State.
"There's clearly a marketing value to 100,000, so that number is very, very important," said Darren Rovell, ESPN's sports business analyst. "Teams have been doing it for years to keep sellout streaks. I do think it's happening more and more everywhere. There's still the marketing value of the big number. There is definitely an appeal to that 100,000. There's pride, and this kind of stuff is important. It adds to the intrigue and lore of going to Michigan Stadium."
The Big House attendance, which last fell below the 100,000 mark on Oct. 25, 1975, includes tickets sold, tickets distributed, staffing, catering employees, university facility and operations employees, the spirit squad and marching band, and the media.
University of Michigan Regent Andrea Fischer Newman, a Michigan alum, described the increased number of comp tickets in 2014 as "an aberration."
"But it's important for the game day experience to fill the stadium," Newman said.
Things got so bad in 2014 that Michigan saw its 16-year hold as the nation's attendance leader snatched by Ohio State, which averaged just more than 106,000 fans to Michigan's 104,909, which also lagged Texas A&M's average of 105,123.
"It was a marketing loss. They lost the attendance title and a further loss that they lost it to Ohio State," Rovell said. "These are important things. These are off-the-field bragging rights."
Season ticket sales rebound
Now, several months removed from last season, interim athletic director Jim Hackett said recently there's a waiting list for Michigan season tickets for the first time in five years, mostly because of the arrival of new coach Jim Harbaugh.
But the numbers from the 2014 season, particularly those representing complimentary tickets issued game-by-game, are eye-opening and further indicative of how an unattractive home schedule — Michigan did not have either of its Big Ten rivals, Michigan State and Ohio State, on its home schedule for the first time since 1966 — along with a drop in student season-ticket sales and a poorly performing team affects ticket sales and attendance.
The Detroit News filed an open records request on Oct. 17, 2014, for attendance data from the 2014 and 2013 seasons and, for comparative purposes, the 2010 season, when Michigan Stadium unveiled its renovation and suites expansion. The News also requested numbers generated each game by ticket scanners and received that information for the last two seasons.
Michigan's Freedom of Information Act Office fulfilled the request with a letter dated April 7, 2015, and it was received this week. Included were the "Football ticket sales and financial settlement" reports from those three seasons and the ticket scanner count of tickets from the 2013 and 2014 seasons.
"It was the most challenging schedule from a ticket sales standpoint," Michigan associate athletic director Dave Ablauf said. "It was the first time since the mid-'60s we didn't have any of our rivals on our home schedule. We didn't have Michigan State or Ohio State on the schedule, and combine that with not having Notre Dame."
Undoubtedly, it wasn't just the largely unappealing schedule that damaged attendance.
Michigan fans watched their program endure losing seasons in 2008 and 2009, and after an 11-2 record in 2011, it slipped again with seasons of 8-5 and 7-6. Then there was the poorly-timed student-ticket controversy in 2013, when Michigan increased prices and moved to general admission seating, and the backlash involved a dip of about 8,000 student season tickets purchased in 2014.
Student attendance down
Michigan is not an isolated case in college football. Home attendance was down across the country in 2014, averaging 43,483, a dip of 4 percent from the season before. The Big Ten average was 70,431 in 2013 and decreased to 66,939 last season. Student attendance has dwindled across the country, and that is a major reason for decreasing numbers.
The sagging attendance at Michigan was most evident and hit a peak in the final home game of the season Nov. 22 against Maryland. The Wolverines were at 5-5 under then-coach Brady Hoke and desperately needed a victory to become bowl eligible. Three weeks earlier, former athletic director Dave Brandon had resigned in the midst of controversy.
While the announced crowd was 101,717, there were 83,268 tickets sold, according to Michigan's records, in addition to 16,923 complimentary tickets, by far the most issued during the season. That accounted for 16.6 percent of the attendance that day. By comparison, the Penn State night game, which drew a season-best 113,085, included only 3,080 free tickets.
In the season opener against Appalachian State, 12,854 were complimentary (12 percent of the attendance), while comped tickets accounted for just under 10 percent of the Miami (Ohio) and Indiana announced crowds.
Michigan's total attendance last season was 734,364 and 62,879 — roughly 8.6 percent — came from complimentary tickets. In 2013, Michigan distributed 22,004 complimentary tickets, or 2.8 percent of the total attendance (781,144), and in 2010, 2.6 percent (20,122) of the 782,776 total attendance was generated by free tickets.
"We distributed more complimentary tickets, and a good portion was because of the shortfall of student season-ticket sales," Ablauf said. "We had more ticket inventory, more than we ever have had in the past."
Records show that during the 2013 season, Michigan's students accounted for about 19,850 seats per game, and in 2014, that number dropped to about 11,550.
"We had more individual game tickets to sell and we gave more complimentary tickets to key partners," Ablauf said.
Deals, giveaway documented
Michigan's ticket promotions were well documented last season with options to purchase deals via Amazon Local, Groupon, Living Social, and there was the brief ticket giveaway on campus — two face-value tickets to the Minnesota game with the purchase of two Coke products.
The objective, it seems, was to keep the 100,000 attendance streak alive.
Rovell said he thinks schools will give up the "comp game because at the end of the day it will hurt the perception with people who are paying. ... They're not going to be able to maintain (the attendance title) if it's not real."
The value of data generated from ticket scanners is not clear.
"Scanning was never designed to track attendance," Ablauf said. "There's no standard way you can ensure every scan you get because it's a wireless system. It provides us with valuable information like peak entry times to the stadium. It gives us general trends."
Ablauf said it's not unusual for tickets to go unscanned if there is a crush of people entering at one time.
During the 2013 season, the per game total of tickets scanned ranged between about 75,000 and 86,000. In 2014, there were 85,430 tickets scanned for the season opener against Appalachian State and 88,634 for the Penn State game, and then the numbers dropped considerably the next two games.
There were 56,617 tickets scanned for the Maryland game.
"It was a cold, rainy day and we have to rely on wireless technology," Ablauf said. "We have issues nearly every game scanning tickets. It's not an exact science, but it provides us with valuable information. We try to do the best job we can (with scanning)."
Of course, with dips in attendance comes a dip in revenue.
The biggest grossing game the last two seasons was against Notre Dame in 2013. The net revenue was $7,536,496.87, and minus Notre Dame's share of $300,000, Michigan made about $7.2 million.
Michigan's most lucrative game last season was against Penn State. That game generated $6,797,598.72, and while Penn State received $1 million of that total, Michigan made about $5.8 million. Obviously, the lowest attended game of the season against Maryland generated $5,127,603.48 in gross revenue and Michigan's share was $4.1 million.
In 2013 Michigan had only one game that generated less than $5 million, but six of seven games last season made less than $5 million.