Sagging student attendance is an issue across the country — even at schools winning championships — but at Tennessee, the drop has been especially stark.
On average, fewer than 5,000 students were in attendance each week during the Vols’ seven-game home schedule in 2012, and a rare sellout in Week 3 against Florida inflated the total.
With a student allotment of 12,683 tickets, the gaping sections of empty seats are becoming especially noticeable — and embarrassing — when TV cameras pan the crowd.
“The students bring the energy. No one has a bigger influence on the competitive advantage at your home venues,” said UT senior associate athletic director Chris Fuller. “We want to accommodate every single student who wants to attend.”
That has been remarkably easy in recent years, but finding overflow seating for students is a problem that UT and Fuller would love to have.
A new head coach and a few winning seasons could go a long way to reverse the trend. But the problem of sagging student attendance is far more complex than simply wins and losses, and UT is not alone in trying to crack a challenging demographic.
“Originally, I thought it was a win-loss thing,” said Jake Baker, president of UT’s Student Government Association. “But the research shows that it’s happening everywhere. Alabama’s winning championships left and right, and they’re having trouble selling out. It’s happening across the board.”
Tennessee’s student section spans 12,683 seats and two decks in the east and southeast corner of Neyland Stadium. Of that allotment, 543 are reserved for the band and 412 are held for student-athletes. The rest — 11,728 — go into the inventory for student purchase.
For the game against Florida on Sept. 15, students claimed all the tickets and 91 percent attended the game, one of the best showings in recent history.
But the loss to Florida set Derek Dooley’s final season on a downward slope and the rest of the numbers weren’t as pretty. Students used 9,163 tickets for the game against No. 1 Alabama. Games against Akron, Troy and Kentucky helped drag the average attendance under 5,000.
In the past four years, students have used more than 10,000 tickets only three times — last year and in 2010 against Florida and in 2011 against Georgia.
Why have Tennessee student ticket sales dwindled? Fuller and other administrators in the ticket industry say it’s happening for the same reason that ticket sales have plunged nationally, in every sport and venue.
The biggest culprit is probably sitting in your living room now.
Fifteen years ago, no one had heard of HDTV. Perhaps your rich uncle owned a big-screen television, but even then televised sporting events were still fuzzy and offered little threat to the live-event ticket market.
Today the technology to deliver live sports with the incredible clarity of high definition is everywhere. Seemingly everyone has an HD TV. Many people have big screens, or can visit a friend who does. For many fans, watching a game for free or paying to battle traffic, parking and sunburn (or frostbite) to see it in person is a no-brainer. They’re staying at home.
Students aren’t immune from those trends. In fact, Fuller said, he believes technology has a greater impact on student attendance than any other market.
“I put it like this,” Fuller said. “If you’ve had a cellphone your whole life, then you’re different. You have a different perspective and different expectations than folks in my generation who adapted with the technology.”
These hurdles didn’t exist a few years ago. Now professional and college sports teams are racing to catch up.
“It’s a quicksilver demographic,” Fuller said. “Just when you think you’ve found something, something else pops up.”
Changes to the system
If you’re a student, getting football tickets is surprisingly simple. There are no season-ticket packages purchased in August. Every game is available on an individual basis.
“It’s kind of like a lottery system,” said Baker.
Only it’s a lottery that everyone wins.
About a week or so before each game, students log in to BigOrangeTix.com to request a seat (or seats, if they’re sitting with friends).
“Most students, if they request a ticket, they’ll be granted a ticket,” Baker said. “I’ve never heard of anyone not being able to go to a game.”
Fuller met with Baker and other UT students this month to share ticketing data and trade ideas for increasing student involvement. They also worked out some deals.
When Tennessee plays host to South Carolina on Oct. 19, it will be a hot ticket. The Gamecocks will sell most or all of their allotment, so Neyland Stadium should be packed. But the game sits in the heart of fall break for UT students. Historical data show there are likely to be thousands of unclaimed student tickets for the game, so student leaders agreed that part of the student allotment could be sold to the public.
“Normally it would be a big SEC game, but on fall break, most of the students won’t be on campus during that time,” Baker said.
The 2014 season is likely to bring more changes. The emptiest part of the student section is in the east upper deck — sections DD, EE and FF. Some students with upper-deck tickets even sneak down into lower-deck seats during games for the better view and atmosphere.
“They’re the least attractive to the students, and they’re probably among the most marketable to the general public,” Fuller said.
Even worse? “They’re really visible when they’re empty.”
Fuller and the students have discussed trading the upper-deck student sections for expanded territory in the lower bowl. The student section would be slightly smaller, but the seats would be more desirable and section would be more unified.
“We might have a few less student seats (in 2014), but the quality’s going to be much higher,” Baker said.
Fuller said UT — and other SEC schools — are working hard to enhance the game day experience to better compete with the couch, the cooler of drinks and the big-screen TV that has lured so many away from the stadium.
After his meeting with student leaders, he handed out his cellphone. If they had ideas, he wanted to hear them.
“It’s the best market research we have for how we’re going to keep our business viable,” he said. “We need to find a way to get that demographic engaged not only when they’re here, but after they leave.”
An informal News Sentinel survey of students came up with a few ideas.
At Tennessee, every student ticket is in an assigned seat. Some said they were irked by students who arrived at halftime to claim their reserved seats, bumping more dedicated fans into less desirable parts of the section. Selling general admission seats that are first-come, first served, which many schools do, would solve that problem.
“The people who legitimately care about the game will get the prime seats, while the people who just come for the social event won’t get the same seats and are hopefully more likely to make it there before kickoff,” said Brett Burger, a senior from Maryville.
Another common refrain was modernizing the game-day atmosphere, adding hip-hop music to rev up the crowd. And then there was the technology. No one likes spending hours in a cellphone dead zone.
Fuller said fans may have noticed improvements in 2012, depending on their carriers, and the entire league is working on solutions to improve cellphone data coverage at events.
New coach, same challenges
Butch Jones has made aggressive outreach an important part of his eight-month tenure at UT, and students are no exception.
“There’s a lot of excitement surrounding the football program right now,” Baker said.
Even so, Fuller cautions that even winning seasons might not cause UT’s attendance to swing back to the glory days of 15 years ago. The ticketing landscape has changed dramatically since then.
“Technology has changed the experience so much,” Fuller said. “Now, winning clearly will have an impact. But I think it’s naive to think that will immediately revert you back to the glory days when you had to experience (the games) firsthand.”
The spring game on April 20 that drew 61,076 fans, the second-highest mark in school history, offered reason for optimism.
“Our fans always respond when challenged,” Fuller said. “And I think Butch challenged them. His voice and his connection to the fan base is going to be powerful.”
If the new coach offers a similar challenge to students in 2013, will it be enough to energize an apathetic student body? Die-hard student fans want to believe it will.
“(UT) needs to bring back the fire it once had between students and players,” said Dylan Harvey, a senior from Kingsport. “Make Neyland a true home-field advantage.”
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.