2019 UGA home schedule a big payoff for loyal season ticket holders

UGA football season ticket holders had until Sunday, March 31, to get their orders in for the 2019 home games. But, considering the unusually exciting home schedule the Dawgs are playing this fall, I imagine there won’t be many Georgia  Bulldog Club members deciding not to renew their tickets.

Despite Kirby Smart’s Dawgs “only” making it to the SEC Championship game this past season, where they fell short, and making a poor showing in the bowl game against Texas after missing the playoffs, preseason anticipation for this year seems to be on a par with a year ago, when Georgia was coming off a near miss in the national championship game.

Georgia running back D’Andre Swift will face off against Notre Dame again this season. (Perry McIntyre Jr./UGA)

Credit upcoming visits to Athens by Notre Dame and Texas A&M for that.

A good general indicator of the excitement level of the hardcore fan base is the annual cutoff score for how much money a fan had to contribute to UGA’s Hartman Fund in order to earn the right to buy new season tickets.

The cutoff scores for the upcoming season won’t be announced until probably June, so we don’t yet know whether there’ll be any falloff, but, if there is, I bet it won’t as much as might have been expected if the Fighting Irish weren’t coming to play Between the Hedges.

Last June, it was announced that the cutoff score for renewable season tickets jumped up to 23,900 priority points. A year earlier, after Smart’s disappointing first season, the cutoff score had been a mere 550 points. (A donor gets a priority point for every dollar given.)

The previous record high priority point cutoff had been 10,651 points in 2008, when Georgia was preseason No. 1. Generally, the cutoff had run in the 1,100 to 1,200-point range in recent years.

Last year, e ven with an increase in ticket prices — up to $75 for Power 5 conference opponents and $55 for other games — demand for UGA football season tickets exceeded supply, and the ticket office sold out of season tickets by May. The school announced last June that Hartman Fund donations had generated at least $31 million for support of UGA athletics, an increase of about $4 million over the previous year, and its 15,000 Hartman Fund donors had bought 58,000 season tickets.

Unlike the previous year, there were no scattered, non-adjacent tickets put on sale in the summer, like there usually are.

No doubt, the fact that expectations for the Dawgs in Smart’s fourth season as head coach again are sky-high will have goosed season ticket sales again, but the fact that this season’s home schedule features a generational high point in Notre Dame visiting (plus the first appearance of Texas A&M in Athens since 1980) no doubt will sway some ticket holders who otherwise might be wavering over maintaining the pricey commitment.

All of us loyal fans who’ve shelled out year after year for home schedules featuring the likes of Austin Peay, Middle Tennessee, Massachusetts, Nicholls, UL Lafayette and Louisiana-Monroe finally are getting a big payoff!

True, this year’s home schedule does still feature Murray State and Arkansas State, but, with Notre Dame and Texas A&M joined on the slate by the usual SEC East rotation of South Carolina, Kentucky and Missouri, it looks like a solid home slate for the Dawgs.

In fact, the overall 2019 schedule could be a very challenging one, with the Dawgs facing five teams who will be coming off bye weeks.

As for the home schedule, based on what athletic director Greg McGarity told me recently, season ticket holders can take hope in the upward trend of UGA football scheduling, with the school moving to a model that “ will be built around eight conference games, and Tech, and two more Power 5’s and one non-Power 5 opponent.” Only one “cupcake” game, in other words.

As McGarity said, “Kirby is all about playing a tough schedule and playing quality opponents.”

Smart definitely can check that goal off his list this season, with the Notre Dame game being hailed by many national observers as the nonconference football game of the year.

It’s still a shame, though, that the old tradition of making some season ticket packages available to the general public without a donation being necessary, after the Hartman Fund donors’ requests all had been filled, has fallen victim the school’s go-go fundraising environment. Even the Young Alumni Program, instituted a few seasons ago to allow recent grads to buy season tickets without having to make the up-front Hartman Fund donation, is no more. UGA athletic spokesman Claude Felton told me recently that program ended last year.

The lone trumpeter kicking off the Battle Hymn of the Bulldog Nation is a special moment at Sanford Stadium. (John Kelley/UGA)

Considering that younger fans tend to be louder, it’s a problem, and that’s probably why Sanford Stadium crowds skew a bit old (and quiet) at times.

About 10 years ago, Bulldog Nation legend Loran Smith wrote about a longtime fan who no longer could afford to go to games in Athens. As Loran put it: “What does this say about the big business of college athletics? We should not forget the folks who can’t give us money, and reserve room for those who can give us their heart.”

That’s about as close as you’ll ever see Loran come to knocking the UGA athletic establishment in print.

In recent years, I’ve also heard from several longtime season ticket holders who decided not to renew because they either found the financial commitment too great — minimum donations, increased a few years ago, range from $275 per seat in the end zone upper deck to $2,250 per seat for the club section.

Others said they dropped their season tickets because they found the lackluster lineup of opponents no longer compelling, especially in an era when every game is telecast, and they can sit in comfort at home and watch it on a big screen. And, if they want to skip the cupcakes and just see the big-name opponents in person in Athens, some folks figure that, even paying a premium for tickets in the secondary market, they’ll still end up shelling out less than they do for season tickets when you factor in the Hartman Fund contribution. It’s a problem a lot of major college programs are still trying to figure out how to handle.

Throw in the longstanding problems of game day-parking in Athens and limitations the school put on tailgating in the most recent decade, and the fact that UGA hasn’t seen its season ticket sales falter is even more amazing.

I’m one of the die-hards who’s never considered not renewing my season tickets. I paid for my tickets a couple of weeks before the deadline and, as usual, requested to keep the same seats I’ve had since 1975. I’m sure I could have moved closer to the 50-yard-line over the years if I’d tried, but my lower-level seats in Section 104 of the North stands are under the overhang, making them somewhat weather-protected, and I like the view, so I’ve kept them all these years.

My first year out of UGA I bought a single season ticket, a mediocre spot low down on the South side, but I opted for two tickets the next year, since by then I had a fiancée to share the seats with me. Those are the seats I still have. I don’t remember exactly what contribution to the Bulldog Club I had to make to get those seats in 1975, but I think it was probably around $50 per seat, a far cry from today.

My wife Leslie attended the games with me until she started working on Saturday nights for a few years. My son Bill, a Bulldog from the cradle, eagerly jumped into her spot and occupied my other seat through his junior high, high school and undergrad and graduate school days at UGA. My daughter preferred to stand in the student section most games while she was at UGA, but nowadays she alternates with my wife (no longer working on Saturdays) and my son (who drives over from Raleigh) in going to games with me.

Keeping the same seats in the stadium all those years has been an interesting experience. I’ve watched other fans’ parents age and, sadly, eventually stop coming to the games, and I’ve seen my stadium neighbors’ children grow up, as they have mine. One lady who sits near us is a former teacher, I believe, and she avidly kept up with my son’s education. When she saw him with me at a game a year or so ago, she greeted him warmly and wanted to know what he’d done with his education.

Over the decades, the holders of the seats around us have changed, though the group in our immediate vicinity has stayed pretty much the same the past dozen years or so.

Fans from all walks of life come together at Sanford Stadium, sharing a devotion to their beloved Dawgs. (AJC file)

For some reason, a lot of the folks in my area of the stadium always have been from the Augusta area, and that’s still the case. For a few years, former UGA quarterback Paul Gilbert and his family sat in front of me, but those seats have been held by an Atlanta attorney for quite a few years now. A couple of seats in front of us appear to be someone’s giveaways, as their occupants change nearly every game. There’s a single seat between me and Mike to my left that generally goes unfilled, giving us a little elbow room, though I’m betting there’ll be someone in it for the game against the Irish.

We used to have a few folks in the section who tended toward the drunk and/or argumentative side of fandom, but, thankfully, in recent years that hasn’t been the case. Most of us know each other by first name only, and a few of the regulars I don’t even know that. (I asked Malinda, who has sat in front of my second seat for many years, if she knew one fan’s name, and she didn’t, joking, “Maybe we need name tags.”)

As I’ve said before, I don’t really “know” any of the people who sit around me at Sanford Stadium, and yet we greet each other at that first game of the year as if we’re long-lost friends. Our lives may be very different away from Sanford Stadium, but inside its gates we share a devotion to our favorite team and school. 

That’s one of the things I love about college football.

I was amused to see a question in the 2018 SEC Football Gameday Experience Survey of season ticket holders at the end of the last season, about whether our team’s record impacts whether we attend games.

As someone who has been there during the championship years and during the Ray Goff years, and seen attendance stay pretty steady, I feel safe in saying that, of all the factors that affect whether Georgia fans attend a game in Athens, the won-loss record of the team probably is the least important.

As a fan who supports the team financially, I certainly reserve the right to criticize problems I see, whether it’s questionable coaching decisions, or players besmirching the university’s name with dumb behavior.

But, whether the Dawgs are in the College Football Playoff conversation, or struggling to keep from slipping back into perennial also-ran category, I’ll be there at Sanford Stadium, cheering them on and proudly wearing the red and black.

That’s just what us lifelong Georgia Bulldogs do.

The post 2019 UGA home schedule a big payoff for loyal season ticket holders appeared first on DawgNation.

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