In almost two years on the job, Georgia Tech athletic director Todd Stansbury has shown a savvy touch in his management of the athletic department and connection with Yellow Jackets fans.
That skill is being put to the test in the department’s challenge to revive attendance at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Tech is encountering an aging fan base, resistance to season-ticket purchases, the ever-improving option of watching from home, the recent preponderance of the dreaded noon kickoffs and frustrations of fans with new policies restricting what can be brought into the stadium. Not to mention the difficulty of building enthusiasm for a team that didn’t make a bowl game in two of the past three seasons.
Still, season-ticket sales are tracking with numbers from 2016, when 27,999 season tickets were sold, including student tickets. Season-ticket sales typically dip in even-numbered years, when Georgia is not on the home schedule. The department had sold 23,344 season tickets as of Wednesday, but student season tickets had just gone on sale, which has accounted for about 6,000 tickets each of the past two years.
“While we’re tracking along the same lines as we have in the past, we really want to find a way to do more than what we’ve done,” Stansbury told the AJC.
Solving the challenge of filling Bobby Dodd Stadium has considerable import. Stansbury believes that, to field teams that compete with the ACC’s best, the budget has to be $10 million larger than what it is now – for fiscal year 2019, it’s $80 million.
While ACC distributions are expected to increase with the advent of the ACC Network in 2019 – it’s projected to be $27.4 million for this fiscal year – Stansbury said he expects the new revenues to cover some of that gap, but not all. (Stansbury’s answer hints at how much the league anticipates the network will increase revenues.) Ticket revenues, estimated at $12.7 million for FY 2019, are the department’s second-largest source of revenue.
Overall attendance is on a downward trend. The season average hit a six-year peak of 50,707 in 2015, the year after the Yellow Jackets’ 11-win season when Florida State and Georgia were on the home schedule. It dropped to 47,503 in 2016 and 46,885 last season. The 2017 average was the lowest since 2012 (43,955).
The announced attendance for the Pitt game (40,211) was Tech’s lowest for an ACC home game since 2000, when capacity was 46,000.
Tech is like many colleges in facing declining attendance. At the FBS level, average attendance dropped 1,409 fans from 2016 to 2017. It was reported as the largest single-year drop since 1982. The FBS average of 42,203 in 2017 was the lowest since 1997.
Winning is the most obvious solution. Tech’s two highest averages in the Paul Johnson era came in 2009, when the Jackets were coming off Johnson’s successful first season and then spent most of the season in the top 20, and 2015, which followed the Orange Bowl championship season.
There are other challenges that have less to do with win-loss records.
“I think one of the things we have to be cognizant of is an aging season-ticket holder base, which is a theme out there,” Stansbury said. “That’s one (reason) we’ve got to try to make the in-game experience as comfortable for that base as we can. But also, that’s why the young alums are so important, because that’s a reality that’s going to happen.”
Stansbury said he was asked to make some personal calls to longtime season-ticket holders who weren’t renewing. Stansbury said those fans told him that they intended to come to some games, but because of age, couldn’t go to all of them.
“That was a theme,” he said. “It’s hard to argue with that.”
To appeal to younger fans, Tech introduced a new product this season called the Stinger Mobile Pass. Selling for $149, the pass provides a seat for all six home games, but the seat location varies from game to game, giving fans the opportunity to see games from a variety of vantage points.
Tickets are delivered to pass holders’ phones on game day. Tech used it for basketball last season and sold out all 200 packages in two hours.
It’s a structure that Iowa State, Northwestern and Kentucky, among other schools, have used for football, along with NFL and major-league baseball teams. The Oakland A’s, in fact, have eliminated traditional season-ticket plans starting next season in favor of a similar model.
It's considerably cheaper than the traditional season ticket, the least expensive of which is $219 for the upper north end zone, and has the potential to deliver better seating options. The department’s hope is that fans leery of the investment of a season ticket will find it inexpensive enough to be OK with not attending every game. (The cheapest ticket for the Clemson game is $75.) There’s also the thought that it could be the gateway to buying standard season tickets.
The department had sold 310 Stinger packages as of Wednesday, and was hopeful that its popularity will grow in coming years. Iowa State, which debuted its mobile pass last year, has doubled its sales this year.
Stansbury also has a long-term plan centered around the planned renovation the Edge Center, which adjoins the stadium in the northeast corner. With premium sections drawing the highest demand, Stansbury said that the athletic department is looking at ways to use the building, which currently is mostly walled off on the stadium side, as a seating option.
Renderings of the planned six-story building feature three floors in which floor-to-ceiling windows look out onto Grant Field with an open-air deck on the top floor.
Part of the conversation among Tech officials includes possibly retro-fitting the upper north deck – an expanse that often goes unfilled – into some sort of premium space, possibly incorporating the Edge Center. Stansbury called such a project “doable.”
Possibilities include creating a terrace in the upper north or perhaps making the Edge Center space part of a package for ticket holders in parts of the upper north stands.
In his tenure as athletic director both at Oregon State and Central Florida, Stansbury oversaw the creation of premium-seating sections. Oregon State has an end-zone terrace which offers a selection of Oregon-based wine, beer and food vendors. At UCF, a section of midfield seating was turned into a beach-themed bar and sun deck. The Orlando, Fla., school has since added cabanas behind both end zones.
“Those will be some of the things that we’ll definitely be trying to see whether it’s possible or not,” Stansbury said.
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