Virginia and Virginia Tech football are struggling to sell tickets to their bowl games


Virginia Coach Mike London’s team will attract a number of fans to the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, but the school is likely to fall at least 4,000 tickets short of selling out its allotment. (Toni L. Sandys/WASHINGTON POST)
December 15, 2011

After a weekend spent hosting football recruits on campus, Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer walked out to center court during halftime of a men’s basketball game at Cassell Coliseum last Sunday night as a collection of his current players went around the half-filled arena throwing Mardi Gras beads into the crowd.

Beamer took the in-house microphone and, in an instant, was transformed from the winningest active coach in college football to a glorified salesman, pleading with fans to buy their 2012 Sugar Bowl tickets through Virginia Tech.

“For the longtime benefit of the program, it’s important we sell those tickets this particular year,” he said.

It was an example of the awkward position many college football teams find themselves in now that it’s bowl season again. Though Virginia Tech Athletic Director Jim Weaver said this week he expects 15,000 to 20,000 Hokies fans in New Orleans next month, Virginia Tech is one of many schools struggling to sell out their bowl game ticket allotments. The reason is not necessarily because of a lack of passion by their fans but because of the secondary ticket market where they can buy better tickets — often at a better price.

Virginia Tech announced Monday it had only sold about 53 percent of the 17,500 tickets the school was alloted for the bowl game, which will be held in the Superdome on Jan. 3. The next day Virginia said it would likely fall at least 4,000 tickets short of selling out its ticket allotment of 18,000 to the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta.

Still, Jon Oliver, the school’s executive associate athletic director, said he thought “you’re going to see close to 20,000 of our fans” in the Georgia Dome on New Year’s Eve.

Online availability

The problem is that while the two schools are required to purchase a certain amount of tickets for their respective bowl games at face value, fans can find better deals at Web sites specializing in ticket sales. As of Thursday afternoon StubHub listed more than 7,000 tickets available for the Sugar Bowl and around 4,000 for the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

“The secondary market used to exclusively be people on a street corner, and now the secondary market is as easy as going to the Internet and finding the best buy and finding where you want to sit,” ACC Associate Commissioner Michael Kelly said.

The bowl game doesn’t usually suffer a financial blow from this. A Sugar Bowl spokesman said Wednesday that tickets not associated with the allotments of Virginia Tech and Michigan are “essentially sold out,” even though upper deck seats are going for half-price on the secondary market.

Instead, it’s the schools and their conferences that end up footing the bill for any shortfall. Kelly said ACC schools are obligated to pay for the first 6,000 tickets in their allotment and are partially responsible for the next 2,000. Beyond those 8,000, the conference covers the cost of all unsold tickets.

Virginia Tech became the first ACC school to receive an at-large bid to a Bowl Championship Series game and the conference will receive its largest-ever bowl payout as a result. However, the financial windfall for each school will not be as significant as originally expected because of the amount of unsold tickets the conference has to pay for, according to an official at an ACC school who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Of the eight ACC football teams going to bowl games, five provided The Washington Post with ticket sales figures this week well below their respective ticket allotments.

“It’s the reverse of revenue sharing. It’s expense sharing,” said David Carter, president of Sports Business Group in Los Angeles.

Schools face reality

The ticket sale issues extend beyond simply the supply and demand dynamics of the secondary market. Kelly said in many cases the day of the game has directly impacted schools’ ticket sales. The Sugar and Orange bowls are the only BCS games in which neither school has sold out their ticket allotment. Both games are being held on weekdays after the New Year’s holiday when most people would have to take off work to attend.

“I think the fans have to understand that they aren’t necessarily the priority at these games,” Carter said. “There are so many other interests that the bowl organizers have to stoke and interests that they have to accommodate. . . . You’re better off paying that premium through a secondary market rather than getting stuck in the nosebleeds with other alumni.”

Virginia Tech is all too aware of this reality; the school’s athletic department has a business relationship with StubHub, which advertises itself as “the official fan-to-fan ticket marketplace of the Hokies.” When it played Cincinnati in the Orange Bowl in 2009, the school only sold about 3,300 of its 17,500 tickets and ended up losing approximately $1.77 million in unsold tickets. Last January, when the Hokies faced Stanford in the Orange Bowl, the school sold just more than 6,500 tickets.

This year, though, the Hokies’ ticket sales have come under more scrutiny because of the Sugar Bowl’s controversial decision to select Virginia Tech largely because it has a reputation for bringing a lot of fans to bowl games.

A day after Beamer’s halftime speech, Virginia Tech asked fans who can’t attend the Sugar Bowl to buy “proxy tickets” that would be distributed to military personnel and New Orleans charities. The school said it would help maintain “the reputation of being a football program that enjoys a strong following to bowl games.”

“It’s too simple of an evaluation for someone to just say, ‘Well, they just sold ten [thousand], so that scars them for life,’ ” Kelly said. “If there ends up being 30,000 Hokies fans there, and twenty [thousand] bought [tickets] in the secondary market, it’s unfortunate they didn’t buy them through the schools . . . but it doesn’t show their lack of passion for the Hokies. They’re still there.”

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