Virginia football coach Mike London is pulling out all the stops, but season ticket sales are down

By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 5, 2010; 1:44 AM

CHARLOTTESVILLE - The campaign trail and the recruiting trail often became one and the same for first-year Virginia football coach Mike London in the eight months since he took the helm of a dilapidated Cavaliers program. He had to recruit talent to put on the field, yes, but he also was charged with persuading a wandering fan base to return to the stands at Scott Stadium.

So London set out on something of a barnstorming tour to re-introduce himself and his program to alumni association chapters, local football organizations, community agencies and even elementary schools throughout the commonwealth.

While his charm and apparent sincerity were well received, London's wide-ranging accessibility in his first offseason in charge of a division I-A program has not immediately produced tangible results. Virginia's football season ticket sales have lagged behind both the athletic department's stated goal for the 2010 home slate and the tally reached last season when the Cavaliers went 3-9.

"It's not an earth-shattering statement to make that in a lot of cases. A purchasing decision is based on what your expectations are, or what you perceive to be the success of the endeavor," Virginia Athletic Director Craig Littlepage said. "And I think that based on last year and the previous year's trend, that people that have supported our program as season ticket holders are more in the kind of wait-and-see mind frame."

Virginia has sold 27,469 season tickets for the upcoming football season, which commences Friday when the team conducts its first training camp workout. That's nearly 4,300 season tickets shy of the athletic department's target, which is promoted on its Web site. Last season, the Cavaliers sold 30,507 season tickets. In 2008, when the team went 5-7, fans purchased 35,538 season tickets.

The school fired former coach Al Groh at the conclusion of his ninth season last November and brought in London to rejuvenate the product on the field - and thus, the turnout at its home stadium. According to David Carter of the Sports Business Group, a Los Angeles-based marketing firm, a new coach often engenders a boost in optimism among a program's fan base.

"A school's ability to market the upside associated with new hires usually resonates well with alums," Carter said in an e-mail. "But this can't always overcome losing seasons and new ticketing options that enable fans to more easily attend fewer games."

Since 2005, when Virginia sold 39,811 season tickets and finished 7-5, the Cavaliers have gone 22-27 with one winning campaign. Meantime, an economic recession has forced sports fans to more strictly prioritize game day experiences among the rest of their expenses.

Virginia's home schedule this season includes two division I-AA opponents (Richmond and Virginia Military Institute), Eastern Michigan (0-12 in 2009), Florida State, North Carolina, Miami and Maryland. It does not include Virginia Tech, an opponent that typically fosters increased ticket sales. The Virginia ticket office is offering three-game packages for the games against Florida State, North Carolina and Miami.

Virginia Executive Associate Athletic Director Jon Oliver understands that the recession has not had a similar effect on the Cavaliers' in-state rivals in Blacksburg. Oliver also understands that when a program compiles at least 10 wins in six straight seasons - as Virginia Tech has done - tickets to its games remain a valued commodity.

"It was very easy over the last few years for somebody to just say: 'Virginia football? I don't know if I want to buy that.' And we can't just expect that because we hired a new coach, that's going to turn around," Oliver said. "Our job collectively is to make sure they want to prioritize that as a very important thing in their lives again, and that takes time."

But that hasn't kept London from attempting to gain a head start. The coach jokes that he's spoken to "the Boys' Club, the Girls' Club, the Rotary Club, the Hair Club for Men" while trekking "from Rhode Island to Florida" since being hired last December.

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