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Alabama is penalizing students for leaving football games early. Is that normal?

An Alabama fan cheers during the second half of Saturday's game against New Mexico State. (Vasha Hunt/AP)
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At Alabama, where the football is only boring when the home team goes up by six touchdowns, students are being penalized if they leave a game early.

A report Thursday by the New York Times found that the college football juggernaut uses location-tracking technology to support its student loyalty rewards program. The basics are simple and a bit eerie: Students download the Tide Loyalty Points app, earn 100 points for attending a home game and then get an additional 250 if they’re still in attendance by the fourth quarter.

The idea is that the incentive of more points will prevent students from leaving games early, something Tide Coach Nick Saban has spoken out against before and returned to this past weekend after Alabama’s 62-10 win over New Mexico State, the second week of the app.

“If I asked that whole student section, do you want to be No. 1?” Saban wondered, “Nobody would hold their hand up and say I want to be No. 4. They would all say No. 1. But are they willing to do everything to be No. 1? That’s another question. You can ask them that. I don’t know the answer.”

Alabama’s system represents an extreme example of a broadly used idea. On a more local level, Maryland employs a loyalty system for football and men’s basketball. In recent years, there has not been much use for the program during football season. With the Terps hanging around the bottom of the Big Ten, most students who applied for a football ticket received one with no issues.

But now that the Terps are off to a 2-0 start and ranked No. 21 in the country, the school’s ticketing system will play an increased role. Penn State is coming to College Park on Sept. 27, and the athletic department received about 14,500 requests for 10,000 seats as of Thursday, according to a school spokesman. When demand exceeds capacity for any Maryland game, a lottery is triggered and a student’s number of entries is determined by loyalty points.

Students that had attended both of Maryland’s previous home games had four points, two for each game. Maryland’s system does not incentivize length of stay at the game. Maryland students say that it’s fairly common for friends and classmates to stop by a game, scan their ticket to get in and then quickly leave with their loyalty points intact.

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On Thursday afternoon, senior Alex Murphy was checking his student ticket account to confirm that he had accrued four points. Murphy had applied to get a Penn State ticket but wasn’t selected.

On Thursday morning, the school announced it would be adding overflow seating and letting students know by evening if they had been selected in this impromptu second round. Murphy had again heard nothing, a surprise that left him “extremely angry” and confused about how the system worked. He isn’t alone.

“No one actually really knows how it works,” Maryland senior Marie Hatch said. “We all just try to make sure we have points and hope that everything goes fine. It’s just a mysterious a system.”

Maryland isn’t the only area school with such a system.

If you want to attend a football game at Virginia Tech, you enter a simple lottery with no point system attached. Just give your name during the sign-up period and cross your fingers.

But at Virginia, what are known as Sabre Points are used during men’s basketball season. Demand to see the NCAA champion Cavaliers is high, and if the number of ticket requests exceeds capacity, a lottery is triggered. The number of entries each student receives in the lottery is determined by their Sabre Points. These can be earned by attending other sporting events at the university.

While all three schools lay out the student ticket policies on their athletic websites, the specifics are sometimes called into question, especially with a big game approaching.

“The [students’] understanding of the system is just what other people tell them,” Maryland junior Aiden Jenkins said. “It’s just hearsay and people telling other people what they know and they tell their friends and so on.”

By Thursday night, a few hours after he thought his last chance at a ticket had come and gone, Murphy received an email saying that he had received an overflow spot. He wasn’t sure how he had been selected or why it had taken this long. But he’s going to the game.

“We’re all good here,” he said.

If Maryland or Penn State jumps out to a sizable lead and Murphy decides there are better things to do than watch a rout on a Friday night, no loyalty points will be lost. All that mattered was that he walked through the door. Outside of Tuscaloosa — at least for now — that means your loyalty is still intact.

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