The first warning signs that Lane Stadium’s sellout streak was in jeopardy came long before Virginia Tech Athletic Director Whit Babcock made fan engagement his priority upon being hired by the school last February.
Tickets that had for years been sold to donors as part of football season ticket packages were made available to the public. Box scores may have said the stadium was at capacity in recent seasons but bleachers in the upper rows and indoor club seats went unfilled. Students, the raucous epicenter of Virginia Tech’s famed home-field advantage, began leaving games early.
So it did not come as a shock to the athletic department when Virginia Tech’s 93-game sellout streak for football, which began in 1998, officially ended in last year’s season opener against Western Carolina. But the Hokies had just two sellouts of the 65,632-seat stadium during their 8-5 2013 campaign and Babcock said in an interview this week that ticket sales for the 2014 season indicate similar results at the gate this fall, the latest evidence Virginia Tech had to look beyond wins and losses to address an attendance issue that permeates college football.
“I believe we can get back to [the sellout streak], but I don’t think it’s as easy as just opening the gates anymore,” Babcock said. “There’s something romantic in some ways about the old bleacher-seat days when we were all in college, but I think the audience, they just demand a good experience and they have that right.”
By most metrics, college football is healthier than ever. Conferences and athletic departments are flush with money coming from newly signed media rights deals and the sport’s new four-team playoff. Television ratings and merchandise sales continue to soar.
But average attendance at college football games nationally only increased slightly last season after dropping every year since 2007, and the number of fans, particularly new graduates and students, content to watch from home continues to be a concern for athletic directors around the country.
“I think television has been the best, and in some cases, the worst thing for our game,” Babcock said. “It has certainly pumped in revenue and given visibility and excitement, and the sport has boomed like never before and we, including me, are the beneficiary of those dollars. But it’s also changed kickoff times and it’s changed the desire of people to come to our games.”
These days, few schools are looking to expand the capacity of their stadiums. Instead, premium seating and fan engagement have become paramount. Even traditional powers such as Michigan, Tennessee and Florida State, last year’s national champion, have dealt with declining attendance in recent years.
“As far as getting fans in seats at stadiums on a regular basis, that’s never been as much of a focus as it is now,” said Matt DiFebo, the vice president of IMG Learfield Ticket Solutions, which works with 31 athletic departments, including Virginia Tech.
“They are expecting better amenities and the professional teams do that incredibly well. But a lot of schools are getting more sophisticated in their marketing and sales approaches. I think schools are getting a lot better at listening to the wants and needs of their fans.”
Both Virginia and Virginia Tech have joined the growing list that have responded to the problem by trying to alter their traditional game-day models.
In Charlottesville, 2014 season ticket sales are down by more than 5,000 — from 28,700 last year to 23,500 as of Thursday, according to figures provided by the school — in part because of the team’s 2-10 record in 2013.
But attendance at Scott Stadium, which has a capacity of 61,500, has declined in five of the past six seasons, and the athletic department has since upgraded the venue’s video board and added new out-of-town scoreboards, high definition televisions and a pregame fanfest. Virginia’s administration also upgraded the Cavaliers’ nonconference schedule, with home games against Oregon and Penn State the past two years and this year’s season opener with No. 7 UCLA. The Cavaliers will also host Stanford, Notre Dame and Boise State in future seasons.
At Virginia Tech, Babcock hired Carly Northrup last week to fill a newly created assistant athletic director position involving fan interaction. The focus is new season ticket holders because “if you can keep them for three years, they start to hang in there with you through good and bad years, through good and bad weather,” he said.
Already, the football program hosted its first fan appreciation day and offered partial season ticket plans. The school also installed upgraded cellphone service around Lane Stadium and created a new game-day app to help keep students engaged. And before games there will be a new “Hokie Village” featuring live music and kid-friendly activities across the street from Lane Stadium, an idea new associate athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois borrowed from Tennessee.
Babcock, meanwhile, determined Lane Stadium’s video board presentation had become “overly commercialized” after two dress rehearsals of the game script in recent months. So this year there will also be more microphones near Virginia Tech’s band and more music piped in over the public address system.
No detail, Babcock noted, is too small when trying to lure fans to a college football game.
“We’re not at a point where we’ll have a DJ in the stands just yet, but maybe we’ll get to that,” he said. “Right now, I just want people to see incremental change, like ‘Okay, these guys are listening. They’re trying and I had a good time and maybe I’ll come back next week.’ That’s what we want.”