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July 16, 2014

Ticket sales lagging for Mountaineers

MORGANTOWN — It has been no secret that West Virginia’s ticket sales in both its major revenue sports — football and men’s basketball — have slipped over the years and nothing that has happened this year in the upcoming season has done anything to change that trend.

WVU’s season ticket sales, according to Matt Wells, associate athletic director, external affairs, stand at roughly 29,100. A year ago at this time they had sold a few more than 33,000, a rather unhealthy decline of about 12 percent.

It is the lowest season-ticket sales since they were at about 24,400 in 2005, which was just when things were coming together in the Rich Rodriguez era.

Last year’s attendance at Mountaineer games was down 18.9 percent at 317,459 from 391,412 in 2012 and down a startling 2.9 percent from 2008, when ticket sales reached 406,593 as WVU came off its stunning Fiesta Bowl upset of Oklahoma as Bill Stewart became head coach.

Basketball has been little different, with attendance slipping from drawing 167,000 fans on the average from 2008 to 2011 to just 138,000 per year in 2012 and 2013. Individual game attendance slipped to 8,575 last year.

This leads to the following question:

Is it time to panic or will fielding a winning team and sticking to sound business practices change it back?

“I think, like with everything else, it’s somewhere in between,” Wells answered. “You can’t stick your head in the sand and just hope you win enough games to rectify any ticket decline. You also can’t just blow things off and completely scrap your business model.

“What you are seeing is us and a lot of other schools trying to adapt to the current conditions.”

Times have changed from the glory years when all you do was put a dude in buckskins, play “Country Roads” and open the gates to rely on school spirit to lead people to the ticket windows.

Competition is everywhere.

“It’s much different now than it was 10 or 15 years ago ... right down to the HD TV, the quality of the broadcast, the number of broadcasts ... and it’s not just a West Virginia problem, it’s across the country,” Wells said.

And it’s not just the fact that free options are available.

Costs have soared and WVU has not won over a lot of friends with its pricing and ticket selling policies.

One long-time ticket holder noted that he started getting season tickets as a young professional, barely able to afford them, and paid $350 for the season in the end zone. Over the years he was able to upgrade, wound up for many years at or near midfield with his tickets and was fully satisfied.

“Today I’m back in the end zone, in a suite, but in the end zone and it’s $2,400,” he said, noting that a year ago he was offered a chance to buy Steelers season tickets in Pittsburgh but turned it down when he said he couldn’t afford the cost, only to have the seller note his WVU tickets cost more than the Steelers.

WVU is attacking the problems they are having, trying to make the experience at the game better.

There are plans to improve the physical facilities including rest rooms and concessions at both Mylan Puskar Stadium and the Coliseum, the parking situation is also being studied, although the $20 charge at the Coliseum is unlikely to disappear.

In addition, athletic director Oliver Luck has formed a fan committee to discuss all things fan ... from the music played, the video board selections, prices, seating.

Luck has called the meetings informative and helpful and plans to continue with the meetings.

But, perhaps, the most progressive move made in an attempt to sell tickets is associating with IMG Learfield Ticket Solutions to handle ticket sales.

The biggest hole WVU had in its ticket sale approach was an inability to have a dedicated sales force aggressively pushing tickets because that area of the business is handled by commissioned salespeople and as a state institution they are not allowed to have commissioned workers.

“Because they are trained, dedicated sales people makes it a more aggressive approach than what we had previously,” Wells noted.

This outsourcing, Wells maintained, did not affect the employment of any currently employed workers.

“It’s important to point out that this does not impact or affect anybody currently on the ticket operation side in-house. Frankly, they have a lot of duties and don’t have time to focus all their energy on outbound ticket sale approach, picking up the phone and making those calls,” he said.

“As we looked at the landscape and what is going on in college athletics, what we need to do to combat the trend of decline in season ticket sales and attendance, we felt it was important to bring in a dedicated staff whose sole function is to focus on making contract with potential customers.”

This will not change much of the way WVU sells its tickets.

“Everything will stay the same with the Mountaineer Athletic Club working with our donors and working with them on gifts, many of which will give them priority on tickets and the various ticket locations within the stadium and Coliseum,” Wells said.

“And our regular ticket staff will continue to do the operational functions, processing the orders that come in and requests from new Mountaineer Athletic Club order and fulfilling the on line orders and staffing the games and working the gates on game day.”

What changes is selling tickets to the segment of the population that has been lost over the years.

“They will focus on the area where were the weakest because we have other duties, and that’s in contacting and creating relationships with people who previously purchased and stopped purchasing for some reason or people who bought maybe tickets to a game or two last year and trying to upsell or upgrade them into a minipackage or hopefully a full season,” Wells explained.

“They are there to help cultivate more relationships with those people who aren’t buying tickets any more or aren’t buying more than a game or two. We did not have enough time in the day to focus on that because of the other duties we had.

“Having a dedicated group focusing on outbound sales in an aggressive manner all day, every day — making the calls, having those conversations, explaining what tickets are available, what options are available — that is how we are trying to adjust,” Wells said.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.

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