Last November, Sacramento State played host to Northern Colorado at Hornet Stadium. The Hornets trailed by one at halftime before scoring 30 unanswered points to beat the Bears 50-21 before an announced crowd of 4,612, but the actual attendance was much lower.
Fewer than 800 of the 2,356 tickets issued were redeemed, a usage rate of 33.8 percent, according to internal documents obtained by The Bee. Students, individuals on the pass list and others who were admitted for free made up more than two-thirds of the 3,000 or so people who actually attended the game.
Ticket sales are down for college football games across the country, but selling tickets is only part of the problem athletic programs face. With HDTV becoming ubiquitous and countless forms of alternatives, many schools find that fans don’t always show up even after they have purchased tickets.
“That’s not uncommon, whether it’s Sacramento State or Stanford or the San Francisco 49ers or even the Sacramento Kings,” Sacramento State athletic director Mark Orr said. “Sometimes tickets just aren’t used even though they’re sold.”
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Sacramento State’s victory over Northern Colorado served as a springboard for the Hornets, who concluded the season with three consecutive victories to finish 7-4, their first winning campaign since 2014. They ended the season two weeks later with a wild 52-47 victory over rival UC Davis in the 64th annual Causeway Classic.
The official attendance for the Causeway Classic was listed at 11,828, but a ticket utilization report provided by Sacramento State shows 35.4 percent of the 5,265 tickets sold went unredeemed.
Sacramento State is hardly alone. Colleges across the country have experienced similar struggles, including Football Bowl Subdivision schools that are required to meet minimum attendance requirements to maintain their FBS standing.
There are no such requirements at Sacramento State and UC Davis, which compete in the Football Championship Subdivision as members of the Big Sky Conference. Cal Poly, another Big Sky school, reported ticket-usage percentages of 63.8, 60.4, 48.2, 46.3 and 42.7 for five home games in 2017.
UC Davis has managed to defy this trend, according to figures provided by the university. The Aggies played five home games last season with ticket-usage rates ranging from 88.5 to 94.7 percent.
“Selling tickets and exposing as many people as possible to our teams is a primary goal of our athletics program, and in the past few years at UC Davis we’ve seen an increase in the number of people who are following and attending our games,” UC Davis athletic director Kevin Blue said. “Ticket sales in college athletics have been professionalized over the last 10 or 12 years and operationally resemble professional sports organizations, more so than they ever have. The increasing sophistication in college athletics ticket sales is a good thing for the revenue generating capabilities of athletic departments, especially given the challenges in achieving consistently strong attendance in the modern era where there are so many different entertainment choices available. ...
“We’re always looking to improve how well we are communicating and promoting the opportunity to come to our events, but we are seeing a degree of success that we’re happy with.”
Blue said actual ticket-usage rates might be higher at UC Davis, Sacramento State and the majority of schools across the country that rely on error-prone technology to scan tickets as fans enter stadiums.
“The discrepancies between the distributed and the scanned numbers are often accounted for by factors such as the problematic connectivity of the scanners,” Blue said. “There is also going to be less than 100 percent compliance in terms of procedures by outsourced security personnel that scan tickets. There are plenty of legitimate reasons why the scanned number does not match the number of tickets sold.”
The Wall Street Journal reported in August that reported attendance for FBS schools dropped for the fourth consecutive year in 2017, falling 7.6 percent over that time. The newspaper reported that actual attendance at FBS games was about 29 percent lower than announced attendance figures.
Part of the struggle is appealing to students. Many schools offer free admission to anyone with a student identification card, but students have many interests and activities competing for their time and attention, maybe more than ever in the age of social media, Orr said.
He noted that Sacramento State tries to create excitement for football games by holding pregame tailgate parties featuring a local disc jockey. Students are also encouraged to use Twitter and Instagram to post photos that are then displayed on the video board inside the stadium.
“It’s difficult for a college student, with so many other things going on and so many other options, to be able to attend a football game for three or four hours, to be there and be entertained the whole time, and want to do that six or seven times a year,” Orr said. “So we’ve tried to make it an experience.”
“The sporting event is important, but it’s almost a complement to the social aspects of the students attending the games to be with each other and have fun,” he said.
Some of the technology college football programs are using to draw people into their stadiums — high-definition video screens, Wi-Fi connections and social media platforms, for example — might also be keeping them away.
“So many of our games are accessible on TV, radio and other media platforms,” Orr said. “So maybe I have a ticket to the game, but I’m tired or I don’t want to drive or I don’t want to park. The quality of HDTV, tablets and cellphones might make the choice not to go a little easier. The technology and the experience you can get from those platforms has changed so much over the last 20 years. I’m sure that has impacted the decision to stay home.”