Definition of insanity: How does UVA not try something different to fill up Scott Stadium?

scott stadiumFor the third straight game, UVA football drew in the low thirties for a home game, leaving the 44,749 who came out to see the season opener against then-#7 UCLA as the biggest crowd of the season, at nearly 17,000 below Scott Stadium’s listed capacity of 61,500.

With Pitt set to make its first visit to Charlottesville as a member of the ACC for a night game next weekend, it’s not hard to imagine another sub-40 crowd as fans weigh being out late at night to see an opponent that they know nothing about and a team wearing the orange and blue that they’re still not sold on.

Football is a business, of course, so games with swaths of empty seats are opportunities lost. A football ticket is as perishable a commodity as a hotel room; an unsold ticket has as much value as yesterday’s unsold hotel room, precisely nada.

Trying to come up with a conservative value on a fan in a seat at a UVA game, or any college game, can be a little tricky. We’ll start at Virginia with season tickets ranging from $25 per game in the upper end zone to $45 a game for priority seating in the lower bowl, and assume that a fan buys just a hot dog and a soda in their three-plus hours in the stadium, giving us an average at $40 per fan per game.

That seems really, really low to me, because it doesn’t count for anybody buying a single sweatshirt or hat, doesn’t count for parking, doesn’t count for donations that you have to make to the Virginia Athletics Foundation to get priority tickets. Even so, let’s go with $40 per fan per game, because then nobody can say that we’re inflating values.

Today’s game was played in front of 28,000 empty seats. Times forty bucks a fan, that’s more than a million dollars left on the table, and this was the third straight home game for which that was the case. For the UCLA game, the UVA athletics department left close to $700,000 out there uncollected.

Put similar losses on the Pitt, UNC and Miami games still on the schedule, and you’re talking about revenue underperformance at $6 million to $7 million for the season, using our very conservative estimates on revenues.

What does this mean to the bottom line? Seems to me everything, even considering that UVA is annually at or near the top of the ACC in overall athletics revenues. The athletics department also is among the tops among conference members in terms of student-fee subsidies, which puts the empties in the student section the past few Saturdays in Charlottesville in perspective.

Maybe the folks in charge of running UVA football like every other business is run, with an eye on the bottom line, are fat and lazy because of the student-fee subsidies, and because of the otherworldly level of donations (an ACC-best $31.3 million in fiscal-year 2012-2013, the last year for which complete financial data are right now available).

Whatever the case, they’re not maximizing revenues, to say the least. Part of that, a big part of that, is the recent lack of success on the field for UVA football, which has had just two winning seasons in its last eight. A modest 3-2 start in 2014 is not going to get a fan base that was rabid as recently as, say, 2008, back out in droves. It could honestly take a season or two of success to get fans who have dropped off the ticket rolls the past few years to come back out consistently.

So what do you do? The definition of insanity, someone famous once said, is to do the same thing over and over and expect a different result. UVA athletics is doing the same thing over and over with regard to its efforts to draw fans to Scott Stadium: the same tired commercials on local TV and radio, the same attractive, but wallpaperish, ads in the local papers, and …

It’s not working. People aren’t buying. So what’s next? Throw your hands in the air? Give up, nothing’s going to work, let’s keep putting on football games in front of half-empty stadiums?

You could try to build the next generation of UVA football fans. Why not try a promotion offering kids free tickets, parents half-price tickets, get a mom, dad and a pack of kids in the gates for $25, and let them have at it?

They have to buy the kids drinks and hot dogs, so you get a little more coin there. And the kids will have a blast, and remember for the rest of their lives their first UVA football game, and pester mom and dad next week and the week after and next year to get tickets so they can do it all again.

You could offer every Boys and Girls Club in Central Virginia free tickets and at least put butts in seats for a game like Richmond or Kent State, which would be unattractive on a UVA schedule even in good years.

I can sense the issue that might be in decisionmakers’ heads here. I own and run a marketing business. Are those the fans that you want? Are they repeat customers? If we have to get them in here for free, or close to free, are we expending effort with limited potential for return on investment?

It’s a risk. So is putting on game after game in front of tens of thousands of empties. Winning isn’t necessarily the solution, getting new fans hooked on the ‘Hoos isn’t necessarily the solution, but doing nothing is definitely not the solution.

I’m also an alum, and a writer who covers UVA football. Both like watching good football in an exciting environment. The good football is coming along, finally, with the 2014 team about to turn the corner after a long run of mediocrity. The exciting environment is not even a work in progress at this point.

Somebody over at ol’ State U. needs to get on the job there, pronto, or somebody else there needs to get some heads rolling.

– Column by Chris Graham

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