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Comparing costs: U. of Utah earns $14 million from football ticketing, keeps focus on fans

Published: Sunday, Aug. 30 2015 6:59 p.m. MDT

Utah fans cheer at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City Sunday, Sept. 16, 2012. Utah boasts the best season ticket renewal rate in the state for football. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Utah fans cheer at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City Sunday, Sept. 16, 2012. Utah boasts the best season ticket renewal rate in the state for football. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Editor's note: This is Part 2 in a four-part series on college football ticket sales and marketing in Utah. Read part one here.

The University of Utah has no problem packing Rice-Eccles Stadium on game day. The Home of the Utes has officially sold out every game since the 2009 season. Though the stadium has just 45,000 seats, Utah fans could certainly pack the house even if the stadium was comparable in size to its Pac-12 compatriots.

Despite Rice-Eccles' smaller capacity, Utah is not far behind its conference foes in attendance. In fact, in 2012, only six schools from the Pac-12 saw significantly higher average attendance than the Utes.

In economic terms, demand is high for Utah's in-stadium football product, and because the venue is sold out perennially, supply is low.

Halftime Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012 as Utah and Washington State play at Rice Eccles Stadium Utah leads 31-0. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Halftime Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012 as Utah and Washington State play at Rice Eccles Stadium Utah leads 31-0. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

For those who slept through Economics 101, when demand is up while supply is limited, the price is supposed to climb, but the University of Utah hasn’t let that happen.

While the overall cost of season tickets went up this season, the increase is due to the fact that Utah will play seven home games instead of the six it has played on the Hill historically. Utah fans aren’t paying more per game than last season, which shows a commitment from the school to its fans — because the economics clearly indicate prices should go up.

“The department is very conscious about keeping those ticket prices affordable and as flat as possible. We really are being fan conscious and trying to be as affordable as possible, and making our best effort to put the best team out there on the field. That’s our equation,” David Woodbury, director of ticketing at the University of Utah, said.

Gary Klc (CQ) cooks teriyaki chicken and ham on skewers and grilled vegetables for a tailgate party before the football game at the University of Utah on Thursday, August 30, 2012.   (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) Gary Klc (CQ) cooks teriyaki chicken and ham on skewers and grilled vegetables for a tailgate party before the football game at the University of Utah on Thursday, August 30, 2012. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

Woodbury and the school hope this focus on the fan experience pays dividends down the road.

Breaking down dollars and seats

University athletics departments don’t just open up the entire stadium for football season ticket sales. Before regular fans can snag a seat, Utah designates some sections for specific groups.

Utah sets aside more than 6,000 seats for students who aren’t required to pay more than their student fees, except for MUSS membership. Another 5,000 seats are used internally at the university.

Another 2,000 are set aside for visiting teams. When teams with big followings, such as USC, roll into Salt Lake, those tickets are used up. But schools without a stable road following may ask the university to buy back seats, which are then sold to fans a few weeks before the game as single-game seats.

That leaves about 32,000 seats available for the University of Utah to sell as season tickets, and sell those they do.

The exact number of season ticket packages sold after the students, employees and visitors are take care of has been 32,370 over the past two season for Utah. That number rose steadily from 2004 to 2009 when the school started selling Rice-Eccles out. It could sell more, were more inventory available.

Furthermore, Utah boasts a 98 percent renewal rate over the last three years — the highest in the state.

As a public school, Utah’s ticket sales data is public information. So far for this season, 32,382 season ticket packages and accompanying donations have generated more than $14 million for the athletic department and school. With most prime seats, season ticket buyers are required to make a donation in addition to the cost of the seat.

Woodbury explained that those kind of revenues are required to run a competitive Pac-12 athletic department and indicated that the school keeps close tabs on ticket prices to make sure the product on the field and the price match.

“Every year we look at every ticket price for every sport and evaluate what we should do. What are our financial needs this year? What was attendance like?” he said.

A vocal minority of Ute fans want to see the school expand the stadium to create a bigger game-day atmosphere and drive bigger ticket sales. But stadium expansion is extremely expensive, and Utah has plenty of areas it’s already improving as a Pac-12 school.

“Our story is basically trying to pay for the Pac-12. That’s expensive. We need tickets, donations, the whole thing. Obviously [stadium expansion] is something that’s difficult to do. It’s very difficult to add more seats. Right now we’re focusing on the football building and basketball facility.”

The other sports

It’s no secret Utah Runnin’ Utes basketball isn’t the premier basketball program it once was. But it’s headed in the right direction, and season ticket sales are an indicator of that trend.

From 2010 to 2011, the school saw a double-digit percentage dip in basketball season ticket sales, but early season ticket sales for the 2013-14 season are already strong. Utah’s lower-bowl basketball ticket prices were even lowered in the last two years to attract more interest from fans.

Last year, men’s basketball tickets brought in just fewer than $1.4 million, which has become the new benchmark moving forward. The school is confident that when the October deadline rolls around, sales will be up.

“There was definitely excitement following the end of the regular season and the Pac-12 tournament,” Woodbury said of basketball season ticket sales. “Utah has savvy basketball fans and they want to see a good product out there on the court.”

Woodbury also noted that Utah generates around a half-million dollars in ticket sales for gymnastics. Additionally, the school brings in just under $1 million per year in concessions.

What it all adds up to is an athletic department that has done a great job creating high demand for its best product while working to bring the rest of its sports to par with the rest of the Pac-12, both in performance and in revenue generation.

Ryan Teeples, twitter.com/SportsGuyUtah, is a marketing and technology expert, full-time sports fan and owner of Ryan Teeples Consulting Inc. RyanTeeples.com

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