Virginia Tech preserved its streak of home football sellouts last year, despite having to open ticket sales beyond athletic department donors. The 2013 season has proven even more challenging.
“I think the sellout streak is in jeopardy, no doubt about it,” athletic director Jim Weaver said. “You’ve got to look all around the country and see what’s happening. … I think we’re part of the trend.”
Sandy Smith, Tech’s assistant athletic director for ticketing services, acknowledges national declines but believes the Hokies can extend their ACC-best run of 93 consecutive sellouts — the most recent home game not to sell out was Nov. 21, 1998 against then-Big East colleague Rutgers.
“We’ve got tickets left over that we haven’t had in several years,” Smith said. “The economy’s not as good as the stock market says it is. We’re still in a recession for a lot of people, and they’re still hurtin’. This is a discretionary dollar … but I think we have a good shot (at selling out the season).”
With 17,000 seats reserved for students and 4,300 for visiting teams (lesser opponents such as Western Carolina excepted), Tech annually sells about 44,000 season tickets — Lane’s capacity is 65,632. Until last year, members of the Hokie Club, the athletic department’s fund-raising arm, usually accounted for all of the season tickets.
“We had a very small number (available) last year (to the public),” Smith said. “This year about 2,500 (earlier in the summer). Now we’re at 1,000-1,200.”
Season tickets cost $50 per game, same as last year, $300 for the six-game 2013 schedule. A student season ticket costs $66.
Smith said student sales have declined to about 10,000 from a norm of 11,000. But students who decline season tickets are eligible to obtain free seats through a lottery conducted for each home contest.
“Typically, if we have 4,000 or 5,000 tickets for students (in the lottery), we’ll have 8-10,000 sign up for those seats,” Smith said.
Beyond the economy, Weaver cited enhanced home viewing and the Hokies’ 2012 struggles — their 7-6 record was the program’s worst in 20 years — as possible reasons for the decline.
Advances in high-definition television and Internet problems at crowded stadiums are universal concerns for sports enterprises. The Orlando Sentinel, a sister paper of ours, reported last month that nine of the Southeastern Conference’s 14 teams experienced attendance declines last season and that the league has created a committee to examine the fan experience.
“You can stay at home and take that money you were going to pay for tickets and travel and expenses and throw a nice big party … and not spend near the money,” Smith said.
Meanwhile, some Tech fans have noted the absence of a Thursday night home game for the first time since 2001, and a home schedule they consider tepid. Indeed, while 2013 home opponents North Carolina and Pittsburgh defeated the Hokies last season, remaining dates versus Western Carolina, Marshall, Duke and Maryland do not enthuse the base.
Miami, an attractive Coastal Division rival, was supposed to visit Blacksburg this season. But scheduling complications associated with the ACC’s expansion from 12 to 14 teams prompted the conference to send the Hokies to Miami for the second straight year.
“We’ve always had the philosophy that people are coming to see us play, not necessarily the opponent,” Smith said.
In keeping with that notion, Tech charges the same ticket price for every game. Conversely, single-game tickets to Virginia home dates this season cost $65 for marquee opponents Oregon and Virginia Tech, as low as $19 for VMI and Ball State.
“Jim (Weaver) has been very conscious of keeping prices as low as we can and still be able to maintain a budget,” Smith said. “We have one of the lowest-priced tickets of our peer institutions across the country.”
Weaver asked the ACC not to schedule Virginia Tech for a Thursday night home game in 2013 – the Hokies play at Georgia Tech on a Thursday. But Smith called the break in tradition a wash for ticket sales.
Thursday night games are “great for local people,” Smith said, “but not for anybody that’s got to travel (and miss a day or two work or school). It’s kind of damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I don’t think it’s a tremendous factor.”
Smith has worked full-time at Virginia Tech since 1991, before the Hokies became nationally relevant and started their current streak of 20 straight bowl seasons, and long before they joined the ACC. He noted the difficulty and cost of traveling 300 miles and four-plus hours to Blacksburg from areas such as Hampton Roads.
“We’ve seen away game traveling across the board in the ACC (decrease too)," Smith said.
But Smith is proud of the Hokies’ sellout streak, and the 4,300 seats that each conference team allots visitors for league games.
“That’s all the tickets we had left,” Smith said. “Everything else was sold (out) as a season ticket, and we were the only (school) in the conference that was in that situation. That’s what the ticket managers all call it: the Virginia Tech rule.”
The Hokies are 19-point underdogs in their opener, Aug. 31 against two-time reigning national champion Alabama in Atlanta, where both teams sold out their share of tickets. One week later, Tech opens its home schedule against Western Carolina, a Championship Subdivision lightweight that finished 1-10 last season.
That game marks the home debut of offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler, not to mention a $4 million video board that dwarfs the previous incarnation.
Will fan anticipation and/or loyalty allow the Hokies to prolong the streak?
“I think we’ll be able to,” Smith said. “It’s been a long time.”
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