Sunday, December 18, 2011
Hard sell: Ticket sales are slow for Virginia Tech's Sugar Bowl trip
A BCS bowl. An intriguing matchup. A legendary party scene. New Orleans and the Sugar Bowl seem like an attractive package for Hokie fans. Selling tickets, however, has been a chore for Virginia Tech.
Associated Press File 1995
Virginia Tech players Antonio Banks (9) and Marcus Parker (33) celebrate with fans in the stands at the Louisiana Superdome after the Hokies beat Texas 28-10 in the 1995 Sugar Bowl.
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BLACKSBURG -- If you click on the Virginia Tech athletics website, you'll be greeted by a digital version of Hokies coach Frank Beamer, urging you to buy tickets to the upcoming Sugar Bowl.
"We need your help," he says, with links to purchasing options through the school in the background. "We need the Hokie nation to take over New Orleans and fill the Superdome. So click on me to purchase your tickets today."
It's an online version of the message the coach and several Mardis Gras bead-tossing Hokies conveyed at halftime of a recent basketball game at Cassell Coliseum: support the team in New Orleans, and if you're coming, buy your tickets through the athletics department.
It hasn't been easy for Virginia Tech to sell its allotment of 17,500 tickets for the Sugar Bowl. After nearly two weeks of sales, the school is nearing the 10,000 mark, with a final estimate only slightly higher.
But Virginia Tech athletic director Jim Weaver is confident that like recent years, when ticket sales through the school were slow, a throng on Hokies fans will descend on New Orleans for the school's first trip to the Big Easy since 2005.
"We have every expectation that we'll have 15 to 20,000 people at the ballgame," Weaver said. "It's just that they will not have all purchased their tickets from the university. â€ And that's all part of this process right now, and we've got to deal with it."
Sugar Bowl director of communications John Sudsbury said the game is "essentially a sellout," with few public tickets remaining for purchase. The game has never hurt for sales, only once dipping below 70,000 in announced attendance since 2002.
But given the spotlight on it after receiving a surprise at-large berth to a Bowl Championship Series game, Virginia Tech's turnout might be judged, fair or not, by the number of tickets it sells of its allotment.
The last time the Hokies went to New Orleans, they sold out their 15,000-ticket allotment, but recent years haven't helped Tech's reputation. The school sold only 3,342 tickets for the 2009 Orange Bowl against Cincinnati. It sold around 6,500 for last year's game in Miami against Stanford.
Still, it had a respectable turnout at both games, indicating fans bought tickets, just not through the school.
Regardless, the Hokies' ticket sales will continue to be compared to teams that just missed the BCS cut. Kansas State, which many felt was more deserving of a Sugar Bowl spot, sold out 12,500 tickets in pre-orders, before the Wildcats knew which bowl game they'd be attending.
Reader responses sent to The Roanoke Times/Virginian-Pilot suggest a confluence of factors for Virginia Tech's lagging ticket sales. They include:
The secondary market: The deals that used to take place on a street corner outside the stadium have now evolved into a more reputable business on the Internet.
Sites like StubHub.com allow buyers and sellers of tickets to find each other more easily, oftentimes at drastically reduced costs.
As of Friday, the cheapest tickets at the Sugar Bowl were going for as little as $44 on the site. While club-level tickets were going for more, fans who simply want to get in the building can do so for a much cheaper price than through the school.
The 17,500 tickets in Tech's allotment - which the bowl requires the school to purchase - are between $120 and $140. The school has no wiggle room in those prices.
"Quite honestly, this is our 19th bowl game in a row, your fans become very savvy and know how to get tickets," Weaver said. "Especially in a downturn economy, they're able to get tickets some places that are less expensive that the ones we have to offer."
Tech's purchasing setup: The school's strategy of selling those tickets didn't help its cause.
Sales began the Monday after the Hokies' selection on Dec. 4, but they were only available to donors and season ticket holders. Student tickets went on sale that Wednesday, with the general public unable to buy through the school until Friday afternoon.
The setup may have inadvertently pushed fans wanting to finalize their plans early to a secondary source.
"It's six of one and a half dozen of the other," Weaver said. "You try to help people in some regard and others think, well maybe if it had been available a day or two earlier you would have sold more. That's like should I have punted or should I have gambled on fourth and a half yard on the 40-yard line.
"We have always tried to be fair to our constituency in everything that we've done."
Weaver said the school has always given first opportunity to Hokie Club members and season ticket holders, but even that has its drawbacks. Donors could request a price level but not their exact seating, leaving some disappointed with less-desirable seats (in the end zone, for instance) once their tickets arrived.
Those using alternative means to buy tickets can pick out their exact seat location, a major advantage.
The trip's cost: Bowl trips, by nature, are not cheap. But the circumstances surrounding a New Orleans trip this year have made it a costly endeavor.
Unlike the Cotton Bowl, which is within driving distance of both participants (Kansas State and Arkansas), getting to New Orleans from Virginia, a 131/2-hour drive from Blacksburg, in most cases requires a flight.
Airfare, in high demand, shot up overnight. Even now, the cheapest flights going down a day before the game and coming back the day after cost $700 per ticket.
Add the fact that many Virginia Tech fans chose to travel for the ACC championship game - an extra game BCS contenders like Kansas State and Boise State did not have on the schedule -- and the financial hardship becomes greater.
The date of the game: New Year's Day is on a Sunday this year, meaning bowl games have to be pushed back to accommodate for the NFL.
As a result, the Rose and Fiesta bowls are on Jan. 2, which is a federal holiday, while the Sugar (Tuesday, Jan. 3) and Orange (Wednesday, Jan. 4) take place in the middle of the week. Because ESPN holds the BCS broadcasting rights, the games are staggered for TV purposes.
"It's just so very difficult for a family that works or a family that has young people who are in school and for a family that has both of those things in combination," said Weaver, who added that mid-week games were a topic on a recent conference call between ACC athletic directors and commissioner John Swofford.
The numbers suggest mid-week games are a harder sell. While the schools attending the Rose and Fiesta sold out their allotments quickly, the Sugar and Orange have struggled.
Michigan, even with its large alumni base and BCS-starved fans, has still not quite sold out its Sugar Bowl allotment, hovering around 15,000 after an early rush.
West Virginia and Clemson, two respected fan bases in regards to travel, have only sold around 6,100 and 8,500 of their respective allotments for the Orange Bowl.
There are numerous other factors. Many fans said they were content to sit at home and watch, with high-definition TVs making an at-home experience more enjoyable than watching from nose-bleed seats.
Others bemoaned Virginia Tech's lack of success in big games, citing Beamer's 8-10 bowl record as a reason for not wanting to travel and risk being disappointed.
What's the fallout? It's less financial than you think. Contrary to popular belief, Virginia Tech is not on the hook for all of its unsold tickets. The ACC covers the entire cost of unsold bowl tickets once a school sells 8,000. The shortfall means a slightly lower payout for each school once the bowl money is pooled, but not a loss.
Instead, the biggest hit might be to Virginia Tech's traveling reputation, part of the reason it was selected for the Sugar Bowl in the first place.
Already, the school has been pilloried in the national press for its sluggish sales.
"I don't [worry] because I don't think the people who are writing that understand," Weaver said. "And by that I mean they don't understand exactly what's happening with the ticket situation. They don't understand how difficult it is for a mid-week game like this. ...
"So if you take all of those factors and put them into the kettle of soup you're trying to make, I don't think we have anything to apologize for and we have everything to be proud of."
Virginia Tech fans speak out
I’m a long time season ticket holder and frequent Bowl attendee. However, after watching Tech’s offensive debacle against Clemson, it is very difficult to get excited about spending a couple of thousand dollars to watch a repeat of either the Clemson game or last year’s Orange Bowl.
J. L. Miles, Williamsport, Md.
Reason for not going: cost, cost, cost. The cheapest flight for two from Raleigh was a total of $600. We had a steal on a room in the Quarter at $179 plus tax and three-night minimum $600. Tickets, two at $150 each-sold those and would have purchased in New Orleans or on Stub Hub. Parking at Raleigh and gas $100. Total: $1,600. I have not opened a beer yet. I would be at $2,200 to $2,300 total for a three-day football game trip! No way!
Stan Finch, Altavista
I do have this to say about the methodology for Virginia Tech’s ticket sales: given the history of the past couple of years, to put them up only to a select few initially was stupid, stupid, stupid. It should have been apparent there would be no lack of tickets to go around so open the sales up immediately to one and all. … A few more brilliant ideas like that and we will swiftly become known as a non-traveling team.
Paul Kohler, Midlothian
It’s on January 3. The holidays are over by then. It’s time to go back to work, not to New Orleans.
Dominic Tiburzi, Columbia, Md.
I think that the Hokies recent history of late season and bowl game swoons against top competition may be affecting the reputation that we travel well. Eight 10-game win seasons puts the bowl season bar a bit higher. Frank Beamer’s ACC regular season success could be his worst enemy.
Ed and Carol Miller, Port St. Lucie, Fla.
VT fans have become savvy to the system. When you charge $120 for nosebleed seats and you don’t actually get to pick your seats you better have demand. Neither the Orange nor the Sugar Bowl have the demand so you can basically pay about 70 percent of face and pick your seats on StubHub. VT fans are very familiar with this after having been to so many big bowl games over the last several years. The bowls need to create more demand or lower their face ticket prices if they want to create more demand. The bowls are able to overcharge for tickets because so many of them are guaranteed from the two schools playing.
Chris Zettervall, Virginia Beach
On the Monday after the Sugar Bowl announcement, I was thinking of going. I logged onto Expedia and found an AirTran flight from Richmond. The flight even had a decent schedule. I went through the clicks to select flights to and from New Orleans and when I got to the confirmation page I got a warning that said: “The price of this ticket has changed.” Yep, it changed alright. It more than doubled. The price went from a face value of $270 or thereabouts to over $680 per person. No thanks.
Gary R. Reinhardt, Richmond
The tickets are quite costly. To get a nice seat you’re looking at $150 a ticket. That is pretty outrageous. You multiply that by how ever many friends were thinking about going and we can have a hell of a tailgate party in the comfort of our home.
Adam Sharrow, South Hero, Vt.
The one factor I didn’t see mentioned, that has kept me from many other bowl games, is the fact that the game itself is meaningless. During a regular season where supposedly “every game matters,” none of the bowl games, outside of the National Championship game, have anything on the line. I would rather spend my money on a big time out of conference regular season game, such as the Boise St., Alabama, and LSU games in prior years, that have a bearing on whether we get to play in the “national championship” contest.
Brian Ward, Virginia Beach
I’m a Golden Hokie. My seats in Lane Stadium are fairly good (Section 16, Row ZZ). I’m used to having a decent view of the field. In the past when I’ve attended big games, such as those at FedEx Field (Boise State), Charlotte (East Carolina) or in the Georgia Dome (Alabama), I’ve made my purchases through the VT Athletic Department only to be given seats that cost way too much for the location and view. Even when I’ve opted for the “middle tier” seats I feel like I’ve gotten the short end of the stick. The Boise State game did me in, being stuck in the corner end zone and paying $105 per ticket. After that game I told myself no more; I’ll only buy the tickets from third parties or directly from the stadium.
Richie Weldon, San Francisco