The empty seats at Bulldog Stadium and Save Mart Center for Fresno State football and basketball games are a troubling sign, but declining attendance is only part of a larger problem for an athletic department intending to get bigger and better.
The famed Red Wave, which helped build those venues and has served Fresno State athletic interests so well for so long, is going gray. And as is the case for most of the nation’s Division I schools, the athletic department is struggling to entice younger fans to games and build a sustainable base of season-ticket sales that account for a significant portion of its revenue.
Forty-nine percent of Fresno State football season ticket holders are 56 and older, according to a recent athletic department survey, with 9 percent 35 and younger. In basketball, 75 percent of season ticket holders are 56 and older and 4 percent 35 and younger.
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“The math is not that complicated,” Athletic Director Jim Bartko said. “If we lose that revenue and it keeps going down, the budgets for all our sports will go down.”
College athletic departments across the country are seeing really soft attendance from students on their own campuses and it really changes the vibe in the building.
Whitney Wagoner, director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center
Those numbers represent only those with season tickets who responded to the survey, and are not far out of line with national trends.
But Fresno State’s overall ticket sales have dropped sharply the past five seasons, a disturbing trend for a department that for years counted gate receipts as its second-largest source of revenue behind university support. In 2016-17, it is fourth behind university support, fundraising and a Mountain West Conference/NCAA distribution.
Fresno State sold 15,404 football season tickets in 2016, compared to 18,432 in 2015. It sold 3,809 in basketball, down from 3,970.
The athletic department also has struggled to get students into its venues, and in theory they are the season-ticket holders and donors of the future – the next Red Wave.
The average number of student tickets distributed for football games last season was 1,730, down from 2,570 the previous year.
Ticket revenue, the majority from football, has correspondingly declined significantly.
▪ In 2009-10, it accounted for 36.6 percent of a $18.4 million budget, or $6.76 million.
▪ In 2012-13, it was 19.7 percent of a $25.6 million budget, or $5.04 million.
▪ In 2016-17, it accounts for 12.6 percent of a $34.2 million budget, or $4.31 million.
In that same period, university support has jumped to $13.6 million in 2016-17 from $8.8 million in 2012-13 and $5.1 million in 2009-10.
What’s the answer?
Fresno State is hardly alone in fighting the downward trend.
Attendance at college football games has fallen six consecutive years, according to NCAA data, and even well-heeled Power Five programs are not immune.
Around the Pacific-12 Conference, USC averaged 74,806 for its home football games in 2011 and 68,459 this season; Oregon’s average fell from 59,344 to 54,677. It cuts even deeper, as Oregon State averaged 42,420 and has fallen off to 37,622; Arizona State was at 59,007 in 2011 and 47,736 this season; and Stanford has declined from 49,997 to 44,142.
Fresno State sold 25,082 season tickets for football in 2014, which included a game against Nebraska. Over the past two seasons, that number has dipped to 18,432 in 2015 and 15,404 in 2016.
The roots of that decline are generational and cultural, said Richard Southall, director of the College Sport Research Institute.
“By and large you have a whole generation of fans, and not just young fans, who have grown up with college sports and all sports being consumed primarily on television,” Southall said. “And as season ticket costs have increased and the need to donate to get better seats, etc., etc., the fact of the matter is for the affordable tickets, the sight lines are not comparable to what you get on television.
“So, do I want to go to a stadium where I’m up in the nosebleed seats or do I want to have that view on my nice flat-screen TV? And think of what’s going to happen with virtual reality … if I plop my goggles on and I’m going to watch this thing in virtual reality, that’s going to be even more of a challenge because then the experience is immersive.”
Expectations for the experience at an event also are different, particularly for students.
“The college experience is now a consumer product and part of that consumer product is college sports,” Southall said. “If you’re a first-year student, you might go to the game, but then your consumption changes and they’re no different than any other fan that says, ‘It’s a hassle parking and this and this and this, and we can just go over to somebody’s house and do the same thing.’ Then if you have a 72-inch flat screen ….”
Value also is an issue in attracting a younger demographic, including students.
“It has to be an entertainment experience that hits all of the buttons,” said Whitney Wagoner, director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon, citing the vastness of competitive options. “It has to be interactive. There has to be a real, modern contemporary sense of what it is. The in-stadium entertainment has to stack up with all of the other entertainment options that they could potentially choose from. Music is part of that. Food is part of that. Engagement between timeouts is part of that. They could go to a club or they could go to a comedy show instead of going to a game, so the stadium experience has to deliver on all of those entertainment must haves.
“Is it a fun place to be? Is the environment great? Is it connective? Can you share experiences? Is it a hyped-up, really great environment? If it is, then they’ll show up. But if it’s run-of-the-mill and kind of looks like it did when they were 10 years old and they went with their mom and dad, that’s not going to be enough.”
You absolutely, positively, have to have a baseline of season-ticket holders and know how many people there are and know what kind of revenue you’re going to have months before the season ever starts. .
Paul Ladwig, Fresno State senior associate athletics director for external relations
From 2000 to 2008, the Bulldogs’ football team played in front of 40,000 fans in almost half of its home dates with a peak average of 42,802 in 2000 and a low of 36,290 in 2007. The basketball team played in front of sellouts of 10,200 at downtown Selland Arena from 2000 to 2003, and even after the move to Save Mart Center, the average was more than 10,000 from 2004 to 2008, with a high of 13,686 in 2004 and a low of 10,407 in 2006.
University staff tried to break through its challenges in the fall, offering a full menu of ticket options – including a young alumni, family and three- and two-game mini-plans – and rolling out a glossy marketing campaign, “Just the Ticket to Build Our Community.” The ads featured senior wide receiver Aaron Peck in television commercials, radio ads and on billboards and posters, and they highlighted the role of ticket sales in funding scholarships and the Bulldogs’ athletic programs.
“A lot of people buy tickets because they’re going to the event. We want to find people who want to buy our ticket because they love Fresno State,” said Paul Ladwig, senior associate athletics director for external relations. “That’s the biggest change and difference in the collegiate season ticket market and what the Warriors might do.
“There’s a legacy, love, affiliation with a school more than, ‘I’m a Warriors fan.’ There’s a different sense and feel. That’s why, at some schools, their season-ticket numbers are phenomenal. It’s ingrained. Saturday afternoon – you know you’re going to that football game. You don’t get married on a football Saturday. You don’t plan events on a football Saturday. You plan everything you do around the home football date.”
The Red Wave answered that call for many years, but changing dynamics of the marketplace and how fans choose to watch events have forced Fresno State and athletic departments nationwide into a fight for the community’s entertainment dollar.
The Bulldogs have launched a blimp and had skydivers parachute into Bulldog Stadium. To attract more students to basketball games, there have been giveaways ranging from a free parking pass for a semester to four $10,000 scholarships.
Next Saturday, Fresno State is holding Student Night for a men’s basketball game against New Mexico at Save Mart Center, with the first 1,000 through the doors receiving a free taco. One student will win a $2,500 scholarship and another will take home an Apple watch.
“We’re going to keep trying things and see what connects with our students, knowing that when the students are in the building no matter what venue it is, it changes the atmosphere and I think that affects the rest of our fans as well,” Ladwig said.
Just like any sports organization, just like any business, you have to make investments in your customer experience, you have to make investments in the product. That costs money, but you have to spend money to make money.
Whitney Wagoner, director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center
But with more games on television or available online, viewable from the comfort of home, where the car remains parked for free in the garage and food already is in the fridge, it will take more. Fans have high expectations for an experience before, during and after games. Bulldog Stadium, with its poor access and limited concessions and restrooms, certainly does not play well when compared to other venues.
This season, Fresno State averaged 25,493 for six home football dates, and basketball is averaging 6,319 for its first 12 at Save Mart Center.
“I have great faith in our fans,” Bartko said. “They’re very loyal. But fans nowadays, I don’t care if you’re in Nebraska or anywhere else, they’re fickle. Weeknight games are tough. Night games are tough. And when you’re not having success, it’s easy to stay at home and watch it on TV. I get that. We have to make them come here, give them a reason to come.”
Winning is not enough to fill a stadium, though it has made a difference at Fresno State.
In 2013, when the Bulldogs were 11-2 and repeated as Mountain West football champions, single-game ticket sales fueled three sellouts at Bulldog Stadium, the athletic department raking in more than $1 million in additional revenue.
In 2015, when they fell to 3-9, the athletic department had to make up a $800,000 budget shortfall stemming from poor ticket sales.
But while coach Jeff Tedford starts a football rebuild, Fresno State has a wild card, a tool to perhaps bore through the issue: its football venue.
Bulldog Stadium is in the early stages of a major face lift, scheduled to be completed in time for the 2019 season.
Plans for the four-phase project unveiled in June 2015 include a transformational experience for fans, starting with much better access to seating, concessions and restrooms with four tunnels from ground level into the middle of the seating bowl and connected by a cross aisle tying together the east and west sides of the stadium.
There will be a tower on the west side that will include three tiers of premium seating – suites, a stadium club and club seating – and a new press box.
Outside the stadium will be a Bulldog District with a pregame festival zone.
I think students simply look at the university as providing a product. You may have loyalty to Starbucks, but you're not going to donate to Starbucks.
Richard Southall, director of the College Sports Research Institute
“It will be a huge improvement over what we have right now,” said Terry Johnson, executive director of The Bulldog Foundation. “There is a lot of stuff in our stadium that we can’t fix when someone calls and says, ‘The steps are so steep and there’s no other way to get up top except by golf cart.’ We’re stuck that way.
“With some of the things that we can do with a midlevel walkway, all of a sudden you’ve eliminated a huge number of issues you have with elderly donors who can’t get around real well. It will be so much easier for them and the game experience, enjoying that. It’s a lot easier for people to sit at home and watch on TV. As we get older, it gets more comfortable in that recliner. There has to be a good reason to come out to the stadium, not just what’s happening on the field, but the overall experience.”
To Ladwig, the renovation is a game changer for the athletic department. But there is a lot to plow through to get to a younger demographic, a danger for athletic departments across the country, particularly at Group of Five programs such as Fresno State that rely heavily on development and ticket sales.
“We have to get more fans,” Bartko said. “We’re down from 35,000 fans three years ago to about 25,000 in paid attendance. We’re down 10,000 per game. That has to be a mixture of our longtime loyal fans and new fans. We’ve got great ticket prices and we have a great coaching staff. We have a former Bulldog as our head coach. I think Jeff and his staff are doing a great job bringing back the enthusiasm. We’re getting ready to build the stadium … .
“Football revenue drives our department – it does anywhere you go. We’re putting a huge investment in and we want our fans back. It’s time now. It’s time to get it get it back to where the Red Wave is back in the stadium.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada