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SoonerTimes Home > SoonerTimes > OU Sports > When college football returns in the fall - which fans canbe in the seats?

When college football returns in the fall - which fans canbe in the seats?
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Joined: Tue Aug 14th, 2007
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 Posted: Wed May 20th, 2020 01:52 pm


As far as this business of solitary confinement goes, the most important thing for survival is communication with someone, even if it's only a wave or a wink, a tap on the wall, or to have a guy put his thumb up. It makes all the difference.  -- John McCain

At most major college athletic programs, the operative question has moved in the past two months from “Will there be a college football season” to “Will that season be in the fall or spring” to “What will a football season look like in the fall?” As the question changes, so do the potential answers.

Departments have started to examine the finer details of what football in the fall might look like, and that includes the possibility of playing in front of no fans or at reduced capacity. Athletic department officials universally hate the idea of playing with no fans because that would eliminate ticket revenue, but they acknowledge that unpleasant option would make the next few months far less awkward than limited capacity would.

Imagine you work for a school that sells out every football game. Now imagine that you must adhere to an order that keeps fans (or family groups) seated at least six feet apart and your capacity shrinks to somewhere between 20 percent and 40 percent. BOOSTER THUNDERDOME sounds like a thrilling reality TV show, but it would make for an unpleasant reality for the athletic department employees who must decide which donors get tickets and which don’t. (And who then have to tell someone who donated hard cash that they can’t purchase football tickets.) Players’ families likely would also get seats. But what about students? What about bands? All these questions still must be answered.

“It’s a development person’s worst nightmare,” one Power 5 athletic department official says, referring to the section of each athletic department responsible for soliciting donations. (We’ve promised anonymity to the athletic department officials interviewed for this story because officials are understandably reluctant to speak publicly, fearing a panic from their donors.)

That person works at one of the schools that sells out most, if not all of the time. This person has modeled dozens of different seating configurations in an attempt to maximize seating capacity using their state’s current social distancing guidelines. The best they can do given the current guidelines — which certainly could change over the next three months — is between 18 and 22 percent of capacity. This person has tried every possible configuration. The other big question all the departments are asking is how big a family unit can be. People living in the same house don’t need to stay apart because they aren’t apart at home, but a school isn’t likely to allow 10 people to form one family group. That number will have to be decided.

That department referenced above is already batting around ideas to decide how to split up the tickets among donors. Would the biggest donors get all the tickets? Would the home games be split into mini-packages, with the best two or three games going to the biggest donors and the less desirable games to lower-level donors? This isn’t totally uncharted territory for schools. They do this every year for the limited quantities of tickets they receive for bowl games and College Football Playoff games. But it’s different when it’s your home stadium.

None of these questions must be answered yet because a lot can change between now and late August/early September. But athletic departments must plan for the possibility of limited seating in the next month so they can develop donor priority and sales protocols.

Some athletic directors remain hopeful that by September they’ll be allowed to sell most or all of their stadium capacity in a sport that has eight of the top-10 largest stadiums in the world. Several of these ADs acknowledge that probably doesn’t happen unless fans are willing to wear masks. So don’t be shocked if you see more school logo-branded masks hitting the market soon. For example, Alabama has a three-pack on the market now with proceeds benefitting the school’s student assistance fund. And it wasn’t an accident that Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban had a mask around his neck in the video the athletic department released Sunday night of Saban discussing Michael Jordan just before the final two episodes of “The Last Dance” premiered.

While the mask debate rages in multiple states, athletic department leaders seem united that willingness to wear them could lead to greater stadium capacity. Whether that’s true remains to be seen. At this point, no state would allow even a half-full Power 5 stadium. The people who run college athletic departments hope that changes, but they need to be ready for multiple possibilities. So they continue to model different seating arrangements. They also are trying to troubleshoot in advance the issues that could arise from limited capacity.

One Power 5 AD has a stadium that could hold between 30 and 40 percent depending on the interpretation of state guidelines. That AD, whose stadium routinely sells out, has the same questions as the leaders at the school mentioned above. But this AD also worries about what happens after the department decides who gets the tickets. The secondary market for the tickets could be astronomical, but seeing tickets getting scalped for top dollar by those fortunate enough to get them could enrage donors who got shut out. This would be something like the sports version of the guys who cleaned out all the hand sanitizer in several counties’ worth of Costcos and Sam’s Clubs with plans to resell the product online (at a severely marked-up price, of course). Ultimately, they’re trying to make the supply curve meet the demand curve at a higher price point, but the general public (and in the case of those guys, the government) frowns on taking advantage of a situation like this one in that manner.

Fans who would never consider re-selling a ticket if they were fortunate enough to get one might resent the athletic department for choosing someone who would resell them. So this AD would consider tying tickets to a photo ID — which happens at many student sections across the country — for admission. (No matter what they decide about requiring IDs, all the people interviewed for this story agreed that schools that haven’t already switched to digital tickets will have to do that this season to take away one more point of contact.)

The AD also would prefer not to use dynamic pricing that could help make up for some of the revenue lost by having to sell fewer tickets. Schools could set up a system that could jack up the price as regulations diminish capacity, but this AD warns that would cost a school long term. “It just feels bad,” the AD said. “To me, this is where you build relationship capital.” In other words, trying to treat as many people as fairly as possible will make them more loyal customers in the future.

Another Power 5 AD at a school that does not typically sell out football games has modeled a plan that would allow for 25-percent capacity. Even though this school doesn’t pack in fans like the ones described above, this arrangement still would require some season-ticket holders to be told they didn’t make the cut. But this AD also wonders if a large number of ticket-holders might cut themselves. This person believes that although there is a vocal group clamoring to get back into stadiums, there could be a quiet, larger group that would rather wait a while before gathering in a large group. That will present a different challenge, this AD said. Those fans, who still give money and love the program but might not feel comfortable gathering in a group at first, need to be reminded that they’re still appreciated even if that can’t be done in person at a football game. No matter how many people are allowed in the stadium, athletic departments must remember these people. This is the “relationship capital” the other AD described that can pay dividends later even if it costs a little extra — or requires more effort — now.

Though some schools have calculated down to the seat, others are only in the early phases of modeling different capacities. Department leaders hope they can scrap those plans and let in the usual number of people, but they also know they need to be ready in case their states or their schools require a smaller number. They’ll have to develop protocols and educate fans about rules and points of entry. They’d rather not do this. They’d rather sell every ticket and watch the money roll in, but they understand that might have to make serious adjustments. “If it means we can have football,” one AD said, “then that’s what we do.”

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