- Darren Rovell, ESPN.com Sports Business reporter
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When the Tennessee Volunteers played cross-state rival Vanderbilt in their last home football game of the season, the face value on a ticket for a seat at the 50-yard line at Neyland Stadium was $45. But, as anyone who has bought into this prime location over the past 20 years can tell you, the real cost of the seat was closer to $900.
Going to a college football game is an expensive proposition, but the price on a ticket doesn't always reveal the full expense. As demand has exceeded supply, universities have come up with their answer to the personal seat licenses, popularized by professional sports teams: If you want the best seats in the house at your alma mater, chances are you'll have to pay for the rights -- often thousands of dollars a year -- to buy them. At some schools, there's even a buy-in price to just guarantee a seat somewhere inside of the stadium.
An examination of the required donations needed before a Volunteers fan can buy season-tickets at Neyland Stadium:
The associated donations attached to ticket purchases can total in the millions of dollars for schools each year -- all in the name of philanthropy.
"We're in an environment where there is more and more pressure to find opportunities to make additional revenue and there's definitely money to be made when requiring you trade donations for prime seats," said Mike Hamilton, Tennessee's athletic director.
During the 2004-05 school year, Tennessee's athletic department raised $25 million, largely tied to ticket purchases, to help offset its $64 million budget. With so much money at stake, Vols coach Phillip Fulmer was prompted to write a letter, which was e-mailed to 38,000 season-ticket holders, apologizing for the team's "unacceptable" season.
After losing to Vandy for the first time in 23 years, Rocky Top hit rock bottom under Fulmer, with the Vols needing a season-ending victory over Kentucky to avoid finishing last in the SEC. At 5-6, Tennessee endured its first losing record since 1988 and failed to receive a bowl invitation for the first time during that span.
"This year was a disappointing season for everyone in the Tennessee family," Fulmer wrote. "We started this season with great expectations and failed to live up to those expectations. I assure you that no one is happy about our season -- especially me, and I know our fans deserve better than what we produced this year."
Because some fans have been season-ticket holders longer than others, it's possible that Vols fans sitting next to each other in a section on the 50-yard line at Neyland Stadium have paid different prices for their seats.
Tennessee's athletics officials decided in 2004 that everyone with prime seats would have to make a donation to the Volunteer Athletic Scholarship Fund, but offered a discount to long-standing season-ticket holders who had purchased seats prior to 1986. Newer season-ticket holders sitting on the 50-yard line are now paying $5,000 per seat above the face value of the actual tickets, while those grandfathered in pay a $1,000 fee. The money is used to support the growing athletic department budget and future renovation of the 84-year-old facility, one of four college football stadiums that holds more than 100,000 fans.
"We realized that this was going to be uncomfortable for some folks, especially those who had a long history of involvement with those tickets," Hamilton said, "but we tried to find a balancing point."
It's a love-hate relationship that binds a college and its boosters. They are often the first ones pointed to when recruiting violations surface. And the first ones called upon when facilities need an upgrade. With their money comes their two cents. Some call it influence. Others say it's meddling. ESPN.com examines the role of the college booster:
• Just do it! It's not just a Nike catch phrase, it's heady advice in dealing with billionaire philanthropist Phil Knight, who lords over his alma mater.
• Money talks: Giving $100 million to his alma mater does more than get Boone Pickens' name on OSU's football stadium, it buys him decision-making influence.
• Corporate $upport: Joe Malugen didn't graduate from Troy University, but he saw the giant-killing football team as a marketing vehicle for his company.
• Wave of support: In the wake of Hurricane Katrina's devastation, Tulane's athletes have served as roving ambassadors for the storm-ravaged university.
• The high price of supply and demand: The face value of a seat at a college football game is but a fraction of its real cost, thanks to mandatory donations tied to season-ticket sales.
• A Tiger of a trustee: He might be slight of frame, but none throws his weight around like the Most Powerful Booster in college sports.
• Power Brokers: The power to pull strings isn't always decided by those with the fattest wallets in ESPN.com's top-10 list of college boosters.
• Boosters Gone Wild: Deep pockets, dirty deals and death threats make for college football's "most unhealthy rivalry."
Tennessee's program is not alone.
In order to sit on the 50-yard line at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at the University of Florida, a new fan would have to make a yearly donation of $12,000. But someone who has been sitting there since the time Steve Spurrier was quarterback in 1966 has to pay a per-seat fee of only $400, according to Doug Brown, director of the school's Bull Gator program.
The Bull Gator program includes 702 people who pay the $12,000 fee to be able to buy up to eight tickets. All costs, including ticket price and catering, are part of the $48,000, 20-seat suite that Bull Gators often purchase for the season. A $14,000 donation can buy four seats in the enclosed 348-seat Bull Gator Zone.
The schools rely on the fact that there are more people waiting on the outside of the stadium, just itching to get in.
Complicating the process of getting tickets is another fact: Most schools don't have waiting lists. Rather than waiting for your number to come up, you wait to see if the number you write on your check is big enough.
Every seat at "The Swamp," save for the student section, has an annual donation tied to it. How much does it take to guarantee a seat inside the stadium if you are a new customer for 2006?
"We never know exactly where the cut-off is," Brown says, "but if you definitely want seats, we tell people it's going to require a $3,900 donation."
Fans of the Vols and Oklahoma Sooners can get cheaper seats. The minimum donation to buy new seats in Neyland Stadium for next season is $500 for a pair. The University of Oklahoma's ticket office doesn't specify a minimum donation, but $1,000 to the University of Oklahoma Foundation will do the trick, even though season-ticket renewal rate is roughly 98 percent.
The highest buy-in is likely at Notre Dame, where alums have to enter a game-by-game lottery just for the rights to buy tickets for a single game at Notre Dame Stadium. The cheapest price from a broker is about $300 a ticket.
School officials would not specify how much a person would have to pay to buy season tickets, only reiterating that "priority is given to donors based on their relationship with the university."
At most big-time Division I-A schools, demand well exceeds supply -- which is good for the fund-raising business.
Although schools are constantly looking to increase the size of their stadiums to compete in the arms race, there are those who are cognizant that the value of donations is based on how hard it is to get in. After Oklahoma won the Bowl Championship Series title for the 2000 season, plans for stadium expansion were put in the works, but Sooners athletic director Joe Castiglione said he never forgot about the laws of supply and demand.
"Fans want you to build the biggest stadium you can," said Castiglione, whose school's stadium can pack in about 84,000 fans on a Saturday. "We've sold everything out, but we want to make sure we are always in demand. I think there are some schools that are disproving the notion in 'Field of Dreams: If you build it, they will come.' I think there's a sense that some schools have overbuilt."
The University of Washington never had to deal with leaner years. Before posting a 1-10 record in 2004, the Huskies' football team last had a losing mark in 1976. So it seemed like a no-brainer when the school expanded Husky Stadium, the fifth oldest stadium in the country, by 13,000 seats to 72,500 in 1987. Thanks to another bad year -- they finished 2-9 in 2005 -- the Huskies had their worst home attendance since that expansion.
They drew an average of 64,326 fans per game, 89 percent of capacity, and that includes home games against two of the country's most popular teams, USC and Notre Dame, neither of which was a sellout. Still, athletic department officials expect total revenue to increase 18 percent, to $27.8 million. Although fewer people flocked to the stadium, a 30 percent increase in season ticket prices brought more money to the school.
Michigan State University completed a $64 million renovation to 82-year-old Spartan Stadium before the season, adding 3,000 seats to expand capacity to 75,005. But in 2005, as Michigan State headed toward its fourth losing season in six years, the Spartans failed to sell out four of their six home games just a year after beginning to collect per-seat donations in 2004.
At Nebraska, where a 6,500-seat stadium expansion comes after the Cornhuskers went 12-10 the past two seasons, school officials expect demand to remain high for the new seats. Nebraska has sold out 275 consecutive home games, a streak that dates back to 1962. Even so, about 1,000 of the new tickets can be had by Husker fans without a donation.
One way Oklahoma has cashed in on fans waiting on the outside of the stadium is to charge a $25 fee for the right to buy tickets from season-ticket holders. The payment allows fans access to an online site where season-ticket holders can unload single-game seats for face value.
There are even more ways to make money on a sold-out stadium. The University of Michigan has a $500 fee for transferring tickets in the name of a friend or a relative, while the University of Tennessee has 3,800 prime parking spots close to the stadium. Priority for the spots is determined based on the amount of yearly donation or amount of cumulative donations to the program.
Said Hamilton: "Fund-raising is much more sophisticated than it was two decades ago."
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.firstname.lastname@example.org.
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