Don’t Like Penn State Student Ticket Policies? Change Them.
We’ve spent this week analyzing student football tickets at universities. There’s no perfect system, and college sports will always be a business. But there is always room for improvement and rival programs have much to learn from each other.
From expensive to reasonable to “free,” we’ve seen it all. Now that you’ve seen what student football tickets look like around the country, are you still content with Penn State’s $232 price? Or the fact that Athletics makes $4.8 million of its $144 million annual revenue in student football ticket sales? Or even that Penn State doesn’t offer something like discounts for buying your tickets early?
As other universities have shown, it’s possible for things to improve. And that potential lies as much in the hands of active, informed, and opinionated students as it does in those of the profit-driven athletic departments.
Look at Michigan. The Wolverines’ prices for student season tickets sat at $295 in 2014, which is more than what any other team in the country is charging in 2018. This season, Michigan’s tickets cost $175, the fourth most expensive deal in the Big Ten. In the four years in between, massive reform and a firestorm of student backlash hit Michigan Athletics.
What began as declining attendance and students’ frustration with the athletic department for reasons ranging from ticket prices to a lack of concern for athletes’ concussions evolved into a full-scale movement that pushed the needle in Ann Arbor.
Season ticket sales had tanked by 32 percent in 2014. Students were planning to boycott the upcoming home game against Penn State. “A Petition to Remove Mr. David Brandon from his Duties as Athletic Director” had 11,298 signatures and was the most signed UPetition ever at the time. There was even a large “Fire Brandon” rally at “The Diag” (Michigan’s version of Old Main Lawn).
So the university frantically released a detailed survey to all students and conducted a comprehensive study into how to repair its relationship with them. The result? An 18-page report published in October of 2014. It found that students valued tradition and price most when deciding to buy student tickets, wanted “a less commercialized atmosphere,” and really hated Brandon. Of the 5,208 responses, Brandon’s name was mentioned 1,208 times. “Fire Brandon” was answered 110 times.
The survey’s results drove Michigan to act fast and cut its season ticket price to $150 to be “in the middle of the Big Ten in terms of price.” Michigan also introduced free concessions at games (There’s a movement we can get behind…), added seating to basketball games, and promised to meet with student leaders regularly, be more transparent during crises, and shift away from commercialization.
Four years later, Michigan has had mixed results in sticking to the plan.
Tickets have increased by $25 in four years. Less than a year after the survey came out, Michigan partnered with Jordan, which has turned into one of the biggest, hype-crazed brand partnerships in sports history. But after students’ dissatisfaction with the quality of football being played in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines replaced the forgettable Brady Hoke with Jim Harbaugh, who has since helped turn around the program…albeit without a Big Ten title and while making the Michigan brand as big as ever with his high-profile trips to Europe and Amazon Prime series. So much for decommercializing.
As for Brandon, he resigned two weeks after the study’s results were released. He then became the CEO of Toys R Us two years before it filed for bankruptcy.
Another university that had a standoff between administration and students is Clemson, the only university to offer completely free student tickets, according to associate athletic director Joe Galbraith.
Clemson Athletics sustains a significant revenue hit by granting more than 10,000 students free admission on Saturdays, but was moving toward a new policy in 2016. Under the new policy, students would have to pay $225 for season tickets in the lower deck and on “The Hill,” the holy lawn at Memorial Stadium that players run down before every game. In other words, this radical change was right on par with what students pay at universities with similarly successful football teams. Tickets in the upper deck would still be free.
That plan was met with heavy opposition from students, led by student body president Joey Wilson, who at the time said the policy was “segregating the stadium based on socioeconomic status.”
Wilson said administrators told him and other student leaders in a closed meeting that Clemson would begin changing its historic free ticket policy. After the meeting, they shared the news with their constituents and started an online petition.
The petition began the hashtag #CUWontPay and cited the following reasons that Clemson students shouldn’t have to pay for their football tickets:
1. This year 46% of Clemson students will graduate with over $30,000 worth of debt, students simply cannot afford any extra costs.
2. Students have never had to pay for tickets before; for as long as Clemson football has existed students have been able to attend games free of charge.
3. Charging for tickets divides The Clemson Family between students who can afford to go to games and those who cannot, that’s just not right.
4. Last year we won the ACC Championship and the Orange Bowl without charging for tickets or implementing an athletic fee, AKA the Athletic Department doesn’t need the money, they just see student as an untapped revenue source.
The petition drew nearly 10,000 signatures and posts from students, parents, and alumni who believed the change would “ruin all that Clemson is.”
From a Penn State point of view, where $232 tickets sell out in a combined 13 minutes for seniors, juniors, and sophomores, this all seems a bit far-fetched and even whiny. But sure enough, when the students rose up, the administration listened, just like Michigan did two years earlier.
“Certainly, we need a revenue stream to ‘stay competitive.’ However, I strongly believe students should never be viewed as a revenue stream,” Wilson said via email. “I think all other options should be explored before trying to levy greater fees or other costs on the student population.
“I think something that makes the Clemson Experience what it is is the access to football games for everyone…That’s beautiful, and in the long-term, it creates faithful fans and donors.”
Two years later, Clemson is facing another issue regarding student ticketing. On Tuesday, we looked at Clemson’s struggles to fill its student section to capacity. Wilson said he believes the decline is overstated and recalls issues with the turnstiles’ scanners and students entering the stadium without their tickets being scanned while he was a student.
But the numbers are staggering. Less than 70 percent of the student section was filled for the first two ACC games of last season. And there wasn’t even full attendance at the Tigers’ early season top-ten matchup against Auburn. Penn State has just the opposite problem. Does anyone remember Gate A at the 2016 White Out?
“[Low attendance] is a variable we haven’t been able to wrap our arms completely around as to why,” Galbraith said on the phone this week. “There are a multitude of reasons why a student would claim a ticket and not use it…We’re working with our student government and other athletics-support student groups to find the best solutions to get tickets in the hands of people who want to come to the games and get them into the stadium.”
Although much of the opposition to Clemson students paying for their tickets was rooted in maintaining tradition, the athletics program has shown a strong willingness to be flexible, like Galbraith described.
Wilson said the university is now attempting to curtail the unused tickets dilemma by allowing students to transfer their tickets, which previously wasn’t possible out of fear of tickets being sold.
Most notably, for years, tickets were claimed in person on Monday mornings by students who camped out all night Sunday (and sometimes all weekend). In 2014 when the program was beginning to reach its current level of consistent top-five rankings, the old Nittanyville-esque system was retired in place of an online ticket claiming process.
And on the issue of students one day actually paying for tickets, Galbraith wouldn’t commit one way or another.
“[Students paying for tickets] has been discussed with student leaders,” he said. “We’re always looking to create the best experience possible, that goes for students, fans, and donors. We care about our parking, our in-game experience, and student ticketing is no different. We want to continue to provide the best experience possible to our students, so we’re constantly evaluating.”
Maybe Clemson students are entitled for expecting free tickets “because that’s the way it’s been.” Or maybe Michigan students are the entitled ones for expecting to watch a winning football team that stays true to its rich tradition every year “because that’s the way it’s been.” Or maybe, we’re the ones who are wrong for blindly paying more than $200 every year to watch football “because that’s the way it’s been” (it hasn’t been).
The point is that the change Clemson and Michigan students have created by fighting back is impressive, regardless of what they were actually fighting for. Whether it’s football tickets, new Greek Life policies, a downtown pedestrian plaza, or free chicken baskets, a community of more than 40,000 voices has remarkable potential to change even the smallest things about a university, especially one that is willing to listen. So in the words of Barack Obama, “Don’t boo. Vote.”
Or write scathing responses to university-administrated surveys.