There is an epidemic in college football these days and almost no college program is immune. Season ticket sales and attendance have been trending south for years and Florida State, which is not immune, continues to search for the cure.
The average number of season tickets sold has fallen nationally seven of the last eight years. It hit its lowest point last year since 1996.
There are numerous reasons for the decline. Most major college football programs have every game televised. The games, especially your bigger match-up, are accessible on your phone or computer. There is the drive to consider. Time of kickoff uncertainty. Life circumstances. And of course the cost of travel, which Osceola publisher Jerry Kutz noted has become more affordable this year – fortunately – as a result of more hotel rooms and less people demanding rooms and tickets.
FSU has seen a continual decline in sales since 2014. A year after winning its third national championship, FSU sold all 45,000 season tickets only to see that number fall to a little over 32,000 for the 2018 season.
The numbers heading into 2018 were a bit alarming as it was the first year of the Willie Taggart era. All indications were good as the spring game and Spring Booster tour drew record crowds.
Not shockingly, the Seminoles are running behind last year’s numbers in season ticket sales after posting its first losing season since 1976.
We know the problem, so what’s the cure?
Paul Phipps, Chief Marketing and Technology Officer with the Seminoles Boosters, is one of the people officed in Doak Campbell Stadium who has been tasked with turning the tide of season ticket sales and the in-game experience.
Dr. Phipps conducted a survey of FSU’s season ticket holders to ask the patient where it hurt. The responses won’t surprise you.
“Number one was winning,” Dr. Phipps said. “Number two was food service, having an eating area and still be able to see the game. Third was a wider seat. And wi-fi was in the top four.”
The 5-7 season did not help the No. 1 priority: winning.
“Some of it has to do with the performance from last year,” Phipps noted of lagging sales. “Our fans have 40 years of winning and we think, and we feel, very good about this team. We think the team is going to be competitive and perform well. I think there is a lot of wait and see attitude.
“So what we have tried to do is encourage our season ticket holders and let them realize this is an investment in winning this year and in the future. We need their support to keep the program strong as ticket holders and/or Boosters.”
The other three fan priorities, food, a place to eat and a comfort seat are priorities FSU must invest in if it is to find the cure for declining attendance.
These are the experiences fans note will draw them from the one-dimensional tube and into the arena to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of college game day.
The addition of a Terrace area on the first-level concourse of Doak Campbell Stadium for the Spring game was a first step. And it was well-received.
The Booster-member-only Terrace featured high top tables, television screens, circulating fans and easier access to concessions and restrooms.
Phipps and Company are studying where, and how many, Terraces they can operate for the 2019 season.
“The Terraces will be an area where season ticket holders can go to get a better selection of food, a seating area to eat and possibly with beer or alcohol,” he said. “We did it at the spring in one area and served beer, had TV’s showing the game and it was really well-received. People really liked it.”
Phipps notes only 65 percent of the people who used the Terrace bought a beer.
“So over a third just wanted a place to go to,” Phipps said.
That statistic – 65 percent – holds true in the Dunlap Champions club where ticket holders average just $10 per person in drink sales.
Based on what they learned at the spring game, Phipps expects more.
“In the fall the Terrace areas will have big flat screen TVs with the game broadcast,” he said. “We are going to have fans, seal the floor, and the area will be branded with permanent fencing. We are going to try and have multiple Terraces in the stadium which is a real benefit when season ticket holders talk to us.”
Terraces will have WiFi
“We hardwired wi-fi in that area, so you can socially share, which was one of the top four areas of concern after we surveyed (season ticket holders) at the end of the year.
The planned additions of multiple terrace location will address both the food service and wi-fi pieces of the season ticket sales puzzle.
Phipps is working with Sodexo to provide branded food — like Four Rivers BBQ — so when you go in there you have a unique food selection.
“It is resonating with people as they see it and they hear about it and other things we can do to enhance the fan experience,” said Phipps.
Seminole season ticket holders will see quicker entry at the gates.
Added stadium personnel on game day should be of benefit to season and single game ticket holders in 2019.
“We want to add a manager at each gate, which is for guest services,” he said. “So if you come up and have a problem with your ticket, we can take you aside and address what you have while the line moves through. So we are looking at how we get people in.
“We are also doing more wayfare signage around the perimeter of the stadium, simple things. We want to add more Golden Greeters, more people who have a lanyard with frequently asked questions and information. So if a fan has a question, the greeter can look at the lanyard and say you need to go over here.
The FSU ticket office and Seminole Boosters, like stadium owners across the nation, are listening to their customers and trying to adapt to the fluid nature of the live event business.
“We are working hard at getting people renewed and keeping them in their seats. And the way you do that is by making changes that they (season ticket holders) have talked about,” Phipps said.
Asking the patient where it hurts is basic primary care.
“Twenty-percent of the season ticket holders filled out the survey which is unheard of because it takes five or ten minutes,” he said.
“That’s encouraging to me because it tells me those people are invested. They are vocal about what they want but I think they are well-meaning because the things they shared were very constructive,” said Phipps
The ideas for The Terrace came directly from the season ticket holder survey.
The patient asked for more diverse concession offerings and a place they could go to get out of the sun.
“Why don’t we find spaces where during a September game, when it’s hot, they can get out of the sun,” Phipps asked. “Where they can go in, get something unique to eat, be able to sit down, still see the game and get some relief.”
While still in the developmental stages The Terraces are scheduled to be ready to go for the 2019 season for those Boosters and fans holding season tickets.
“It is for season ticket holders and how many we have and who has access to which ones, we are trying to figure that out right now,” finished Phipps.
More spacious seating
FSU also experimented with creating more legroom for ticket holders by selling every other row on the 50-yard-line for the spring game. While the Noles won’t offer that configuration on the 50, it will be offered in the upper rows of sections 29 and 37 in the near term. The ultimate solution to provide more space requires a significant stadium rebuild.
FSU has also added Flex plans
The patient also complained about the nature of the season ticket — having to commit to six or more weekends nine months in advance – so at least 31 schools, including FSU, Texas, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech have responded with several uber flexible options.
These packages, which were reviewed by the Osceola last week, allow a ticket buyer a number of options. The most unorthodox is the vouchers. You can purchase 6 or 12 vouchers at a time, which can be converted in any combination for tickets to any game except Miami (limit 4) up to 48 hours prior to kickoff. The other is a common sense approach to a pick a plan, where the customer can pick the three games, or the three dates, that best suits his needs, rather than FSU defining the games.
Saved the best for last
Home schedule. While it may not have made the top four in the survey, FSU fans have been telling the doctor about chronic pain with the home schedule for years.
And FSU has made a first step toward addressing their complaints with the addition of SEC power Georgia, who has dodged the Seminoles since the 1960s, and a more-regular diet of Notre Dame.
It’s a step in the right direction and the elixir other schools are finally realizing they need to swallow too.
Including Florida State, Georgia plans to play three power five out-of-conference opponents. Florida is going to play a home and home against Texas in 2030-31, their first out-of-state, out-of-conference series in nearly a half a century (Memphis 1988-89). The Longhorns will host Bama in 2022. The last time the Tide played a non-conference road game Joe Paterno was on the opposing sideline.
FSU and a host of college and pro teams are swallowing a cocktail of solutions searching for the cure.
The Noles renewal rate has been an industry standard 85 percent last year. It stood at 70 percent year to date in mid-May but Phipps believes fans will respond to these more-attractive appeals over the summer.
“We are pacing a little behind last year and are hopeful we’re going to pick up some ground,” said Phipps. “When it is all said and done, we can get back in the low 80 percent range this year.”
Please check back in with the Osceola for more on season tickets and enhancements to Doak Campbell Stadium as the 2019 season draws near.
The Osceola’s Jerry Kutz also contributed to this story.