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Seeing the (Wake) Forest Through the (Cardinal) Trees

Tuesday, 18 Nov 2008 | 2:30 PM ET
CNBC.com

This post is from guest blogger Lake The Posts:

As the economic downturn sends families scurrying to get financial budgeting software for holiday gifts, college athletic directors need to start overhauling their approach to leverage football ticket revenue to help their bottom lines.

The Boston Red Sox recently announced ticket price freezes which set off red flags for ticket sales managers in the collegiate ranks. The Red Sox boast a 469 consecutive game sellout streak and have increased tickets every season since the last strike in 1994. Commissioners of every league have warned of tough times ahead which should be sounding the alarm to college football programs, one of only two major revenue drivers for most Division I, er FBS, programs.

There are a few programs that have consistently sold more than 100% of capacity this season, with resurgent Wake Forest a program to keep any eye on in 2009. The Demon Deacons boast 105% capacity (33,077), yet toiled for years to get to this point in terms of attendance. Stanford, currently 86th in the nation with a 69% capacity mark (27,752) was out in front creatively offering a money-back guarantee plan that enabled Cardinal fans to get a 100% refund on season tickets, providing they did so in advance of last week's USC clash (and return the USC tickets).

My beloved Northwestern Wildcats have an outside chance for a New Year's Day bowl (currently 8-3 with Illinois remaining) yet are a paltry 102nd in attendance with an average of 59% capacity (27,994).

Athletic Director, Jim Phillips has already gone on record saying NU is likely reducing ticket prices for 2009, particularly single game seats, which are as much as $50 for Big Ten games. Programs are faced with the catch 22 of discretionary pricing (many schools charge higher prices for select high profile games) and raking it in from big name opponents while trying to maximize the home field advantage.

A recent sellout at Northwestern's Ryan Field was more than 50% Ohio State fans. Oklahoma State (68th with 80% capacity: 48,133) is facing this very scenario with a controversial approach they announced before the season in which fans can only get tickets for the OU-OSU Bedlam game on November 29 by purchasing season tickets. Oklahoma fans would have to pay $980 minimum to get four seats to the game, which is honorable in intent but likely negative short term on the bottom line.

The term "value" will become ubiquitous in all ticket package marketing in 2009, but with fewer disposable dollars and increased competition from every sport, I believe the programs in proximity to major metropolitan areas (BC, Northwestern, Pitt, UCLA, Georgia Tech, Minnesota) will be tasked with an uphill battle. For many, season tickets to Ol' State U are up there with death and taxes as the only certainties in life, but with only 68 of the FBS schools operating at 80% or above of capacity there are precious seats to fill and even more precious dollars being left at the table. Athletic programs will have to be more creative and efficient in their marketing than ever and the scary part is that is the part of the equation they control.

A down year in the won-loss column heading into 2009 is the perfect storm of a potential downward attendance spiral.

Lake The Posts is an anonymous site dedicated to die-hard Northwestern football fans. The name pays homage to the pre-Barnett era Cats, whose rare wins were marked by ripping down the goal posts, marching them down Central Street and tossing them into Lake Michigan (a feat known as "laking"). You can find the blog at www.laketheposts.com.

Questions? Comments? SportsBiz@cnbc.com

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