Conventional wisdom suggests that selling football tickets to sports fans in Texas is similar to peddling sugar-coated snacks to kindergartners.
An insatiable appetite exists unless there are complications in the marketplace.
For a youngster with a hard-to-satisfy sweet tooth, that is where parents and guardians enter the picture to prevent over-consumption. For sports fans, other factors come into play.
At the top of the list: cost.
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The poverty rate in the U.S. is 14.8 percent, with 46.7 million Americans falling into that category, according to a 2015 report by the U.S. Census Bureau. A study by the Federal Reserve released in May 2015 showed 47 percent of Americans could not handle a $400 emergency expense without selling a possession or borrowing money.
To put that into a sports perspective, $400 would not get a family of four into AT&T Stadium to sit in average-priced seats to watch a Dallas Cowboys game. The Cowboys, at $110.20 per ticket, had the fourth-highest average ticket cost among NFL teams last season, according to Statista. The NFL average was $85.83 per ticket, topped by the New York Giants ($123.40). The league’s least-expensive average seat, $57.65, was sold by the Jacksonville Jaguars.
On the secondary market, the average resale price of a Cowboys ticket is $416.
Similar pricing structures exist in other professional and college sports, often with additional fees for parking near the stadium. Many teams increase ticket prices on an annual basis while the purchasing power of the average sports fan has regressed in recent years.
The disparity between those two financial realities, combined with recent enhancements in the packaging of sports telecasts, causes some within the sports industry to wonder if we’ll get to the point where fans stop buying tickets at today’s sellout levels common for high-profile events.
“I think that’s a possibility,” said Lance Barrow, a Fort Worth resident who is CBS Sports’ coordinating producer for golf and NFL football telecasts. “I think price points could be an issue. In our case, that would be great, selfishly, from a TV perspective. But I don’t want to see that happen. There’s nothing like going to a game.”
Barrow, a 12-time Emmy Award winner in his 40th year with the network, is a self-described “sports nut” who loves the adrenaline rush of being inside the stadium at high-profile events. He’s often a spectator in the stands at college football games or Texas Rangers baseball games in his spare time. But he understands the challenge involved, in terms of time and finances, to pull off a family outing at a Cowboys game or a tailgate session with friends before games at TCU, Texas, Texas A&M or Texas Tech.
“You have to plan all day to go to a football game or most any other sporting event and, with little kids, that can be difficult,” Barrow said. “You don’t really just show up, buy a ticket and walk in. It’s usually hard to get tickets. But, with that said, thank goodness they still do it.”
The lingering question: Will they continue doing it in the future?
Even football is struggling
While many indicators remain strong, we’ve seen recent cracks in selected areas that could provide cause for alarm. A few of those cracks involve football in the Lone Star State, an area of unparalleled fan interest.
At the University of Texas, the Longhorns completed the 2015 football season with an average home attendance of 90,035 per game and zero sellouts in Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium (capacity of 100,119). While that still ranked 10th nationally among the nation’s FBS football programs, it marked Texas’ lowest attendance figure since 2007, when the team averaged 85,114 per game in the final season before the venue was expanded to accommodate six-digit crowds.
Attendance rebounded early in 2016, which included a record 102,315 for the Notre Dame game.
The attendance drop in 2015 followed an across-the-board price increase of 6 percent for tickets, with a spike of 31 percent for some premium seats. The cost increases were announced six months before the season opener, suggesting the increased price points played a role in some fans’ decisions.
The team hasn’t averaged more than 100,000 fans since the 2012 season, when the team averaged 100,881 per game. Included was a 2010 season when Texas averaged 100,654 fans for seven home games and posted a 5-7 record. In 2015, the same record was greeted with 10,619 fewer fans per game.
Joe Mulry, a Houston resident and Texas graduate, has a four-person family full of Longhorns fans. But he has not been to a football game in Austin since the 2013 opener against New Mexico State, in large part because of cost.
We’d love to go more often. But it’s always tough with a family of four, when the starting prices are close to $100 per ticket and you’re talking about nosebleed seats.
Texas Longhorns fan Joe Mulroy of Houston
Mulry said the school lost lots of ticket sales among young families when it stopped offering $5 seats in the north end zone through a promotional program with a local grocery store during the Mack Brown era and began charging full price for those seats ($65 per game via season-ticket pricing; $35 for single-game seats against UTEP, the lowest price point of the 2016 season). Other seat locations are more expensive.
“We’d love to go more often. But it’s always tough with a family of four, when the starting prices are close to $100 per ticket and you’re talking about nosebleed seats,” Mulry said. “You mix in travel costs and a hotel and you’re looking at close to $1,000 and that’s a lot. That might fly when the team is 11-1, but not when you’re 5-7. To me, it’s more about the price than the record.”
In turn, it may take awhile before Houston residents have another chance to watch the UIL state championship football games in their town. At last year’s three-day event, combined attendance for the sessions at NRG Stadium in Houston was 156,143. That’s roughly 100,000 below the number of spectators who took in the same number of contests in 2014 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. To no one’s surprise, the UIL announced in May that the 2016 contests will be returning to Arlington.
While there are recent examples of football attendance spikes, led by Texas A&M’s 103,622 average last season in a refurbished Kyle Field that ranked third among FBS colleges, lots of other examples suggest the sports bubble could be close to bursting as costs escalate.
Average attendance for college bowl games, which typically requires travel by fans from both teams, is down by 17 percent since the 2009 season. Half-filled arenas for teams in the nation’s primary professional spectator sports (football, baseball, basketball, hockey), a fairly regular occurrence, can be traced to robust average ticket prices for teams in the NFL ($85.83), NHL ($62.18), NBA ($55.88) and Major League Baseball ($31).
Motorsports off 2000s peak
Individual sports have taken hits as well. Attendance revenues fell 45 percent from 2005 to 2015 at International Speedway Corp., which owns 13 tracks and earns 89 percent of its revenue from NASCAR events. Included among its notable venues are Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Speedway.
A comparable drop unfolded at Speedway Motorsports, which operates eight tracks, including Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. Attendance revenues were down by 43 percent during the same period, based on the company’s SEC filings, with a 28 percent drop between 2010 and 2015.
Marcus Smith, president and CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc., downplayed the significance of the recent numbers.
NASCAR had a fantastic run in the 1990s and 2000s, and we hit a bump in the road right at the same time as the recession. But now we’re in a positive trend.
Marcus Smith, president and CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc., the operator of Texas Motor Speedway
“If you look back over the last couple of decades, all sports have gone through ups and downs,” Smith said. “NASCAR had a fantastic run in the 1990s and 2000s, and we hit a bump in the road right at the same time as the recession. But now we’re in a positive trend.”
Similarly, TMS struggled with attendance at its rain-delayed Indy Car race in June. Track officials hoped to draw 65,000 for the Firestone 600, but the number of actual race-day attendees appeared to be about half that number. The small turnout did not dampen the enthusiasm of TMS President Eddie Gossage, who saw the race suspended after 71 laps before being completed on Aug. 27.
“This is the nature of things when you do this sport,” Gossage said. “Our company [Speedway Motorsports] is big, strong, healthy. We’ll carry on. We’ll be fine. I’m not worried about it. It’s frustrating to us. But what can you do? You cannot beat Mother Nature.”
Challenges for colleges
Perhaps the biggest ongoing slide among high-profile sports involves men’s college basketball, where the average crowd for an NCAA Division I home game has dropped for nine consecutive years. The average attendance has fallen by 583 fans per game since reaching 5,327 for the 2006-07 season, the last year to show an increase among Division I programs.
Last year’s average fell to 4,744 per contest, meaning 96,097 fewer fans attended games across the nation’s 346 Division I programs than during the previous season. The shortfall came with accompanying drops in TV ratings and attendance for the 2016 NCAA basketball tournament, which drew 35,944 fewer fans than the 2015 tournament across all venues.
Although he remains bullish on the future of his sport, the recent drops in attendance and ratings have caught the attention of Dan Gavitt, NCAA vice president of men’s basketball championships. Asked about the biggest challenge for his sport and the NCAA Tournament going forward, Gavitt said “overall popularity.” He also cited a troubling trend for college administrators in all sports.
NBA fans are much younger and more diverse. As the years go by, do you [college basketball] lose your audience
Dan Gavitt, NCAA vice president of men’s basketball championships
“When you compare college basketball fans as a demographic to NBA fans, it’s a much older group. NBA fans are much younger and more diverse. As the years go by, do you lose your audience?” Gavitt said.
“The challenge is to know where the demographic trends are and how you invite younger fans back to the game. That demographic is going to be so important to our future.”
Young fans were scarce in the Northern Iowa rooting section for an NCAA Tournament game against Texas A&M on March 20 in Oklahoma City. Drew Marchesani, a freshman from Cedar Rapids, was one of the few students among a group of 500 UNI supporters who bought tickets through the school for the games at Chesapeake Energy Arena. He was in attendance, he said, only because his father footed the bill for the trip.
“There’s not a lot of students. There’s a few here and there. But it’s too expensive for most of us,” he said. “It’s mostly the middle-aged fan crowd. A lot of alumni.”
A similar scenario played out during a Feb. 1 basketball game in Waco between Baylor and Texas. Baylor was ranked No. 17 in the nation, with Texas also receiving votes in The Associated Press poll at that time.
But the game fell far short of a sellout despite tickets on sale for as low as $10 at the gate. Only 10 students were lined up to enter the arena when the doors opened 90 minutes before tipoff. Plenty of good seats remained in the Baylor student section at tipoff and throughout the contest.
The same challenge to attract and keep millennials applies to college football, where the majority of ticket buyers are graduates of the school. Surveys show the majority of young males identify more with NFL football than college football, in large part because many have fantasy teams that require them to follow the NFL on a more fervent level. Mix in the rising cost to attend college football games and there is concern among administrators that today’s students are not tracking on a path to become tomorrow’s hard-core fans and boosters.
“The shift in our country is happening overall,” Gavitt said. “We need to recognize it and work our way toward it. Those are long-term challenges.”
‘It’s too expensive’
For every team in every sport, the won-loss record can be the biggest challenge in sustaining a fan base. A winning streak generates interest and sells tickets. A losing streak diminishes demand even if tickets are not priced at debilitating levels. For most fans, the purchasing decision comes down to balancing the bang-for-the-buck experience at the ballpark against other options.
That was the choice after the 2013 season for Fort Worth resident Brann Jeter, an occasional season-ticket purchaser for Texas Rangers and Dallas Stars games dating to 1997. Jeter had a 20-game plan with the Rangers for the 2012 season, which followed back-to-back World Series appearances by the team in 2010 and 2011.
Jeter deemed 2012 a “great year” to have that option because he could attend all the games he wanted and peddle tickets to other games for a premium on StubHub. So he renewed the option for the 2013 season, when the Rangers finished second to Oakland in the American League West and lost a tiebreaking 163rd game to the Tampa Bay Rays to determine which team reached the playoffs as a wild-card participant. But the resale market was not as friendly that season.
“I couldn’t even sell my unwanted tickets on StubHub at face value,” Jeter said. “It was a pretty big cash outlay all at once for 20 games. But until I couldn’t unload the ones I didn’t want, it was bearable.”
For all fans, “bearable” comes at different price points. At a late-season Rangers game in 2016, several fans made it clear they feel strapped by the cost of watching live sporting events.
You want me to pay double the price of a ticket I bought six years ago because the Rangers went to the World Series?
Rangers fan James Abel, 34, of Borger
James Abel, 34, traveled from Borger (near Amarillo) to watch a recent Rangers game as a birthday present from his girlfriend, Whitney McLoud. The couple paid $156 per seat on StubHub for tickets behind home plate with a face value of $53 each.
“I used to go to 15 to 20 games a year. But now, maybe two or three. It’s too expensive,” Abel said. “We really can’t do that anymore. Some of it is about affording it. But some of it just pissed me off. You want me to pay double the price of a ticket I bought six years ago because the Rangers went to the World Series?”
Rangers tickets, on average, remain among the least expensive among MLB teams ($23.64 per seat, ranking 26th among the 30 franchises). If Abel finds their prices excessive, how does he feel about paying $110.20 for an average-priced seat to watch the Cowboys?
“I won’t even go to that stadium,” he said. “I’ll keep rooting for the Cowboys, but I’m never going to that stadium.”
Rob Blakeley, a Bedford resident, said he does not find the Rangers’ ticket-pricing structure excessive.
“Not really. It’s the economy,” Blakeley said. “It’s the way it is.”
He said he would attend more games if the ticket prices were lower, but his fiancée, Krista, had an issue with food prices at concessions stands.
“Game-wise, I don’t have a problem spending $100 for us two to come out,” she said. “But when you’re spending another $60 to $70 on food it kind of makes it a bummer.”
Staff writer Drew Davison contributed to this report.