Three Reasons – Unrelated to the CFP – Why Bowl Game Ticket Sales Are Depressed
The Fiesta Bowl (Ohio State-Clemson) and Peach Bowl (LSU-Oklahoma) - the two college football playoff games – are sold out, but those two games are the only two this bowl season to be declared as such. On the other end of the spectrum, according to StubHub, fans can get into Sugar Bowl (Georgia-Baylor, $6), Cotton Bowl (Penn State-Memphis, $15), Sun Bowl (Arizona State-Florida State, $19) and Las Vegas Bowl (Washington-Boise State, $19) for less than a $20. While the common narrative says that the CFP cannibalized interest in the remainder of college football’s postseason, Eventellect co-founder Patrick Ryan points to a trio of issues that collectively have eroded the bowl game ticketing market over the last couple of years - none of which are on-field related.
Howie Long-Short: Ryan calls the viability (or lack thereof) of upper bowl seats - which compete with and are losing the battle to television - “the biggest problem. If a fan is going to travel from Texas to New Orleans to see Baylor play Georgia, the cost of their game ticket is going to be a small percentage of their overall spend (think: airfare, hotel, f&b, souvenirs); and a fan willing to shell out all of that money [traveling to a football game], also likely has the disposable income to buy a good seat.” As a result, while a ducket on the 50-yard line behind the Baylor bench commands over $500, fans can get into the building for as little as $6. Ryan says that most “mid-major and larger” bowl games are experiencing a similar dynamic (i.e. good seats are holding value; bad seats are selling for pennies on the dollar) – albeit to a lesser degree. Bowls could look to solve the issue by moving into smaller venues, but that’s not necessary. Instead, they should consider ‘virtual tarping’ - or acting as if the worst 25,000 seats (assumes the venue seats 70,000) don’t exist. “The worst seats shouldn’t be made available for sale until the better sections are sold and if suddenly the matchup changes and there is greater demand, the bowl game can start selling additional rows. This takes some analytics and planning, but it’s certainly viable as some professional teams have successfully implemented the strategy.”
Bowl games have struggled to sell ‘uppers’ for “several years now” (i.e. prior to the move to the CFP format). The problematic landscape really began to take shape with the rise of the secondary market (see: StubHub). Ryan explained, “15 years ago, season ticket holders would fill out a purchase form for post-season tickets and hope that they received a lower bowl seat; but, they were booking travel regardless of where their ticket was going to end up.” Once the secondary market took hold, “fans that ended up with upper bowl seats and wanted to upgrade would do so and then they would just sell their upper deck tickets at a loss. The next iteration of that was fans deciding not to purchase bowl game tickets from the school, instead opting to go directly to the secondary market so that they could choose exactly where they want to sit.” Remember, most of the tickets the schools receive that are sold to alumni are in less desirable locations. Bowls could help themselves by improving school allocations. While it would take some time, eventually fans would become reconditioned to fill out their form again and buy primary.
The bowls’ desire to mitigate risk has also been a contributing factor in the depressed pricing for upper-level tickets to the postseason exhibitions. By pre-selling large allotments to resale providers, the bowls gave up control over their inventory. While not an issue for an elite matchup, it becomes a serious problem “when a bowl draws less desirable teams because then the brokers end up just liquidating their tickets.” Ryan said that a handful of bowls have begun relying on advanced data and analytics to gain comfort with “selling fewer tickets to resellers and foregoing some of that upfront revenue in exchange for having more control over pricing overall.” While a smaller secondary market position could certainly result in fewer tickets sold, without it undercutting pricing so aggressively the bowl game is more likely to sell their remaining tickets closer to face value resulting in a net positive.
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