As of Monday evening, Virginia Tech had sold a little over 9,500 of its 17,500 ticket allotment to the Sugar Bowl, a number that is only slightly higher than the 9,200 the school announced last Friday. So it’s clear ticket sales — at least through the school — are slowing to a crawl at this point.
It’s unclear what the final total will be by Jan. 3, when the Hokies and Wolverines meet in the Superdome. There are, after all, three weeks until the Sugar Bowl is played. It’s unlikely, however, at least based on the trend in sales, that Tech will sell out its allotment.
Given the reasoning for the Hokies’ inclusion to the Sugar Bowl — the program’s upstanding reputation and a fan base that will travel to watch — it is a potential black eye for a program that has worked hard to establish itself. Some national columnists have already taken aim at Virginia Tech, and, quite honestly, it’s justifiable. (Tech didn’t help its case with Monday’s email about proxy tickets, which came across as a desperate plea to boost sales. I’ve been told the school has only sold a handful. Honestly, I can’t imagine there was any thought from the school’s higher-ups that this would lead to a rush on tickets, despite how it looks.)
Why the slow sales? I plan to write something more substantial for the newspaper later this week after getting some feedback from Tech officials and those more knowledgeable of the ticket market than I, but there are a few theories:
The secondary market: Yes, I know this is a factor for every bowl. And this is not saying that Tech fans are craftier than other fan bases in finding cheaper tickets. But the price difference from going through the school and going through a site like StubHub is substantial and can’t be overlooked.
Buying the cheapest tickets through Virginia Tech costs $120. The cheapest seats on StubHub are going for $55 right now. As fellow scribe David Teel pointed out, for a group of four, that extra $260 buys a lot of hurricanes and gumbo on Bourbon Street.
In recent Orange Bowls, despite poor ticket sales, Tech has had at least a decent showing in Miami, proving that far more fans are buying through the secondary market than the school. This year, Virginia Tech might have inadvertently forced their hand, delaying sales to the general public until the Friday after the bowl announcement, a curious decision that seems like it pushed those wanting to finalize their plans early to the secondary market.
Fans are savvy when it comes to this kind of stuff. And I find it interesting that while Michigan is clearly ahead of Tech as far as ticket sales (14,500 as of Monday morning, according to reports), even it, with its BCS-starved fans and giant alumni base, hasn’t sold out its allotment yet. I don’t expect a shortage of Wolverines fans in New Orleans come New Year’s, so it makes me wonder if they too are seeking cheaper alternatives to the $120-$140 tickets available through the schools.
The logistics of a trip: I’ve seen many a tweet about Kansas State and Arkansas’ rush on Cotton Bowl tickets as proof that the Wildcats should have been chose for the Sugar Bowl instead of the Hokies. Kansas State reportedly sold out its 12,500-ticket allotment before the bowl was announced. Tickets are so in demand for the Cotton Bowl that the cheapest on StubHub are going for $219.99. Only the BCS title game ($1,299 for the cheapest seat) is a tougher ticket right now of the bowl games.
But directly comparing the Cotton Bowl and Sugar Bowl is misleading. For starters, the distance from Dallas to Manhattan, Kan., (493 miles, 8.5 hours) and Fayetteville, Ark., (331 miles, 5.5 hours) makes it possible for fans to drive. The drive from Blacksburg to New Orleans is 835 miles or 13.5 hours (for Hokies fans in D.C., tack on another four hours), necessitating a plane trip. Airfare, even immediately after the game was announced, was pricey and would be a hard sell even in a good economy.
The day of the game: The game’s date doesn’t help matters. The Cotton Bowl takes place on Friday, Jan. 6, allowing for a weekend getaway if fans choose to go. The Sugar Bowl takes place on Tuesday, Jan. 3, an awkward day during the middle of the week and far enough removed from New Year’s that many fans wouldn’t be able to use holiday time to attend (the Federal calendar designates Jan. 2 as a holiday, since New Year’s Day falls on a Sunday). This is surely a boon to TV ratings, since the Sugar Bowl will be the only game on that night, but I’d imagine it affects attendance negatively.
Bowl dates seem to be affecting other games as well. West Virginia, another program whose fan base has a reputation for showing up en masse, has sold 5,700 of its allotment to the Orange Bowl according to reports. I’ve not seen an update on Clemson’s ticket sales, but according to its athletics website, tickets are still available for purchase through the school. The Orange Bowl takes place the night after the Sugar Bowl on a Wednesday, even further removed from the weekend. Is it any wonder the lowest-priced tickets for that game on StubHub are the cheapest of the BCS bowls at $35?
What’s the fallout? The financial hit for Virginia Tech is a non-factor. The ACC picks up the tab on unsold tickets once a school hits the 8,000 mark, and the league more than makes up for it with the massive bowl payouts shared among the league’s members.
The biggest hit, fair or not, will come to the reputation of Virginia Tech’s fans if the allotment is not met. The Hokies were in the spotlight with their controversial selection for a BCS bowl. As a result, they’re facing a higher scrutiny than most bowl teams for their ticket sales (especially given the Sugar Bowl’s reasoning for selecting them).
While lagging sales to Miami in recent years could be attributed to hum-drum matchups and an “Orange Bowl fatigue” from having been there three times in four years, neither of those qualify this year. And while there are plenty of reasons for struggling sales mentioned above, it probably will do little to change the negative perception surrounding Virginia Tech’s travel reputation, even if Hokies fans show up in large numbers in New Orleans next month.
This is not meant as an excuse for Virginia Tech’s ticket numbers so far, just to look deeper into why they’ve been slow.
To end this, I’ll submit these questions to readers of this blog: If you’re going to the game, did you buy tickets through outlets other than the school, and if so, why? To others not attending who might have in past years, any particular reason? Feel free to answer in the comments section.