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Copyright 2013 Charleston Newspapers
Charleston Gazette (West Virginia)

Admit it. We in West Virginia just don't handle change well - even when the rest of the country has done so.

The latest such example is West Virginia University's reseating of those holding basketball season tickets in the Coliseum. Basically, for the first time in the arena's history, all season-ticket holders were removed from their previous seats and reseated under a system that rewarded higher donors to the Mountaineer Athletic Club.

Since then there have been grumbles. Some are pointing to the plan to explain the low number of people turning out for WVU men's games.

After a surprising 8,336 attended the Mountaineers' opening-night game against Mount St. Mary's, the average attendance plunged to just over 5,150. For the Georgia Southern game, WVU drew but 4,814. For the Loyola game, the number dropped to 4,692.

In a word, yikes.

Emails began to trickle to my computer.

"We are spiraling down like Pitt," read one. "WVU in both sports. The average fan senses the elitism from changes in parking to ticket surcharges to seat availability changes."

"What impact has the Coliseum Reseating Plan had on attendance?'' another asked. "What were this year's season-ticket sales vs. last year? I have a feeling that season-ticket sales are down as a result. I know a lot of people (us included) who did not renew."

So I did some research. First, I spoke with WVU athletic director Oliver Luck.

"The early small crowds are a phenomenon around the country," Luck said. "I've talked to other ADs. You'd have to ask those that didn't renew why, but I don't think reseating had that much to do with it.

"I think it's a general malaise across college basketball. The lack of student attendance is a serious issue, whether it's here or Ohio State or Michigan. We're concerned about it."

Luck said he'd like to put in place an "outbound sales office" to try and generate more season-ticket sales, but said "it's too early to push the panic button."

Surely, WVU will draw a nice crowd when Gonzaga hits Morgantown on Tuesday. But let's get to the numbers.

According to Matt Borman, executive director of the MAC, the total season-ticket sales of last season numbered 7,431. This season, the number is 5,798.

One has to keep in mind the Mountaineers finished an ugly 13-19 in the 2012-13 season. Also, despite the housecleaning by WVU coach Bob Huggins, potential standouts Jonathan Holton and Elijah Macon were deemed unavailable for this season.

But did the reseating also play a major role?

"We don't think reseating had anything to do with the 4,000 attendance figures," Borman said. "The total of Mountaineer Athletic Club gifts from those that purchased men's basketball season tickets last season was $8,079,240. The total from this year was $9,706,320.

"Last year, we had 1,186 MAC members purchase men's basketball tickets. This year, we had 1,218."

So, while overall season-ticket sales dropped by 1,633, it's easy to understand why administrators believe it wasn't because of the reseating plan. The number of those donating - and mostly affected by the plan - went up by 33, and the school actually raised $1,627,080 more this year than last.

"To say we raised more money but sold less overall season tickets sounds negative, but it's not," Borman said. "We just had a situation where certain individuals owned a large number of tickets and seats. We were hoping by implementing the plan we'd encourage people to join the MAC and buy season tickets with a more fair and equitable process.

"We had a retention rate on MAC season-ticket holders of 78 percent. We had 294 new MAC season-ticket holders buying 766 tickets. From those numbers, I'd say, no, the reseating plan hasn't hurt us."

Change, though, is rarely embraced in these parts.

"Feedback was all over the board," Borman said. "Some were upset they were being moved. But some were glad we were putting in a process that rewarded them with seats that represented the type of donations they were giving."

In short, the process limits the number of people who can piggyback or bogart off wealthier donors. The big-money donors, of course, still get primo seats. But for a $25,000 donation they are limited to four VIP seats and a total of 10 lower-level seats. A $6,500 donation allows one to secure four lower-level seats.

You can, of course, still get lower-level seats without the donations, but nothing is guaranteed and won't be held.

By the way, if you want to know how common reseating plans are, do the easiest bit of research possible: Google the words. I quickly found schools like Purdue, Memphis, Michigan State and Minnesota reseat - but also schools like Rhode Island, Old Dominion, Wyoming and James Madison. Marquette does so every two years.

It has, though, been a change, and that change is a bit difficult to understand. The bottom line, though, is the reseating plan probably really hasn't had much of an effect on WVU attendance.

Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, mitchvingle@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.

 

December 9, 2013

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