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Amid Sluggish Bowl Sales, Bid-Less ECU Goes 'Virtual'

Paul Steinbach

Another college football bowl season is upon us, with three games scheduled for tomorrow. By the time it all ends Jan. 9, 35 games and 35 champions will have been decided. Seventy teams - including one (UCLA) with a losing record - will compete in the 2011-12 postseason, matching last year's record number.

And like last year, some teams are struggling to sell tickets. As of Wednesday afternoon, Penn State had sold less than half of the 6,500 tickets it was allotted for the, ahem, TicketCity Bowl, to be played Jan. 2 in Dallas. But that shortfall is somewhat understandable in light of the university's recent PR problems. Michigan State, which came painfully close to winning the inaugural Big Ten Championship game, had sold only about 5,000 of its 11,500-ticket allotment as of Monday for the Jan. 2 Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla. Lingering fan disappointment in a destination other than the Rose Bowl has been cited as a leading reason.

For one program, sluggish ticket sales have become as bankable a concept as the annual bowl bid itself. Virginia Tech didn't come close to selling its allotment of Orange Bowl tickets the past two seasons, and a change of venue didn't help this year's sales effort. As of Monday, the Hokies had sold only 9,337 of their allotted 17,500 tickets to the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

Then there's East Carolina University, which has no destination to sell. But the fact that the Pirates didn't receive a bowl bid hasn't stopped the East Carolina Pirates Club from selling tickets anyway. The club recently sent the following e-mail to members:

Our East Carolina University Pirate football team had an exciting season but fell one game short of qualifying for the program's sixth straight bowl game. The Pirate football team is in goods hands with Coach Ruffin McNeill and his staff. There is a tremendous amount of young talent and our program has a bright future. East Carolina University Athletics wants to show the college football world the passion of the Pirate Nation, even in a "bowless" [sic] year for the university. The Pirate Club is excited to announce the 2011 Virtual Bowl. Our challenge will be to sell more tickets than our bowl-bound Conference USA opponents and bowl-bound teams from the Big East. The Virtual Bowl appeal will go through December 23. Tickets for the Virtual Bowl are $50 apiece and can be purchase by calling the Pirate Club Offices at 252-737-4540 or by going online at ecupirateclub.com. Virtual Bowl tickets purchased will be tax-deductable and donors will receive one priority point for every ticket purchased. All proceeds from the Virtual Bowl will go towards the "Step-Up To The Highest Level Campaign". Go Pirates!

The larger campaign seeks to fund construction of a basketball practice facility and hall of fame, with a goal of $15 million. Heading into today, more than $6,800 worth of "Virtual" tickets had been sold.

"Pirate fans are so passionate that they'll do anything, and this is just another way that they can show their passion and support. It's just an additional fundraising idea that has been very positive," says Matt Maloney, assistant athletic director for major gifts. "Just a few minutes ago, I took an order from one of our baseball letter-winners, who bought two. I told him I can guarantee him 50-yard-line seats."

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