OPINION: Wisconsin Ticket Buyers a 'Studio Audience'

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The Capital Times (Madison, Wisconsin)
PAUL FANLUND , The Capital Times , [email protected]

Jim Delany, the $3-million-a-year commissioner of Big Ten athletics, was the central figure in a big New York Times story last week about the conference's rapid and lucrative expansion.

Headlined "The Big Ten's Bigger Footprint," it chronicled how Delany has led the conference in producing $315 million in revenue in the fiscal year that ended in June 2012, more than any other conference.

Fueled mostly by television money, that was more than even the vaunted SEC, the Southeastern Conference, which has outperformed the Big Ten on the football field but not at the bank.

Earlier this year, Forbes magazine described the Big Ten as the "cash king" of college sports: "As things tend to go in sports these days, it's all about live television. In fact, television revenue is essentially the sole driving factor in conference value, while income from bowl games and basketball tournaments has been relegated to a rounding error."

In the Times' story, there was one unguarded quote from Delany that captured it best. The backdrop was that Delany was recruiting two schools - Rutgers and Maryland - to join the Big Ten in order to open lucrative television markets in the New York City and Washington, D.C., regions.

During the negotiations, Maryland's president, Wallace Loh, said he asked Delany about the limited seating capacity at Maryland's football stadium. Loh said Delany was reassuring: "He told me it's no longer butts on seats, but eyeballs on screens."

That's not exactly in sync with an email to football season ticket holders from UW Athletic Director Barry Alvarez in recent days announcing a price increase of $3 per ticket: "The revenue we generate from ticket sales plays a significant role in our ability to maintain a nationally competitive athletic program."

TV's pre-eminence is hard to miss for those who attend games and have experienced incremental changes first hand. From longer and more frequent commercial breaks to odd starting times, most every change seems tied to fueling telecast revenue, including adding schools such as Rutgers and Maryland.

To many season ticket buyers, I stipulate that none of this may matter.

And to be fair, for a sheer ear-splitting, in-person thrill, it would be hard to top the 97-yard opening kickoff return against then top-ranked Ohio State in 2010 or the almost half-court, buzzer-beating shot by Badgers guard Ben Brust last season that tied the basketball game against Michigan, a game UW won in overtime.

Then too, for all the mega-dollars, there remains something charmingly quaint around UW's revenue sports programs.

Basketball coach Bo Ryan consistently recruits and coaches old-school players who compete hard, behave impeccably on and off the court, and then graduate. And almost everyone I talk to - actually everyone, come to think of it -has good things to say about football coach Gary Andersen for his earnest, good-guy persona and in-game coaching acumen. Men's and women's hockey, with their passionate but niche fan bases, seem to follow that overall pattern of wholesomeness, as do the so-called non-revenue sports.

UW's old-school sports credentials look especially good if you follow ESPN.com, where the content digest is often crammed with items about outlandish trash talk, fines for on-field behavior and criminal charges for off-field conduct. Remove the general categories of thuggish behavior and injuries and there often would be little left.

Still, the question for me is, do UW ticket buyers mind being increasingly treated as a studio audience?

To combat this perception, UW officials talk about the "game-day experience." They have changed the longtime concession vendor, they say, to offer more, albeit pricier, choices. They've amped the audio and visual stimulation through high-tech scoreboards and light displays and loud music.

Search as I might, I could not find reliable metrics of the increasing length of college football and basketball games to accommodate the required commercials, but the breaks seem longer and more frequent as time passes.

And then there is the matter of starting times.

Early season home football games tend to start at 11 a.m., accentuating the in-person discomfort from the late-summer sun. The 2:30 kickoffs come late in the season, so attendees feel the full effect of the after-dark chill.

In basketball, television dictates that the big weeknight games start at 8 p.m. so they are the second half of a 6 p.m.-8 p.m. doubleheader, which is fine for television viewers but makes it likely that the live spectator will arrive home at 11 p.m. or later. This season, all five Big Ten weeknight home basketball games start at 8, as did UW's nationally televised victory over Florida. The weeknight games against lesser teams typically start at a more fan-friendly 7 p.m.

Costs, of course, have also crept up. While Alvarez carefully frames the football ticket boost as the first in four years and only the second increase in the past eight, the mandatory Badger Fund contribution for better seats has increased and so has the cost of parking.

At the same time, the quality of the television experience has vastly improved through better and cheaper high-definition equipment, enhanced camera angles and replay features.

I suspect some will react to this column by suggesting that I and others of my ilk should surrender our tickets and make way for a new, younger audience.

That, I think, is a fair point. It may even be the unstated goal of UW officials who might not mind freeing up premier seating dominated by longtime season ticket holders. Instead of "stand up, old people," as the Grateful Red student section at the Kohl Center sometimes chants, there may be a "stand up and leave" wish, at least by some.

I wonder, though, whether there is really huge pent-up ticket demand by this new generation because those fans have always had TV access to virtually all important games.

As a football and basketball ticket buyer, I would happily - even silently - endure all of this if I believed the television revenue made a difference to Jared Abbrederis, Chris Borland, Josh Gasser or Brust, just a few of the UW athletes I watch and admire.

Unfortunately, it feels like the devolving in-person experience mostly benefits people like Delany.

"The hypocrisy is that money that's generated makes a few people very, very rich," James Duderstadt, former president of the University of Michigan, told the New York Times. "Athletic directors, coaches, assistant coaches, commissioners, too. But institutions are not winning and student-athletes get very little."

Which, in my view, makes the gradual change a bit harder to accept.


STEVE APPS/WISCONSIN STATE JOURNAL At UW, television seems to trump the sports ticket buyer. Above, ESPN sets up for a broadcast from Bascom Hill in 2011.
December 12, 2013




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