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KNOXVILLE - Less than five months after Tennessee recorded its lowest football attendance in 33 years, more than 61,000 Volunteers fans watched new coach Butch Jones' first spring game.
Less than five weeks before the Vols' season opener, though, there hasn't been a large uptick in season-ticket sales despite Jones' recruiting success and the offseason of positive vibes he and his staff have generated.
With individual game tickets and two- and three-game packages now on sale, UT expects to fall short of the number of season tickets it sold last season, though the athletic department has had better funding than it anticipated.
"I don't expect that we'll get to the number we finished last year at on the season-ticket side, but the interesting thing will be, and I've said this pretty repeatedly, I've never seen our fans not respond when they're challenged," said Chris Fuller, UT's associate athletic director for external operations.
"I think the challenge we'll send to our fans is we've been winning the offseason: Help us not only show our appreciation for what this new coaching staff's doing, but help us really make sure that Neyland Stadium is there home-field advantage we expect it to be every time out."
Tickets down, funds up
As of Wednesday UT sits at 57,300 season tickets sold, more than 2,000 fewer than last season. Sales for premium seating are stronger, as UT has sold 98 percent of its luxury-box seating and around 85 percent combined for the West Club, East Club and Tennessee Terrace sections.
The Vols' overall season-ticket sales have dropped by more than 10,000 since 2009, and last season's average attendance (89,965) was the program's lowest since 1979.
Yet Fuller, who's worked in UT's athletic department since 2004, said the numbers for UT's annual fund, which goes directly into the department's operating budget, are "significantly higher" than the $22.4 million projection.
"I attribute all of that to Butch and his staff," he said. "I think people are invested emotionally in what they're doing. We're still a little bit behind on the ticket sales side. You haven't seen it there, but I think that's less of a reflection on our coaching staff and more of a reflection of the change in the landscape. We don't have a wildly attractive home schedule this year.
"What's been interesting is I think what we've seen people do is they've made their donation, they've invested [and] they might not have bought as many tickets on a season basis, because I think what's happening, too, is, 'Hey, I can pick and choose a little bit in terms of what games I go to.'
"There's been a little bit of change in the landscape of ticket sales -- not just here but everywhere in terms of that regard. I tend to look at the number on the annual fund donation as more of an indicator of the enthusiasm that Coach Jones has created. I think where we're at on ticket sales right now is probably a little bit more of a reflection on our schedule and access in general."
UT is fighting the same fight many leagues, franchises and college programs nationally are facing. More fans are deciding to stay home and enjoy live sports on big-screen high-definition televisions from the comfort of their own couches or recliners. Like everyone else, UT is searching for ways to get people to games and keep them coming, though a return to winning always helps.
"I think the reality in the ticket-sales landscape," Fuller said, "is it's not so much about the coach. It's about are you giving people enough reasons to experience the event live versus whatever other chosen medium, whether that's going out with friends and seeing it in a restaurant or a sports bar or it's sitting in your den and watching it in HD. Are we giving compelling enough reasons for people to come be part of it live?"
Season-ticket packages cost $370 (or $391 for chair-backed seats) with an annual donation ranging from $2,500 to $250 depending on the location of the seats. This season UT is offering season tickets for $300 without an annual donation, but those are available in rows 17 and higher in the upper deck above the south end zone.
One ticket package allows fans to choose from one of the two best home games (Georgia and South Carolina) and two others for $170 per ticket. Another package offers the choice of three of the other five home games (Austin Peay, Western Kentucky, South Alabama, Auburn and Vanderbilt) for $90. UT has done better in those packages than it has historically, Fuller said, as fans take advantage of having options.
UT plans to start having more "fan-experience meetings" aimed at finding ways to improve everything from traffic flow and parking to restrooms and ticket procedures, and the SEC now has a similar committee, chaired by Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin, as it faces a four-year leaguewide attendance decline.
Fuller called improved in-stadium phone connectivity "the biggest box we haven't been able to check off yet" and "the most immediately pressing issue" UT and others are facing. In May, the NFL announced it would provide in-stadium mobile access to its popular RedZone Channel, which features whip-around coverage for games across the league, for season-ticket holders. Fuller said he'd like to see more collaboration on a league level on that front.
"We're turning over every stone to try to figure out how to handle that financially," he said, "because that's a pretty big investment of infrastructure. ... I think it'd be really hard for [athletic director] Dave [Hart] and I to say, 'Hey, we're going to spend three and a half or four millions dollars right now to get the stadium wifi,' in light of the very well-documented financial struggles we've been having."
The Jones effect
In less than eight months as UT's coach, Jones has impressed fans with his work ethic and shown his marketing prowess, particularly in visual media such as the "Rise to the Top" website and other promotional videos.
He's been willing to work with UT's marketing and development staff and has been receptive to their ideas.
"I think what's been kind of cool is, because of the places he's been, he doesn't separate himself from any component of the program," Fuller said. "I think one of the things that can happen in the SEC is a coach may not feel like that's his deal. He may feel like, 'Hey, that's what you guys are for.'
"I don't get any of that sense from Butch. We have not overly burdened him, because we've wanted him to do exactly what he's been doing, which is recruit the players that are going to be part of the future, but there hasn't been anything that we've taken to him that he's been reluctant at all to help us do. I think he's got a roll-up-your-sleeves mentality, and ticket sales, as we get closer, we'll deploy him a little bit more in that space, and I think he'll be great in it."
UT explored moving a training-camp practice next month to "another market" or organizing an event for students, ideas that eventually led to the decision to open one August practice to the public.
Fuller said UT has conveyed to Jones that the Vols' fan base is the "most compelling asset we have," and developing a good relationship with them, perhaps best accomplished by winning games, ultimately improves ticket sales and attendance.
"I think our fan base is so impressed with what Coach and his staff have done, with how relentless they've been, and I think our state still has a lot of that blue-collar mentality that I think they're going to appreciate the work that they're putting in," Fuller said.
"I expect our attendance will be up, and I expect that once our fans see the way this team will play, and that's not to say I'm predicting we're an eight- or nine- or 10-win team, but I think the way we play will be very satisfying for our fans. They're going to see a path back to us being prominent in the league."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.