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Exploring The Fan Distribution Problem at NU-Ohio State

I am going to try to avoid spending too much time on the details of Saturday that have already been covered by others. The short version, as we all know, is that the students were magnificent while the adult fans were a big disappointment. Let’s break it down.

ESPN College GameDay – Students

I woke up at 2 AM on Saturday and shortly after found out via Twitter that there were close to 50 students in line by 2:30 AM. By the time I got there at 2:50 AM, there were at least 100 students. It seemed like 10 more came every minute. I quickly lost the ability to see the back of the line and estimates put the crowd in the neighborhood of 1,000 by 4 AM. The students, while sleep deprived, rather drunk, and fired up, kept themselves in check despite almost a complete lack of security or police presence. Eventually that presence grew a tiny bit at the front of the line, but it was clear that nobody, including the student body, anticipated this kind of turnout.

The original plan, according to the NU Wildside student group, was to have security open things up at 4:30 AM. Season ticket holders would then get access starting at 5:30 AM and Evanston residents at 5:45 AM, both with free passes that required the pass holder to be wearing purple. It would open to everyone at 6 AM.

This did not happen. The athletic department starting setting up food and t-shirts and finished roughly around 5:00 AM, but there was no movement in the line except for people starting to bunch up. The NU Wildside tweeted that ESPN security was late, so the gates didn’t open up until 5:30 AM. When they did, there was a huge surge from the back of the crowd that forced everyone up front into and sometimes over the barricades. There weren’t many people to control the situation, which seemed to last a good 10 minutes. Eventually things calmed down as the line started moving without much consequence, though I did see one person seek medical attention.

Aside from that, however, the students were fantastic. They showed up incredibly early, some even camping out overnight, and in huge numbers while bringing a lot of energy. The pit was full from people who arrived well before 4 AM and everyone else created a large crowd behind it.

ESPN College GameDay – Alumni and Season Ticket Holders 

Unfortunately, the adult fans were largely a no show. A significant number of alumni were in town for homecoming, the weather was perfect, parking was plentiful and free, and there was tons of space behind the pit (and later in the pit as students began to leave and be replaced by others, including a handful of Ohio State fans), yet very few alumni and season ticket holders showed up. Thankfully, even fewer Ohio State fans came, but what was a good crowd because of the students could have been a fantastic crowd if everyone did their part.

The overhead camera shots were strong and the administration was visibly excited throughout the show. There’s no doubt it was a huge success. It was a wonderful three hour advertisement for the team and school on a program that is seen by nearly two million people. But perhaps this was the first sign of trouble.

The Game – Students

The fact that students were turned away should not be surprising. This happens for big games. I don’t think I’ve seen so many students arrive quite so early, though. I got to my seat about 70 minutes prior to kickoff and the student section was already about half full with a long line of students outside waiting to get in. They must have rested up in the afternoon because they were quite loud throughout the game.

Why having a purple stadium matters

I won’t harp on this since the next section is long. We know that these kinds of games are the weekend on which both the football and basketball programs like to bring in recruits. Having visiting fans make up half of the crowd does not leave a good impression. It also looks terrible on TV. The TV cameras, both those up top and those on the sideline, are positioned on the west side looking east.

Over the summer, Paul Kennedy, Director of Communications for the athletics department, told me via Twitter that Northwestern has looked into the possibility of moving cameras to the east side to better capture the overwhelming purple crowd (at least 95% purple last year vs. Nebraska last year aside from the upper deck), but it would likely require having to move the broadcasters to the east side, as well. This is because the broadcasters need the same perspective as the cameras. Perhaps this is coming in the next round of renovations. We’ll just have to wait and see.

The Game – Alumni and Season Ticket Holders 

Before going any further, I’d suggest reading a previous post on the secondary market and how Northwestern attempted to keep tickets out of the hands of Ohio State fans.

The ratio of purple to Ohio State red was a significant disappointment. For the Nebraska game last year, I calculated about 54.3% purple to 45.7% Nebraska red. This was a section-by-section estimate, though admittedly still a bit rough. It may have been closer to a true 50/50 split this year. Here are the differences between the crowd Saturday and the crowd for last year’s Nebraska game:

Upper deck – significantly less red

End zone – less red, but far more than expected (lots of season tickets were purchased here; full of purple during non-conference games)

South corner on the west side – significantly more red

South corner on the east side – slightly less red

East side between the 30 yard lines in the good seats – significantly more red

This was not the expectation.

Evanston alderman Jane Grover passed along some figures that were likely provided to her by the administration. The season ticket base of 24,000 comprises 50.7% of Ryan Field’s capacity. The ticket office sold 7,000 individual tickets to season ticket holders with a limit based on the number of seats owned, to alumni online with a one-time access code, and to alumni through the homecoming allotment. It’s also worth pointing out that, unless I’m mistaken, the homecoming allotment was distributed on Saturday and not mailed out in advance in order to prevent them from being resold.

The visitor’s allotment, which is in sections 101-103 and the front half of 104, seats around 3,000. Fewer than 5,000 tickets were put on sale through Purple Pricing. The student section seats 5,000. The remaining tickets are likely held by the athletic department for various purposes and might also include the area occupied by the band, though I would be surprised if these tickets totaled the missing 3,000.

Here is an easier breakdown, which should at least be in the ballpark:

Season tickets – 24,000 (51% of capacity)

Students – 5,000 (11%)

Extra single game tickets to season ticket holders and alumni – 7,000 (15%)

Visitor’s allotment – 3,000 (6%)

Purple Pricing – 5,000 (11%)

Others – 3,000 (6%)

Based on the information told to Alderman Grover, the administration was very optimistic. She said that “75 percent of the seats are presumed purple.” The administration told GameDay something similar, as their optimism was conveyed during the broadcast by Chris Fowler.

Prices remained high until Saturday and there wasn’t any indication that sales on StubHub were particularly significant. The inventory never went much above 2,000 at any given time and continued to decline until most listings expired. But Darren Rovell made an important tweet on Friday evening that should have had people concerned.

I discounted that information because it didn’t seem realistic based on everything else I had seen, but it appears to have been accurate. If StubHub did indeed sell over 9,000 tickets, that would likely put the total number of tickets sold on the secondary market over 10,000, or 21% of capacity and 24% of all tickets (excluding the student section). That is a staggering amount.

There are some realities of which we were already aware. Some season tickets are owned by ticket brokers and scalpers. I know this all too well. I’m in the first row of my section on the west side and on the aisle. The five seats behind me and four to my left are all owned by scalpers who list the seats on StubHub for every game. I have been in my seat for five years and have yet to see the people who actually own those seats. During conference play, I am almost always literally surrounded by fans of the visiting team. For the most part, though, this is not common on the west side.

Some season tickets are purchased by visiting fans. We don’t know how many do it, but this happened in 2010 with the Wrigley game by Illinois fans and in 2012 by Nebraska fans. Both times these people likely lost money. The secondary market for the big game was much stronger this year, yet I don’t think this is a terribly significant number of people. I’d imagine that the ticket office has a decent sense of how many people buy season tickets for this reason.

I had two big takeaways from the distribution of Ohio State fans on Saturday. The first is that a significant number of season ticket holders with good seats cashed in on the secondary market compared to last year. Again, secondary market prices were much stronger for this game than they were for last year’s Nebraska game, for which the amount of purple on the east side between the 30 yard lines was pretty solid. This tells me that the issue goes far beyond the multi-year season ticket holders who are ticket brokers or scalpers. The second takeaway is that the majority of the single game, non-Purple Pricing tickets that were primarily bought by Northwestern fans and alumni were sold on the secondary market.

I’m going to give the non-season ticket holding alumni a pass on this, even though there should have been a stronger presence through tickets purchased on the secondary market given the significance of the game. The allotments for homecoming and individual tickets offered to alumni were sold out, so there was nothing more they could do to buy tickets at face value. But they certainly don’t get complete pass for the day considering very few went to the lakefill on Saturday morning for GameDay.

What we are left with is a significant disappointment in a large number of actual Northwestern fans who sold tickets to Ohio State fans and a reality that our ticket office still has a lot of work ahead of them. Ohio State may not be coming back to Evanston anytime soon (the earliest would be 2018), but Nebraska will remain in our division and will be our homecoming opponent next season. Purple Pricing helped the athletic department cash in on the demand from Ohio State fans, but they will have to take additional steps in order to prevent extra single game tickets from winding up in the hands of Nebraska fans next year.

Oh, there were also four or six stadium club seats listed on StubHub. Let that sink in.

Is there a solution?

There may not be much that can be done with one exception: will call only purchases. This serves two purposes. The first is that without having tickets in-hand prior to the game, the exact seat locations are not known and they can’t be sold on the secondary market. The other is that it prevents any advanced sales on the secondary market, eliminating StubHub as an option, and would create a miserable experience trying to sell them right before the game in person on the street or on Craigslist, both of which would be fraught with risks and logistical nightmares.

They would likely have to create a separate will call standalone office and tell people to arrive hours early to handle the crowd, but if they required all season ticket holders and alumni who order extra tickets to the Nebraska game next year to pick them up in person before the game, it would virtually eliminate secondary market sales of these tickets. It could result in some of these tickets not being sold, but at least the ticket office could put them up with Purple Pricing instead and make more money off their sale to opposing fans. I don’t know if this is a realistic option, but it’s worth exploring.

In an ideal world, Northwestern would also be able to begin culling season ticket holders who are known brokers and scalpers. This may never be an option, though. They still rely on these people for season ticket sales and can’t do something this drastic without having confidence that season tickets will sell out consistently without them. We are a long way away from this at best.