Football season ticket sales, particularly for the school’s student population, have been an issue for the Florida Gators as of late, but the program expects to sell out its student season ticket allotment ahead of the East Carolina game on Sept. 13, executive associate athletics director Mike Hill told OnlyGators.com on Tuesday.
After selling out its allotment of student season tickets for the first 21 years of Hill’s career with the program, the Gators failed to do so in 2014. Florida now says it is on pace to sell out its student season tickets in 2015, though it is not there just yet.
As of Tuesday, Florida had sold approximately 17,400 student season tickets, 94 percent of its adjusted inventory. However, the program announced Thursday evening that it has sold every available single-game student ticket for its season opener against New Mexico State on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
“I think the entire picture has to be considered here,” said Hill when asked whether there was concern about student season ticket sales during in an extensive interview with OnlyGators.com last week.
“[Student tickets] make up like 23 percent of our stadium’s capacity. It’s a huge number. It’s one of the largest numbers in the country for an allotment of student seats. So in the context of what we were doing seven or eight years ago? Well sure, the lottery was the only way to get a seat and we had to have the procedure in place. And I’m not downplaying the fact that [sales have been down]. But I don’t think the sky is falling.”
Ticket sales are an issue across the country and the Gators are far from the only program figuring out how to get butts into the seats. In fact, students are not the only ones making a decision on whether to show up to games. Of Florida’s 54,000 seat allotment of non-student season tickets, the Gators have sold approximately 48,000 or 89 percent. Considering those season tickets often come with donations to the booster program, the budget has certainly taken a hit.
“It’s not just a Florida conversation. I think nationally there’s a lot of conversations about ticket sales,” noted Hill. “Generally speaking, you see more and more now about programs even that are at the top right now not selling out when you would assume they would. The market has softened across the board, and yet interest has never been as high as it is in college football.
“I think for us, it’s not so much alarm as it is just recognizing that it’s a different day, it’s a different age, and certainly we’ve got to stabilize things with performance on the field, that goes without saying.”
Indeed, the best way for Florida to bring fans to the stands is not via marketing or discounted seats, of course, but rather by playing winning football. The Gators have struggled to do just that over the last two seasons, going 11-13 combined with a 6-6 record inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium during that span.
To that end, Florida will try to take advantage of its relatively light nonconference schedule in 2015, which includes three lower-tier FBS teams outside of UF’s annual showdown with Florida State.
The Gators will be paying quite handsomely for the chance to play those teams.
Florida will pay guaranteed sums of $1 million to New Mexico State (Sept. 5) and Florida Atlantic (Nov. 21), plus $1.2 million to East Carolina (Sept. 12).
(Consider this: Florida paid $550,000 to lose to Georgia Southern in 2013 and $975,000 for a season opener against Idaho that was canceled due to severe lightning.)
Combine those sums with new head coach Jim McElwain’s $7 million buyout from Colorado State (made in payments, including a 2018 game against CSU) and the program being forced to pay $6.3 million to end Will Muschamp’s contract, and the cost of playing (what they hope will be) winning football has gotten quite expensive in Gainesville, Florida.
One thing the Gators have going for themselves? Night games. Florida will open up with consecutive evening contests at home, taking their fans out of the uncomfortable heat and humidity that often make September home games less attractive to attend. Plus, while the Gators would have an advantage at noon kickoffs as they are accustomed to the Florida heat (as opposed to their visiting opponents), The Swamp famously comes alive at night, perhaps providing a rowdier crowd that is less worried about the temperature and willing to expend greater energy cheering for the team.
In the end, the Gators will not have to worry much about ticket sales if they start putting up wins, not only in general but specifically in home games. Save that, there’s not much else Florida can do to fill up Florida Field on a Saturday.
“If you look at our total number of seats sold, it’s still an impressive number, it’s just not what it was five years ago,” said Hill.
As much could be said about the Gators football program as a whole, though with McElwain now at the helm, Florida hopes to see the same resurgence in the box office as it believes it will on the field.
Correction: In the original version of this story, OnlyGators.com listed the student ticket allotment in 2014 as 21,500. That number included additional student tickets, such as those handed out to players and band members. The story above now represents that Florida’s student season ticket figure has remained consistent over the last year.