IOWA CITY — Nebraska football fans have a well-earned reputation for taking over opponents' stadiums as well as bowl venues. However Husker fans' lukewarm interest in the 2014 Gator Bowl left a Big Red deficit for the school — and the Big Ten — in ticket sales.
The Cornhuskers' athletics department committed to sell 12,678 tickets to the Gator Bowl as part of a Big Ten arrangement. Whether it was the school's third straight Florida bowl trip, its second consecutive bowl match-up with Georgia or a season-ending 38-17 defeat to Iowa, Nebraska fans balked at buying tickets through the school. According to a document submitted to the NCAA and obtained by The Gazette through an open-records request, Nebraska's athletics department sold just 1,748 Gator Bowl tickets at a loss of nearly $800,000.
Nebraska's department sales, however, belied the game's announced attendance of 60,712. Its opponent, Georgia, took 15,000 tickets and sold just 5,703, meaning only 12.2 percent of tickets were sold by the athletics departments. Most were sold through the bowl itself, a ticket broker or a scalper.
“It's a complex deal in the marketplace where we are right now with tickets,” Nebraska Athletics Director Shawn Eichorst said. “We're just going to try to put together a really good product on the field and continue to stay close to our fans and encourage them to travel. The most important thing is they get there.”
The Gazette sent open-records requests to all Big Ten bowl teams, Big Ten future members Maryland and Rutgers and their opponents. Every public school complied. Private schools Notre Dame, Stanford and Syracuse are not subject to state or federal open-records laws and declined to submit that information.
Nebraska's situation hardly is unusual. Top-10 teams Ohio State and Clemson rank among the nation's most devout bowl travelers. However each school absorbed more than 11,100 tickets of their 17,500-ticket requirement to the Orange Bowl. Yet the Orange Bowl posted an attendance of 72,080.
Michigan sold 40.7 percent of its ticket allotment to the Tempe-based Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Wisconsin and Minnesota sold barely one-third of their tickets to the Capital One and Texas bowls, respectively. Among Big Ten schools only Iowa (78.2 percent at the Outback) and Michigan State (94.5 percent at the Rose) sold more than half of their allotted tickets this year.
“The secondary ticket market has changed the way our business works,” Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta said. “If a fan knows that he can get a better ticket on the secondary market, obviously it's tempting to go through that process. It's hurting the bowl ticket sales, and it's hurting the university ticket sales.”
Big Ten schools individually don't take the financial hit, however. The league keeps the bowl payouts and provides every bowl-bound school with an predetermined stipend. After those allowances and other expenses — such as unsold tickets — are subtracted, the league equally syndicates equal shares of the surplus to all its members and itself. The Big Ten's total payout for its seven bowl teams was nearly $39 million. However their bowl allowances totaled more than $13 million and cost of absorbing unsold tickets for those games combined for nearly $4.5 million. Unsold tickets cost the league's five public-school opponents nearly $3.75 million.
“All of our bowls, there's been concern and we've addressed it for each of them,” Big Ten Deputy Commissioner Brad Traviolia said.
Big Ten officials opted for a different economic model with their new bowl arrangement, which kicks in this season. They agreed to accept lower payouts for lower ticket guarantees. Only a traditional Rose Bowl — which is operated jointly by the Big Ten, Pac-12 and Tournament of Roses Parade — is exempt from the changes.
While the numbers are not finalized, Big Ten officials say, the agreements are more reflective of the schools' annual sales.
“Let's not have an artificially high payout that is based on artificially high ticket purchases by the schools when we've demonstrated for several years we're not at that number,” Traviolia said. “We introduced that concept to our new partners. We do believe we have a ticket number more reflective of what our past and hopefully future attendance will be in terms of number of tickets our teams sell.”
“That was one of our concerns as we redid our bowl deals,” Wisconsin Athletics Director Barry Alvarez said. “I think that's taken somewhat of a burden off.”
Iowa sold more than 9,000 tickets to the Outback Bowl but still absorbed 2,535 tickets despite around 20,000 Iowa fans attending the game.
“That's my point,” Barta said. “We get an allotment, we sell as many as we can through our allotment, but we know there are thousands and thousands of fans who are buying them through other sources.”
The bowls agreed to those changes.
“We're paying less money in a guarantee, but there will be years where they'll make more money,” Outback Bowl President Jim McVay said. “There's a shared revenue deal where the schools are going to keep all the money over a certain threshold.
“Sometimes the schools will say, 'Hey, we're having trouble moving all these tickets. We're only going to buy this many on a guarantee.' That's fine. We'll work out a financial model that's fair for everybody. I think we have a good system in place. It's a number that's reasonable and we all agreed to.”
There also are changes to ticket locations. Often schools were saddled with upper deck or end zone seats, while tickets sold through the bowl had much better sightlines. Fans quickly caught on and bought tickets through the bowl. They supported their team, but they also cost the university money.
“In some cases we felt like we were getting the worst seats in the house,” Traviolia said. “So we tried to improve those, and we did in many cases. So along with reduction in number of tickets, we attempted to improve the quality of them and their location.”
“Our theory is, when we were talking to bowls about the new contracts, we're all in this together,” Barta said. “Our goal is to get the most fans to come to the game.”
To stimulate bowl travel, the Big Ten has altered its lineup. Formerly, the bowls controlled most of the matchups, although the league could massage a team into a bowl when necessary.
A committee will select the top four teams for the new College Football Playoff bowl structure. This year those games are played in the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl. The committee then will match the next four games consisting of automatic qualifiers (non-playoff champions from either the ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12, plus the best champion from a non-automatic league) and at-large teams.
After the playoff, the Big Ten now will slot teams based on a tiered system. Nebraska, for instance, may shift to the Holiday Bowl rather than competing in Florida for the fourth straight year. The league wants to prevent situations like Purdue traveling to the Sun Bowl three times from 2001-2004 or Wisconsin playing in Florida six straight years from 2004-2009.
“I think what happens is there are scenarios where you can get a team, whether it's Nebraska in Florida or whether it's Wisconsin in Florida several years ago or when Wisconsin went out to the Rose Bowl three years in a row ... you get a little bit of bowl fatigue in terms of your fan base going to the same general area,” Traviolia said. “Having bowl games in Orlando, Tampa and Jacksonville — while they're all three great destinations — if you're going to Florida three years in a row, you have some fans that it's a harder sell.”
For the next bowl cycle, which lasts six years, the Big Ten added bowls in San Diego, San Francisco and New York to go along with the Florida bowls. The league also created options over the next six years, where the Gator and Music City each selects a Big Ten team three times, as do the Heart of Dallas and Armed Forces bowls.
“I think what you see with our new bowl lineup is an attempt to diversify the bowl lineup and give people and fans and teams some new destinations to go to but also couple with that a more realistic ticket commitment number,” Traviolia said. “It's a theory that has applied to all of our bowl relationships.”
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