Creative accounting at the Big House
by Jan Schlain
From the October, 2018 issue
Ninety-nine out of 100 colleges inflate their football attendance. That's the takeaway from an article by Wall Street Journal senior sports reporter and U-M grad Rachel Bachman. The Journal used freedom-of-information requests to obtain the number of tickets scanned at stadium gates--and found they averaged only 71 percent of reported attendance.
Most schools (and professional sports teams) count all season ticket holders as attending every game, regardless of whether they show up. At last year's Minnesota-Nebraska game in Minneapolis, that added 14,000 to the announced attendance. Yet, Bachman noted, "Minnesota's gap between scanned and announced attendance could have been worse--its announced attendance doesn't include stadium staff, marching bands or media, as many other schools do."
Michigan does. "One of the first questions we asked [visiting teams] was, 'Did you bring a band?'" recalls former assistant athletic director Marty Bodnar. "Each [scholarship] player gets four tickets free--a walk-on gets two tickets; that goes for the visiting team, too. There are comp tickets for the staff ..."
All of which helps explain why, as Bachman writes, Michigan has "continued to claim a streak of 100,000-plus attendance games dating back to 1975, even though two games last year [Rutgers and Minnesota] showed fewer than 80,000 scanned tickets."
Associate athletic director Dave Ablauf says those scan counts are low. "Right before kickoff, we don't have the ability to scan all the tickets," he says. "It's not an exact science." It gets even less exact during seasons fans would rather forget--or not experience in the first place. At the end of Brady Hoke's tenure, in 2014, a promotion offered students a free ticket with the purchase of two Coke products. "We sold just under 80,000 regular season tickets and only 12,000 student season tickets" that year, Ablauf recalls.
With Jim Harbaugh's arrival, "in 2017 we sold 92,692 season tickets, and almost 21,000 student season tickets," Ablauf adds. "Of this year's numbers, 71,194 are full-price season ticket holders and 18,301 are student season tickets."
If you include family and individual packs sold online, Ablauf says, every game is a sellout. And even if it takes some creative accounting, they'll continue to announce attendance of more than 100,000 fans at every game.
[Originally published in October, 2018.]
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