Schools Eye Groupon, Giveaways to Fill Seats

Industries Associated Press

In an attempt to keep its student section full, the University of Iowa recently tried a somewhat costly promotion: A raffle for free tuition if a student purchased a book of season tickets.

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It illustrated just how far schools like Iowa will go to get students back into their stadiums.

The raffle didn't quite work — it ran afoul of state raffle laws, so it was extended to all Iowa students — but it's far from the only promotion colleges are using to try and sell tickets. All around the country, schools are trying to boost student ticket sales.

The NCAA says that the average crowd at an FBS game was down 1,300 last year from a high of 46, 971 in 2008. Some of that decline comes from general attendance. But athletic directors are targeting student populations in particular to try and fill the seats.

Students, after all, are a big part of the college game day experience. And it's embarrassing to see empty seats on television.

The reasons the seats are emptying vary: Many blame the proliferation of high-definition TVs, the vast increase in national college football broadcasts and the popularity of social media sites like Twitter, which connect fans across the country like never before.

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Others mention high ticket prices and restrictions on tailgating, the lack of alcohol sales in college stadiums, updated game day presentations and even spotty wireless service in many stadiums. When surrounded by thousands of your closest friends, proximity isn't enough — students also want to be able to take selfies, text and post to social media.

The SEC is among the leagues that have taken notice, saying that at least eight member schools have improved in-stadium cell phone service in 2014.

Iowa's recent promotion, which offered $8,000 in education-related expenses to five students who bought season tickets for the resurgent Hawkeyes, drew a mild chuckle from the college football community. But it's a serious matter to the campus.

"It's a national trend. This isn't just happening at Iowa," said Hawkeyes athletic director Gary Barta, who has seen student ticket sales dip from 10,000 in 2012 to roughly 6,500 this year despite higher on-field expectations.

Even though the Hawkeyes also made unsold season tickets available to the general public, they fell about 3,700 shy of a sellout for last weekend's win over Northern Iowa.

Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley sent out an e-mail earlier last month imploring students of a school that has won national titles in 2006 and 2008 years to buy tickets.

Michigan, the winningest program in the history of college football, sold tickets to its opener against Appalachian State on sites like Groupon (GRPN). It's combating a roughly 7,000-per-game drop in student sales in just 12 months. Michigan, whose games against Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State are all away from Ann Arbor, is expecting to sell just 12,000 student tickets after reaching 19,000 in 2013.

Big Ten rival Purdue, meanwhile, went even further: It gave away nearly 8,000 free tickets to its students last week's opener against Western Michigan and cut prices from $20 to $10 for the next two non-conference games.

At Cal, freshmen get in free all season.

Even mighty Alabama, a perennial national title favorite, has seen student interest wane at times. The Crimson Tide are among many teams that sell their full allotment of student tickets — then watch with frustration as thousands of kids choose to stay home on game day.

Last year, nearly 5,000 student seats went empty for an Alabama game against Georgia State despite initiatives such as electronic ticket swapping and incentives tied to attendance.

Not every school in the country is looking at half-empty student sections.

Tennessee saw its student ticket sales jump from 5,000 to 7,000 last season as coach Butch Jones took over for Derek Dooley, and the Vols sold all of its nearly 12,000 student tickets for last weekend's romp over Utah State.

Struggling Iowa State, the Hawkeyes in-state rival, has also had good student ticket sales — but why is a bit of a head-scratcher.

The Cyclones have sold all of their roughly 8,000 student tickets for the third year in a row — and this year they did it faster than ever despite a 3-9 record in 2013 and scant evidence that things will improve this fall.

According to athletic director Jamie Pollard, increased student enrollment, recent stadium renovations and a parking layout favorable to tailgating have played a role in the record numbers.

Will it last? Pollard doesn't know.

"It's not a 'We did that already' attitude. It's an attitude of 'I want to be there when it happens,'" Pollard told The Associated Press. "There's a different cycle of excitement. But at the same time, I recognize that we're sort of on a wave, and at some point that wave is going to crest. We are just fortunate, maybe, that we're on a different part of the wave."

(AP Sports Writers Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tennessee, Kurt Voigt in Fayetteville, Arkansas, John Zenor in Birmingham, Alabama, Noah Trister in Ann Arbor, Michigan and John Marshall in Phoenix contributed to this report.)