College teams use signing-day celebrations to keep fans connected and maybe sell tickets, too

Associated Press

It's the one day in college football where everyone's a winner: The day high school seniors sign their letters of intent, rejuvenating hope that the newest class of recruits will help a school achieve gridiron glory.

Fans follow every development as their schools assemble their recruits. They argue on social media when a heralded prospect chooses one school over another. And 18-year-olds hold news conferences where the adults breathlessly wait to see if the kid will don the cap of their favorite teams.

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Schools, ever hungry for revenue to fuel their programs, see a new chance to capitalize on all the signing-day hubbub.

At Nebraska, a few hours after the ink dries on those letters of intent, nearly 1,000 fans paying as much as $60 apiece will gather to hear coach Mike Riley talk about and show video of the Cornhuskers' new recruits. It's a scene playing out at schools all around the country.

The events themselves typically don't make much, if any, money. Schools say the purpose is to keep fans engaged and give boosters an opportunity to rub shoulders with the coaches.

The payoff comes later, the schools hope, in the form of season ticket renewals, the cultivation of new season ticket buyers or donations to the program.

"The schools got savvy and know that for the real passionate fan, there's lots of excitement over these 18 year olds who sign," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. "The idea is that this day is kind of a way to rekindle the excitement for the team, whether it's for those that just had a great season or for those that are trying to rebuild.

"It's become one of the ways a college football team can extend its relevance to its fan base into February at an important time with renewals."

Fan engagement is critical, be it through social media or through special events like recruiting celebrations, as programs try to counter a general decline in ticket sales.

The average crowd at an FBS game was down 1,300 in 2013 from a high of 46, 971 in 2008. Figures weren't available for 2014.

Even Nebraska, which has sold out an NCAA-record 340 consecutive home games since 1962, doesn't take it for granted that its stadium will always remain full. The task has become more challenging with the expansion of Memorial Stadium to 90,000 in 2013 and the Huskers' conference title drought dating to 1999.

The recruiting events held Wednesday varied in size and format.

Arizona State planned a soiree at a Phoenix hotel where fans pay a minimum of $60 to get in. Fans who pony up $600 got a table for eight, and for an extra $150 a member of the ASU coaching staff sits with you.

"This is one of my favorite events of the year because it gives me another chance to see first-hand the passion our fans have for our program," Sun Devils coach Todd Graham said. "While we're still more than six months away from opening fall camp, I know Sun Devil Nation will already be in midseason form."

Florida State typically sells out a room of 750 at $40 per ticket, with head coach Jimbo Fisher and his assistants discussing the recruits. The event is streamed live on ESPN3, and a number of "watch parties" are held throughout the state and across the country. Profits go to the Seminole Boosters.

Rutgers' Touchdown Club hosts a "Beefsteak Dinner" that draws 300-400 people and raises a few thousand dollars for the football program.

Some schools host multiple events. Tennessee scheduled a dinner in Knoxville on Wednesday night, and on Thursday there'll be a breakfast in Memphis and a lunch in Nashville. Arkansas had an event in Fayetteville on Wednesday night and will have another in Little Rock on Thursday.

Nebraska has had recruiting celebrations in some form since the 1980s, when a group of boosters held a dinner in Omaha where coaches would show film of the recruits. The athletic department took over the event in 2005, and it moved to the Devaney Sports Center last year.

Attendance was about 400 last year — and the event lost $423, according to a spokesman — but more than 750 were expected Wednesday largely because of the excitement about the team's new coach.

"This event is designed to bring our fans together with our coaches to celebrate Signing Day," the athletic department said in a statement. "Those that have attended have enjoyed hearing the coaches' insight and some of the personal stories about the newest Huskers. The focus is on Signing Day, the coaches and student-athletes and not generating revenue."

The goal is that revenue will follow.

"It all comes under the category of the fan experience, and everyone from the top programs to the 128th program are looking to enhance their fans' experience, and it's not just in their stadiums," said Jeff Schemmel, president of the College Sports Solutions consulting firm. "It's the connection they can get with those donors, those ticket holders."