The Big Idea
Universities rely on marquee sports — particularly football and basketball — for ticket revenues that fund high-achieving athletic programs. The University of Virginia had a stellar basketball program drawing sellout crowds, but it needed its football stadium to become a bigger revenue engine.
In 2017, the University of Virginia’s athletic department revenues reached $100 million. Though that was the 27th highest amount among reporting athletic departments, athletic director Carla Williams knew the University was leaving a lot of money on the table.
The greatest potential for growth, specifically, was football. With 61,500 seats in Scott Stadium, football had the capacity to create more revenue than all the other sports combined. Yet football attendance averaged about 64 percent of capacity. This was a significant problem: Revenue from football helps fund many other parts of the athletics department, for scholarships, facilities, and salaries across the many varsity men’s and women’s sports at UVA. In the past decade, Virginia had won collegiate championships in men’s tennis, women’s rowing, men’s soccer and men’s lacrosse, among others. Williams had more than 20 sports to look after and wanted them all strong. This would depend in no small part on the health of the football budget, and she knew it.
The time seemed right to take a renewed look at this challenge. Under coach Bronco Mendenhall, the 2018 Virginia Cavaliers football team fought its way to a winning record (8-5). But filling seats is about more than wins, and even winning is no immediate panacea for attendance woes. As studies typically show, there are frequently several years between improved team performance and significant growth in fan attendance. Meanwhile, football’s popularity was declining across the nation, thanks to increasing interest in other sports and concerns about football-related head injuries. Plus, a plethora of sports channels makes it easy for fans to watch college football in the comfort of their homes. The new ACC Network might only make it harder to get fans to shell out money and devote time to visiting Scott Stadium in Charlottesville for home games.
Yet Williams knew that it was possible to energize the fan base. The men’s basketball team, which won the national championship in 2019, routinely played for sellout crowds at John Paul Jones Arena; resellers could even charge as much as $150 a piece for good seats. And, having come from the University of Georgia, where football was king and the stadium routinely sold out, she believed it was imperative to get more butts in seats at UVA.
First off, working with Coach Mendenhall, they allocated an additional $2.5 million (supplied by boosters) over five years to fill immediate needs — though Williams knew those needs would ultimately need to be met through increased revenue.
Determined to try new strategies, Williams and staff brainstormed how they could boost football ticket sales. Marketing-wise, they could increase their reach statewide, tempting fans who lived outside Charlottesville, and hire more selling agents to increase season ticket renewals, which were driven in large part by personal contact. Meanwhile, they could create multipack ticketing specials, filling more seats by bundling a couple of traditionally less popular games with the big ones of the season. They could improve the overall fan experience through better concessions, more convenient parking, shorter length of time waiting in security lines and fan appreciation events. Additionally, they could invest in Wi-Fi for the stadium so fans could easily share game day on social media and participate in in-game activities on a new social app. Finally, and most ambitiously, the department kicked off fundraising for new facilities, including a new athletic complex that would include an Olympic sports center, a football operations center, and renovations to existing fields and facilities.
So how’d they do? Already, football attendance is up, excitement is up — and so is performance. In September, a near sellout crowd (57,826) witnessed the Cavaliers edge Florida State, 31-24.
When you need to engineer a turnaround, new thinking is critical. You’re unlikely to get different results by simply pushing harder at existing efforts or doing more of the same. Instead, listen to many stakeholders, weigh the pros and cons, and be able to test and try a number of things, as Williams and her team did. Think broadly and don’t bet too heavily on a single solution.
The preceding is based on Darden Professors Sean Martin and Jim Detert’s case Butts in Seats: Helping the UVA Athletic Department Fill Scott Stadium (Darden Business Publishing).