Trends show NIU season ticket sales down

By Katie Leb

For almost 20 years, Charlene Riefler and Jim Leslie have sat in the same seats, at the same sports, cheering for the same school-Northern Illinois University.

As season ticket holders for women’s basketball, the friends have attended hundreds of games; not only for basketball, but also volleyball and softball, when it is not too cold.

Riefler and Leslie agree that having season tickets allows them to get to their seats efficiently.

“It’s easier to get in,” Riefler said. “If you don’t have season tickets you have to buy your ticket at the window and wait in line. This way we can sneak in the back door.”

As DeKalb residents, Rielfer and Leslie fit into the majority geographic area of NIU season ticket holders, said Eric Schultz, associate director of the Convocation Center. Schultz said about 95 percent of season ticket holders are from within a 40-to-60 mile radius of DeKalb. But Schultz knows of a few loyal alumni who travel great distances to attend NIU sporting events.

“There is somebody from New York that comes,” Schultz said of an alumnus who attends football games. “We do have two people from California. We have several people from surrounding states. They may not make every game, but most of them buy season tickets.”

Even with the most loyal fans purchasing season tickets, Schultz acknowledged a decline in sales, not only for NIU, but across the country.

On Sept. 5, The Birmingham News reported its findings from a survey sent to 120 Football Bowl Subdivision schools. Of the 69 schools that responded, 52 percent reported a decrease in season ticket sales from the previous year. NIU did not respond to the survey, but the University of Illinois, as well as MAC competitors Toledo, Western Michigan, Central Michigan, Miami (OH) and Bowling Green sent in sales numbers. Four of these six schools saw decreases in sales, but Toledo increased sales by 27 percent from 2009.

NIU Athletic Director Jeff Compher views this year’s football season ticket sales of 3,197 more positively, considering there was only a loss of seven season tickets sold from the 2009 season.

“This year we kind of held our own, which when you consider the climate in much of collegiate athletics, to hold your own is somewhat of a victory, because many places actually lost season ticket sales,” Compher said. “I feel the fact that we were able to stay even with the number of season tickets we have with fewer home games this year was actually a plus for us.”

Schultz said NIU is in the same situation as the majority of schools, seeing decreases in sales across sports. During the past five years, NIU football season ticket sales have decreased, on average, about 5.38 percent, or 191 tickets. In basketball, the trends have been similar, losing 9.49 percent, or about 68 tickets, in men’s. Women’s basketball also lost season ticket sales an average of 9.28 percent, or 31 tickets.

“As far as a trend for football, one thing that’s changed over the past four or five years has been the TV schedule with the MAC,” Schultz said. “Traditionally, 10 years ago, every game was on Saturday; there were no weekday games. If you live in Chicago, it’s kind of tough to get out here for a Tuesday or Thursday game.”

But, Schultz said television and technology advances is not the only reason he has observed.

“The second biggest trend has been pure economic,” Schultz said. “Family budgets are pretty tight. We’ve seen in those season ticket numbers, people retaining the tickets, but maybe going from six to four or four to two.”

Compher added that the pragmatic reasoning for the decrease in sales is that tickets are readily available for NIU sporting events on most occasions.

“If you know that you can come up and buy a ticket and you don’t have to buy all of the home game tickets, then sometimes the motivation to buy a season ticket isn’t there,” Compher said. “It’s on a rare occasion that you’d have a problem coming up on one of our home games and buying a ticket on game day. A lot of people understand that.”

NIU has developed mini-packages and special selections of games as a way to give fans more options when purchasing tickets. Football again made available a mini-plan, which allowed fans to purchase same-seat tickets for three games. Men’s and women’s basketball also have a mini-plan and value pack with coupon option, Schultz said.

“What we need to do is place more value on the season ticket,” Compher said. “Make sure that we price it appropriately and provide extra value to season ticket holders in some way.”

Compher and Schultz acknowledged the need for proper marketing of the teams, and encouraging the benefits of season tickets, including reduced prices compared to single-game ticket costs.

Even with the decrease in sales, Schultz stressed the loyalty of the Huskies’ supporters and the strong local base, which includes fans like Riefler and Leslie.

“One thing that we got is a strong local base,” Schultz said. “Even with the economic stuff there’s still those loyal Huskie fans out there that love coming to games. They’re our bread and butter.”

For Riefler and Leslie, attending NIU athletic events makes logical sense.

“We’re sports fans anyway, I feel like why not,” Leslie said. “A Division I school in your hometown. We just live across town.”