DeKALB — The NIU ticket office bought back $273,619 worth of football tickets last season to comply with NCAA attendance requirements, or risk losing their Football Bowl Series status and several corporate sponsorships.
The office purchased 56,345 tickets as part of an NCAA audit, according to a compilation of transaction details provided to the Northern Star in a Freedom of Information Act request.
“The emphasis is on attendance figures through an allocation of tickets,” Debra Boughton, NIU Senior Associate Athletics Director, said. “We use revenue already associated with [football games]. For resources, we actually met with the NIU Foundation to get the resources we need to do an internal purchase.”
The audits are performed every other year. Under NCAA bylaws, FBS teams are required to have a rolling average attendance of 15,000 people per game, paid or actual.
If this requirement isn’t met, the program will be notified that they are not meeting the NCAA’s requirements, according to a 2014 NCAA document.
“After receiving notice, any further noncompliance with the FBS requirements within a 10-year period shall cause the institution to be placed in restrictive membership,” the NCAA document reads.
John Cheney, NIU Executive Associate Athletic Director, said it’s not uncommon for schools to have to buy back tickets to meet the requirement.
NIU reported its announced season attendance at 67,748 in 2017, according to an NCAA attendance report. However, numbers show the total number of scanned tickets and student swipes accepted at games totaled 44,084, according to attendance numbers provided to the Northern Star through a FOIA request.
Buying back tickets
Cheney said the buy back process starts with an internal audit between the university and ticket office making reports each game.
“Once they determine what that number is for the season per game, from there you have to figure out how many [tickets] you would have to buy back based on reaching the maximum number for the NCAA qualifications,” Cheney said.
NIU hosted six home games, thus needing to sell 90,000 tickets to hit the 15,000 per game average. Of the 90,000 tickets needed, 38,320 were bought by NIU at the third-highest possible price, $6.67.
NIU also paid for an extra 18,025 tickets at $1 each, though they didn’t count toward the final attendance in the NCAA audit.
“It’s kind of a shuffling game, ultimately, until you get to the end of the season and you count your five games and your total attendance,” Cheney said. “Then, you’re able to determine how many you have to buy for yourself.”
This process is not exclusive to NIU’s football program. Eastern Michigan University sold 50,000 tickets to one of their corporate sponsors, Pepsi, to reach FBS attendance requirements in 2010, according to a 2011 Ann Arbor News report.
NIU Athletic Director Sean Frazier said most schools of NIU’s size will have to buy back tickets or use some other sort of method to meet the NCAA’s requirement.
“I’d garner if you did research on [on ticket buy backs], you would probably find 100 percent ratio where schools our size or in our conference do something similar to what we do,” Frazier said.
Attendance figures and why they’re important
Attendance at NIU has seen peaks and valleys since its season home attendance record in 2004, when an average of 27,052 fans attended every home football game, according to the 2017 NIU Football Media Guide.
Last season, NIU averaged 11,291 tickets sold per game and only 7,347 scanned tickets per game.
Frazier said attendance at events is a driving force for student athletes and the student body as a whole.
“It’s the burning support of the students for student-athletes and school spirit,” Frazier said. “As a former student athlete, there’s nothing more passionate to have supporters cheering you on and cheering the university on.”
The biggest factor for NIU as to why attendance is important is to stay above the FBS requirement to avoid potential relegation of the program to FCS.
Frazier said the differences between FBS and the lower-level of Division I football, the Football Championship Series, are huge.
“At the FBS level, we’re dealing with a whole different ball of wax,” Frazier said. “We’re dealing with access to major corporate sponsorship. We’re dealing with access to major guaranteed money that’s coming in from different institutions. At the FCS level, they aren’t receiving that.”
Why it’s harder than ever to draw crowds
Attendance numbers for college football games overall have gone down 7.6 percent across the country, according to an Aug. 30 Wall Street Journal report.
Frazier said there are more obstacles than ever before in trying to get fans to come see a football game live.
“When you can sit back in your house, watch your flat screen TV in whatever dimensions you can afford, not having to deal with parking, not having to deal with crowds going to an event, where you are ducking some of those things and dodging some of those things, it becomes a challenge,” Frazier said.
Frazier said NIU faces difficulty in drawing crowds due to scheduling within the Mid-American Conference. In an attempt for exposure and as part of a contract signed with ESPN in 2014, the MAC schedules conference games on weekdays in primetime.
“It’s always an obstacle when you are interfering with a fan that has to go to work from nine to five, or whatever schedule he or she has, to ask them to come during a mid-week contest,” Frazier said.”
While Frazier said the schedule means attendance takes a hit, it’s something he’s willing to exchange for program visibility.
“I stand by the mid-week piece of a contract [the MAC] has with ESPN because it gives us visibility in our conference,” Frazier said. “We have the ability to go on at a particular time slot that won’t be crowded with other conferences that might be bigger or the same.”
NIU’s attempt to fill the stands
The Athletic Department has brought new accommodations to Huskie Stadium and new promotions in an attempt to fill it.
The Athletic Department announced their new “Huskie Hundreds” promotion Aug. 27, which automatically enters every student in attendance at a football game into a giveaway in which winners will have $100 put into their Bursar accounts, with 10 winners named for every thousand students.
Additionally, if a student attends every home football game, they are entered in a giveaway for $750 to be put in their Bursar account.
Some students, like junior nutrition major Zeinab Albuadem, think the promotion will draw fans.
“I think it would be [good],” Albuadem said. “That’s definitely an incentive for going to the football game.”
Cheney said the goal of the athletic department is to eliminate any reason for fans not to attend the game.
“Really, we’ve covered all those different perspectives within someway with different areas of our stadium,” Cheney said.
Cheney said the department has emphasized making alcohol more accessible to try and draw in tailgaters.
“We have a lot of students who will come and tailgate, then simply turnaround and go home at kickoff,” Cheney said. “We’re trying to find what draws them into the game or would make them want to come into the game.”
NIU has also brought a beer garden to Huskie Stadium, giving students and fans over the age of 21 more access to alcoholic beverages.
Albuadem has only attended one game at NIU and said she often can’t attend games on the weekends because she returns home. Albuadem said to students, some of which have no interest in football, the games are seen less as competition and more as social gatherings.
“I see it more as a social event,” Albuadem said. “I’m not sure how many people go to actually watch or go just to be with friends."