Stanford football had the feel of a powerhouse football program last season. There was a Heisman candidate quarterback, a sound bite producing head coach, and a resounding 40-12 victory over Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl.
Yet, lagging attendance at Stanford Stadium left fans wondering what it will take to create an exciting game-day experience on the Farm.
This season, fans seem to have found that experience.
The athletic department sold 47,816 tickets for Stanford’s home opener against San Jose State. According to Richard Muschell, Director of Ticket Sales and Service, Stanford athletics has seen a 50 percent increase in football ticket sales, and athletic marketing predicts sell outs for the final three games of the season.
“We have been utilizing an outbound sales team of seven people making proactive calls selling season tickets, miniplans and groups,” Muschell explained, “We also feel that our ticket pricing is very attractive, especially the Family Plan package. Stanford football may be their best bargain in Bay Area sports.”
While ticket pricing did go up by 7% this season, Muschell calls it a “very modest increase” considering the team’s success last year.
Stanford’s success in ticket sales this season contrasts with last season, when the problem of filling the stadium became apparent. Stanford averaged 40,926 fans per game last season, lower than any Top 25 team other than Nevada. This figure reflects the number of tickets distributed – the actual attendance is usually lower by five to ten thousand people.
Last November, when #15 Arizona came to Palo Alto, the Pac-10 showdown was nationally televised but only 37,000 fans showed up to watch.
The story of the day should have been the Cardinals’s 42-17 trouncing of the Wildcats, but instead much of the focus was put on the empty red seats at Stanford’s 50,000 seat capacity stadium.
“It was a nationally televised game,” said linebacker Shayne Skov of the game-day attendance. “We were looking forward to playing in front of a sellout crowd.”
The inability to draw became more of an issue when bowl season rolled around. TV football pundits praised Stanford’s team, but said that Stanford’s fan base was small and unlikely to travel to a bowl game.
For a college football program, Stanford deals with a unique set of obstacles to building a large and consistent fan base, many of which have been addressed this season.
The Bay Area is a highly competitive market – there are six pro sports teams, including two NFL teams.
“One of the biggest challenges to any sports organization is to carve out a following amongst so much competition in spectator sports, as well as all of the other entertainment opportunities in the area,” stated Muschell.
Compounding the problem is that Stanford has a geographically dispersed fan base. There are only 55,000 Stanford alumni living in the Bay Area, compared to 155,000 alumni of the University of California at Berkeley. UC Berkeley attracted 57,873 fans per game to Memorial Stadium last season despite a disappointing performance that saw the Bears win only five games and miss out on the post-season.
But Muschell noted an increase in interest from Stanford alumni, particularly those of the past decade. “We also are seeing great interest from fans who have no connection to Stanford but are general football fans,” he added.
Another issue for ticket sales is the home schedule in even numbered years, according to Muschell. Only USC plays at Stanford on even numbered years, while marquee match-ups like Cal, Oregon, and Notre Dame occur in odd numbered years.
Looking forward, there are reasons to be optimistic that Stanford Stadium’s attendance will be befitting of a top five team this year and beyond. Stanford has received a lot of media attention this offseason – Andrew Luck was on the cover of Sports Illustrated and the team was ranked #7 in the Associated Press pre-season poll.
When asked if Stanford could sustain higher ticket sales in the long-term, Muschell responded, “Very possibly since we are offering a fan friendly environment, comfortable venue and attractive ticket prices in addition to a very compelling team to watch.”
With a third consecutive successful season likely on its way, it seems possible that Stanford will begin to attract back all of the fans who jumped ship when Stanford endured a rough six year stretch last decade in which it won only 20 games.