UF aims to sell seats at Swamp


Fans cheer at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium during the South carolina game in 2012.

Brad McClenny/Staff photographer
Published: Monday, July 29, 2013 at 12:38 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, July 29, 2013 at 12:38 p.m.

Florida is close to selling the same number of football season tickets as it did a season ago.

But that hasn't stopped a campaign to try to ensure Florida Field is filled to capacity for all six home dates this season.

“We have a lot that is in the pipeline right now to try to make a final push before the first game on August 31 (against Toledo),” Florida associate athletics director of external affairs Mike Hill said. “We feel great about the position that we're in right now based on the numbers, but we still have more room to sell.”

That includes Florida opening The Swamp on Aug. 17 for a select-a-seat event from noon to 2 p.m. during UF fan day. In addition, Florida announced Friday it will open four preseason practices (Aug. 15, 17, 19 and 20), creating a buzz that could result in increased single-game ticket sales.

Hill said Florida has had a 90-percent renewal rate on last year's season ticket base of 53,000, in addition to some new orders. Florida's student ticket allotment of 21,500 sold out last week.

“We're hovering right around that 50, 51(thousand) mark now so we're closing in on that same number from a year ago, which is great,” Hill said. “We're really pleased with that, but, that said, the job isn't complete.”

To remind fans to renew season tickets, Florida launched an aggressive social media campaign on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. Another new initiative this season included a recent graduate program. In the recent graduate program, students who have received a degree from UF within four years (2009-13) can purchase season tickets for $200. That comes out to $25 per game for six games, plus a $50 Gator booster contribution.

“We carved out 1,000 seats for recent graduates and essentially have sold those out,” Hill said. “I think we've got at last count 40 tickets out of 1,000, and we'll I'm sure sell those out before kickoff.”

Not long ago, full capacity at Florida Field was the norm. The Gators had a string of 137 straight sellouts from 1989-2011. But times and technology have changed. For many, high-definition television and better access to Wi-Fi have made watching the game at home more appealing than sweating it out live at The Swamp. Florida averaged 87,590 in paid attendance last season, about 97.5 percent capacity of the 90,000-seat Florida Field.

It's a trend that's carried over to all 14 schools in the Southeastern Conference. Nine of 14 schools saw a dip in home football attendance last season, according to a Chattanooga Times Free Press report.

Hill sits on a SEC fan experience committee that includes Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity and Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin. This past season, the committee successfully pushed through a change in replay policy to show multiple replays for calls that are under review or controversial.

“Before you weren't permitted to do that,” Hill said. “The idea is that the in-stadium experience is something that is competing now with the living room experience, and you get a million replays at home. So we need to do a better job at the stadium with that.”

Improving wireless connectivity at Florida Field, Hill said, is more tricky. But Florida began the process of trying to improve signal strength within the stadium last season.

“That is a high priority on our radar,” Hill said. “I don't know if this season we're going to be at 100-percent satisfactory in terms of the connectivity we can deliver to fans, because of just the massive amount of broadband space that's being used now by fans. (It's) not just texting and making calls, but using their mobile devices to transmit photographs, images and video. So that is something we are considering to try to ramp up even more.”

Another issue impacting SEC football attendance — fans aren't traveling like they used to. When Florida didn't sell out last season, more often than not, it was due to an opposing team being unable to sell its allotment of tickets. A home team has about a week window to try to distribute those unsold tickets.

“A school that might have brought 5, 6, 7,000 might only bring only half that now, or 2,000,” Hill said. “So you've got an additional number of seats that opponents would have occupied that are on the market, that will be on the market. So that gives us more inventory so you have to work harder to push that.”

The SEC's $3 billion in television contracts with ESPN and CBS have brought unprecedented revenues to the league. But it's also come at a price to the fan experience. Television has dictated start times through the league that aren't always conducive to fan comfort. Florida's season opener will kick off at 12:21 p.m.

It's the third time in four seasons that the Gators have had an afternoon kickoff for a home opener. August and September are traditionally the hottest and most humid months in Gainesville.

“We would not by choice select a 12:21 kickoff for a game on August 31,” Hill said. “While we're happy that the game is going to be televised, we're not happy about the fact that the heat could be an issue.

“We've expressed our concern to the league. We've expressed our concern moving forward so that there is at least some consideration factored into that. The heat has to be a mitigating factor in these decisions.”

Despite those obstacles, Hill said he expects sellouts this season for home games against Tennessee, Vanderbilt and rival Florida State. UF's home game against Arkansas on Oct. 5 also is closing in on full capacity.

“The fan response has been very good again, very positive in terms of renewal,” Hill said. “We're making that one final push here to try and close the game to try to hit the number that we were at a year ago.”

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