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What’s Cutting Into Ohio State Football Ticket Sales?

A full crowd at Ohio Stadium.
The Ohio State University
A full crowd at Ohio Stadium.

The crowd was deafening inside Ohio Stadium for the kickoff of last year’s game against Michigan. But lately, it’s perhaps a little less deafening than before.

Rivalry matchups still push attendance toward capacity, but Ohio State University's numbers overall have been slipping.

On billboards around Columbus, Ohio State is now advertising tickets for football games. That's quite a departure for what were once near-unattainable tickets. 

“You know, when I was a real young kid, my dad and my uncle would park cars in the site that is now the Schottenstein Center, because part of the compensation was that it got you a ticket into the game,” explains Rob Baumann.

Baumann grew up in Columbus and earned a Ph.D. in economics at Ohio State. Now, he teaches at College of the Holy Cross and writes about things like the economics of sports.

“I think what you’re seeing at Ohio State, honestly, is endemic of what’s happening to sports attendance really overall,” he says. “College football, their attendance is still pretty robust, because quite honestly it’s a lot worse in the other major American professional sports.”

Last year, Ohio State’s ticket sales took a sharp downward turn, falling by slightly more than 4,000 tickets per game on average. That is a 10-year low, but the outlook is far from dire.

Ohio Stadium holds well over 100,000 people, so the drop-off in sales represents a decline of less than 5%. And in terms of home attendance figures reported to the NCAA, Ohio State came in third overall last year. Throw in away and neutral-site games, and the team ranks second in the nation.

Ohio State running back Demario McCall, left, is tackled by Michigan defenders Tyree Kinnel, center, and Devin Bush on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018, in Columbus.
Credit Jay LaPrete / Associated Press
Associated Press
Ohio State running back Demario McCall, left, is tackled by Michigan defenders Tyree Kinnel, center, and Devin Bush on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018, in Columbus.

When it comes to why fans aren’t showing up at home, though, ticket broker Tim Louters just starts pulling frames off his wall.

“This is 1999,” he says, looking over a framed ticket and news clip, commemorating former head coach John Cooper’s 100th win. “Thirty-eight dollar ticket versus Cincinnati.”

Louters runs Tickets Galore in Dublin. He notes a ticket from four years earlier was just $20—an increase of almost 100% in four years. 

Now, the university uses dynamic pricing. This season, some games are as cheap as $60, but others are a tad more expensive.

“The Penn State game I think is dabbed as the premium game at the end of November, you know the face value is $198,” Louters says. “Tack on service fees, parking, you’re at $500 easily.”

While attendance costs have risen, Ohio State Athletics Department spokesman Jerry Emig acknowledges the televised game has only gotten better.

“You know, just the combination of the technology and the times we’re in right now, is causing the subtle but general declines in fan attendances for quite frankly most of the live entertainment events,” Emig says.

Fans are also demanding more at games. The university recently took the leap into selling beer at the stadium, and it’s working on upgrades to improve cell phone service and WiFi. Emig explains they’re also changing their approach to season tickets in hopes of attracting more visitors.

“We didn’t ever really advertise for that,” Emig explains. “We did a little bit this year for that, but what we really did was for the first time ever put forth some mini plans. You know, we’re really trying to respond to the needs and wishes of our fan base.”

Over the past decade, public season ticket sales have shown the most consistent downward trend—starting at 41,000 per game and winding up just north of 36,000.

But even if people appear less inclined to show up in person, it doesn’t seem as though demand for the team’s games is flagging. Ten years ago, the school’s sports media rights brought in $23.5 million. Now they generate nearly $43 million.

And according to FOX, 13.2 million people tuned into last year’s Ohio State-Michigan game, making it their most watched regular season game ever.

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.