Declining attendance is an issue facing college football programs across the country.
Many fans find the comforts of home – and the picture quality on their high-definition TV – reason enough to avoid the crowds. Others are turned off by the poor quality of matchups or a program’s lack of success. Other are simply busy with other priorities.
The University of Tennessee is not immune.
Getting more fans in the stands has become a priority for the UT athletic department. Paid attendance at the 102,038-seat Neyland Stadium – the fourth-largest in college football – was 650,087 in 2018. That’s more than 64,000 below capacity and the lowest since 2012 when 629,752 attended seven games.
The actual number of fans was likely even less, since the amount signifies tickets sold versus actual bodies in the seats. Anyone watching games the last few seasons could see pockets of empty seats scattered throughout the stadium.
Hoping to inspire more fans to make the trip to Neyland Stadium this fall, Tennessee has introduced the Vol Pass for football.
An alternative to the traditional season ticket package, the Vol Pass plan allows fans to secure different seats each week to all home games via an online selection process before each game with a mobile ticket delivery.
The cost is $280, and Vol Pass can be purchased at AllVols.com until mid-July.
Vol Pass membership is activated with an AllVols.com account after the initial purchase.
On the Monday morning before each home game, Vol Pass members will receive access to select their tickets and seat inventory until noon ET Friday. During the seat selection process, members will have the opportunity to purchase additional single-game tickets, if available, at face value.
Tickets with a QR code to scan must be downloaded to a mobile phone to gain entry into each game. No tickets will be mailed or held at will call for pick up.
“We are always looking for ways we can enhance the fan experience or make the buying process more accommodating to our fans and we think this option does that,” says Jimmy Delaney, UT’s associate athletics director for fan experience and sales. “We’ve offered the Vol Pass for a few seasons for men’s and women’s basketball and saw how much folks like the ease of it. It was all positive feedback, and we think it’s going to be something football fans will enjoy as well.”
Last week, the Vols announced the kickoff times for their first three games of the 2019 season, all at home. Tennessee hosts Georgia State on Aug. 31 at 3:30 p.m. ET, BYU on Sept. 7 at 7 p.m. and Chattanooga on Sept. 14 at noon.
If fans purchase the Vol Pass for this season’s eight home games, they will not be purchasing tickets in the same seats for every game like traditional season tickets.
“The seats can vary, and fans can choose to try another part of the stadium and get a different angle,” Delaney adds. “Groups of friends, family or co-workers can each buy one and choose to sit together. If they have someone coming into town with them, they can add an additional seat.”
In his 15th season at UT, Delaney says he has seen a change in fan behavior from when he first started, with the challenge of attracting fans to games increasing. UT’s staff can’t control kickoff times, opponents, weather, traffic or the success of the product on the field.
They’ve also had to overcome cultural changes, with technology impacting the fan experience and younger generations being more fickle with their discretionary income.
Fans need to feel justified spending an entire day at a college football stadium.
“We have to give our fans as easy a path as we can to come onto campus and come to Neyland Stadium,” Delaney explains. “We try to do things a little bit different every single game so they don’t think, ‘I’ve already seen this, why should I come again?’ You can watch it on TV or see clips on social media, but we want to make them feel like it’s cool to see it in person and be a part of that experience.
“We have started to say here, ‘it’s not Neyland without you.’”
Tennessee’s Fan Experience unit has worked hard to make an impact at every venue on campus, not just for football games.
The group was honored recently by the National Association of Collegiate Marketing Administrators, which selected Tennessee as one of three finalists for its 2019 Marketing Team of the Year Award.
Tennessee joins Washington and Purdue as finalists. The winner will be announced June 10-12 in Orlando.
The combined attendance for football and men’s and women’s basketball at UT in 2018-19 was 1,129,973, which led the nation.
Among the creative marketing strategies the Tennessee Fan Experience unit employed during that time were: Checker TBA, the season-long Hoops Hype pregame light show for basketball, a baseball partnership with the Colton Underwood’s Legacy Foundation, the installation of a POW/MIA chair at Neyland Stadium, a Donate Life Night during a basketball game and a softball game themed after The Office.
“The fact that we were even nominated is awesome. Tons and tons of different schools applied. Everybody asks, ‘What do you guys do in your job? Now we actually have something physical to say, ‘Here is a chunk of what we do.’” explains Kelsey Bacon, UT’s assistant director of fan marketing. “It’s not everything, but it’s good to see on paper just how much different stuff we do day in and day out.”
Tennessee hosted an NCAA softball regional last month at Sherri Parker Lee Stadium, with one day lasting more than 10 hours and not ending until after 10:30 p.m. The Lady Vols were not even playing in the final two games of the night, but the marketing crew still made sure the environment was rewarding for all fans in attendance.
Two little girls cheering for North Carolina had wide smiles on their faces while taking part in a dance contest between innings.
“We pride ourselves on doing our best and knocking out the stuff we have decided to do, but then taking it to the next level,” Bacon says. “Anything we can do to add a little bit extra to somebody’s day is what matters. If we had one group that had a good time then I leave here having a good day.”
Tennessee’s ticketing and marketing team is not immune from borrowing ideas to draw more fans to games.
“There has always been a sports model of selling tickets and we look around at how everyone is changing their model, and we have studied what some pro teams and minor-league teams have done and what some other college and SEC programs have done,” Delaney says. “We say all the time we want to find the best practice and make it Tennessee and make it benefit Vol Nation.”
Although receiving awards always feels good, the most satisfaction Tennessee’s ticket and marketing team receives is seeing fans streaming through the gates with smiles on their faces.
“There have been some rough seasons, but folks stay here and put their nose down because of a place like Tennessee,” Delaney adds.
“Coach [Phil] Fulmer says it all the time that this is family and preaches warmth, and I think that is exactly why all of us want to be part of it. We take a lot of pride about working at Tennessee.”