Disconnect between reported attendance, NCAA requirements
While Central Michigan University is in compliance with NCAA Division I standards for football game attendance, a dwindling student base and declining attendance continues to plague the program.
A large share of the compliance is due to the 5,500 season tickets bought by International Management Group, a global sports and media company.
The 2013 football paid attendance summary sent to the NCAA states that CMU averaged 15,332.6 people in paid attendance over five home games. Students averaged 3,063.8 in paid attendance this season, accounting for 19.98 percent of the total.
The NCAA Division I manual states that a member of the Football Bowl Subdivision, like CMU, must average at least 15,000 in actual or paid attendance for all home football games on a two-year rolling basis.
According to the statistics guidelines and policies released by the NCAA, "Attendance figures for official box scores and/or NCAA reports can be calculated by turnstile count, tickets sold or estimates. Schools should make every effort to record an attendance figure on each statistical box score it produces." If these figures are not met, CMU would not be eligible to play any postseason game.
"I'd like to say we want to sell out every game – maybe that’s where we start," said CMU Director of Athletics Dave Heeke. "Practically, we look at our best games, we try to market them and promote them."
Heeke said CMU will subscribe to the paid attendance option in the future, which counts tickets sold for at least one-third of the highest established ticket price, regardless of whether they are used for admission. Tickets sold at less than one-third of that price were only counted if admitted.
This means tickets sold count for bodies in the seats, regardless of if the person physically enters the stadium or not.
The numbers submitted to the NCAA by Feb. 15 are a result of an internal audit conducted by the university and signed by University President George Ross. The internal audit observed the process by which tickets are counted per-game and reviewed the final count figures.
Students did not account for more than 30 percent of the total paid attendance in a single game this season, and student attendance plummeted as the year went on. Only 102 students attended the last home game against Eastern Michigan on Nov. 30, accounting for one percent.
Meanwhile, 8,000 season tickets were consistently sold at each home game, in large part due to 5,528 season tickets sold to young alumni, retirees, and Central Michigan college client, IMG. According to Central Michigan Athletics, 5,500 of those tickets were sold to IMG.
"We have two-fold engagement strategies," said Director of External Operations Craig Willey. "We target certain segments that come in on a promotion, and utilize sponsor tickets through IMG. We align ourselves in a game-by-game basis to try to get as many people into that stadium as we can."
IMG alone is equal to about one-third of the 15,000 needed per home game.
These tickets were the cheapest season ticket option, sold for $40, but accounted for $220,000 in revenue this season. In comparison, all other season ticket packages combined, including the most expensive club suite tickets valued at $130, brought in $220,880 in revenue.
Because tickets are counted as an attended patron after being sold, it puts into question how many people actually enter the stadium on game day.
According to CMU Athletic Communications, immediately after every game CMU submits a stat package which includes attendance figures for that day. It has nothing to do with the audited report, but is compiled by the NCAA as an announced attendance report early in the year.
Released in early January, these reported attendance numbers are determined differently for each school, and are not an official means of gauging attendance.
Willey said CMU uses a "formula based on a number of variables," to determine the number they record in their press information. Students, season tickets, complimentary tickets, working staff, band, the media and those on the Friends of Program list and pass list are compiled.
Greg Stiener, assistant athletic director for media relations at Eastern Michigan, said EMU bases its estimates on the tickets that passed through their turnstiles.
With these varying tactics, there can be a drastic difference between the estimates and reality.
What CMU and other schools have subscribed to is a method that counts the tickets that have been sold, regardless if these people actually attend or not.
"We can debate whether it's an effective or appropriate rule mandated by the NCAA to be a Division I program, but it is one component that many institutions across the country have to wrestle with," Heeke said. "Our feeling is, let's make sure we don’t have to worry about that so our focus can be on trying to attract people to come to the game to build our fan base year-to-year, not just game-to-game or over one season."
While on paper CMU has complied with the regulations of the NCAA, they have reported the lowest-estimated attendance numbers since 2004.
Drawing a crowd
Many different factors affect attendance including the date, weather, and other Division I games in the state.
Heeke said dealing with different generation of fans who aren’t used to going to games as a primary social activity or part of their family activities is a challenge.
"It's very challenging when you can sit at home and watch multiple games in the comfort of a climate-controlled area," Heeke said. "It's a far different experience now, we have a generation that was raised on that; it’s a national problem. How do we change the experience in the stadium to meet the demands of the consumer?"
In October, Central Michigan Life reported that season ticket sales have been at their lowest since 2006.
Down significantly from the record 4,880 season tickets purchased in 2012, 3,453 tickets were sold for the 2013 five-game home football schedule, according to figures released to CM Life by the CMU athletics department. That’s an 11-percent decrease from the average over the last eight seasons.
Willey declined to blame falling numbers strictly on the football team’s performance in October, pointing to economic conditions, an aging season-ticket base that might not be in the region all season and an unfavorable five-game home schedule as possible reasons for the decline.
He said, while new season ticket holders are being added each season, retention is a problem.
Willey said attracting students is another top priority – evidenced by the 15,359 total student attendance this season.
"I just went to the two games this year for the experience," said Ludington freshman Jessamyn Wolff. "I didn't really know what was happening in the game to be honest. Being in band in high school, I can understand the importance of supporting the football team, but after going to the games here, I was dissatisfied."
CMU students can attend all sporting events for free, and Heeke has said there have been no talks of charging students.
"We view it as a benefit to our student body," Heeke said. "Unlike Michigan, MSU and other schools around the country, we hope that they benefit (from) that perk of coming here."
In reviewing Central Michigan's numbers since 2004, a winning record has had no direct correlation to attendance. The 3-9 Chippewas of 2010 saw the highest attendance numbers per game since 2006.
This season, CMU estimated its per game attendance to be 13,224 – the worst-reported attendance figure since 2004 – where CMU had a 4-7 record, but managed to pull in 15,043 per game.
Another factor for students is the return of tailgating at games.
"I care about the games to a point because I love football, but when (the team) is down at halftime, there's no reason to stay," said Manchester junior Nathan Jackson. "I'll go to tailgate and have a good time, but when they shut it down, I go to the game and only stay until halftime."
While this is one of many factors, its reintroduction in the 2012 season increased non-audited total attendance estimates from 76,456 to 112,249.
"The student body creates the atmosphere, it's disappointing when they don’t come and support their team and their classmates in the stands," Heeke said. "Tailgating at all levels is part of the game day experience ... we provide a real safe, friendly, quality experience for tailgating to happen."
According to announced numbers released by the NCAA in January, CMU sits in the upper third of MAC teams in per-game attendance. The average home game attendance in the last five years is 16,940, compared to 18,360 at WMU and 6,628 at EMU.
"Does it matter if you have no one at your game, or 15,000, or 110,000?" Heeke asked. "Does that somehow deem that you shouldn’t play football at this school because you can't reach 15,000? If the school makes the decision to play football, why should it matter? It's their decision how they want to manage the game and what they think their expectation is and what makes it a viable program"