CMU athletics focused on football revenue through attendance

The crowd watches the action during Central Michigan University's homecoming football game against Toledo at Kelly/Shorts Stadium Saturday, Oct. 14.

With all Saturday home football games next season, head coach John Bonamego hopes to see the stands in Kelly/Shorts Stadium filled with fans. To him, a stadium full of people means high attendance, which brings energy and enthusiasm. 

The business side of Central Michigan's athletics department values that stadium full of people a little differently – they see fans and revenue. 

It's ticket sales, concessions, T-shirts, parking costs and more. 

Despite not having games televised on ESPN or another network, a typical Saturday game gives CMU the opportunity to earn money for the program, said Craig Willey, deputy athletic director/external operations. 

“Our focus is really on how we can put as many people in that stadium as possible to create a competitive, electric game day environment,” Willey said. “Then, on top of that, generate as much revenue as we possibly can through ticket sales.”

To the business side of the athletics department, attendance brings in dollars through ticket sales and also helps ensure it meets a mandatory Division I attendance requirement. The NCAA mandates that every Division I institution must perform an internal audit and report its attendance numbers by Feb. 15. Universities can choose to submit “actual” or “paid” attendance numbers, according to NCAA bylaws. 

In paid attendance, the universities get to count each ticket sold or student who actually attends the game. In actual attendance, the university only gets to count individuals who physically entered the stadium by keeping tickets, counting on turnstiles or counting manually. 

Central Michigan has struggled to meet attendance requirements in the past. Since 2013, CMU has chosen to submit paid attendance numbers to reach the requirement fo 15,000 people.

NCAA bylaw requires each university to “once every two years on a rolling basis … average at least 15,000 in actual or paid attendance for all home football games.” 

This means that if a university does not reach 15,000 people in attendance on average for one season, the team can still meet the requirement in the next season. 

Universities which do not meet the 15,000 requirement could face penalties which include being stripped of Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) status. However, there is little evidence of any Division I universities facing this penalty. 

In 2012, former Athletic Director Dave Heeke admitted that the certified attendance numbers were not accurate of how many people were actually in the stadium. However, he said there was no history of penalty. 

Willey couldn't recall the NCAA taking action regarding low attendance numbers, either. The NCAA Division I manual states that the universities first are issued a warning of noncompliance, then run the risk of being restricted for a 10-year period. 

The results of CMU's internal audit showed attendance figures for last year's home games: 

 August 31, Rhode Island – 17,666

Sept. 23, Miami University – 19,072

Oct. 14, University of Toledo – 19,330

Nov. 8, Eastern Michigan University – 10,626

Nov. 24, Northern Illinois University – 8,413

Average Attendance: 15,021

What is a 'paid ticket'?

According to the NCAA, “paid attendance counts as tickets sold for at least one-third of the highest regular established ticket price, regardless of whether they are used for admission to the game.”

If tickets are sold at less than one-third of the highest regular established ticket price, the ticket must be used for admission to be counted in the certified attendance number. 

“Attendance is our top priority, but revenue generation is a key component to that,” Willey said. “Those revenue streams are critical to the growth, sustainability and success of our athletic teams.”

Students are counted if they attend the games, because even though they do not pay for individual tickets, the university allocates general operation funds to the athletic department — which counts as the equivalent of a student athletics fee. Student attendance is verified when students enter the gate and are counted by a representative of the department. 

Players, cheerleaders, coaches and student who work at the games are not counted in the attendance requirement numbers. However, members of the band can be included in the count for actual or paid attendance. 

In the 2018 season, the Chippewas will take on Kansas, Maine, Buffalo, Ball State, Western Michigan and Bowling Green at home in Kelly/Shorts Stadium. Last season, the Chippewas only had two Saturday home football games.