Mon May 19: Football ticket sales steady

Mon May 19: Football ticket sales steady

CHAMPAIGN – After a 2-9 season and lagging attendance, some University of Illinois season-ticket holders thought they might take advantage of the situation.

They put in a call to UI ticket manager Mike Hatfield looking for an upgrade.

Not so fast, Hatfield had to tell them.

"I've had 15 or 20 people say, 'Hey, I just assume you're going to move me because the numbers are down,' " Hatfield said.

But the season-ticket numbers might not be down, Hatfield said. Last year, the school sold 27,000-28,000. With a May 1 deadline for ticket renewal, Hatfield still is waiting to find out the number for 1997.

"We don't have everything in yet, but I'd say our season (sale) is coming in very similar to last year," Hatfield said. "You always have a few that don't renew because they're no longer living here or they're no longer living anywhere. You have some attrition every year."

But generally, Hatfield said, the numbers don't change much.

"The most consistent group is the season-ticket holder," Hatfield said. "The problem is not how do we fill in between the goal lines. Those are filled. The problem is how do you fill the ones outside the goal line."

Many seats outside the goal lines were empty in '97. The average attendance of 51,155 was the second lowest in 17 seasons. Illinois failed to draw more than 57,000 for any game and continued a nonsellout streak that dates to the '95 opener against Michigan.

Three groups buy season tickets: the public, students and faculty. Hatfield counts on about 3,000 faculty tickets each year. The public sale has ranged from 15,000 to 27,000 during the glory years of the Mike White era. The student sale, as high as 15,000 in the mid-80s, dropped to about 6,600 last season.

"It's similar to what you see when you go to your old high school football games," Hatfield said. "In the '60s and '70s, that was the thing to do. There's other things to do now.

"If kids aren't going to their high school games in a town where they've lived for 15 or 18 years, the odds of them paying for a ticket to come here aren't as high as they were years ago."

With a new coaching staff in place, Illinois is hoping for a ticket turnaround.

"Our coaches are optimistic, and they're realistic," Hatfield said. "Our fans are optimistic. We've got a plan. It's not a short-term plan. We think this thing is going to get back on its feet, but it's going to take a little bit."

Right now, Hatfield's main concern is the Illini home opener Sept. 6 against Southern Mississippi. The game will start at 6 p.m., the first night game at Illinois in 10 years.

Single-game tickets went on sale May 1, and the Southern Miss game has drawn plenty of sales.

"I think if it continues like it is, we'd be looking at 60,000," Hatfield said. "That would be a good start for us. If folks feel good about that, they're going to come back."

The school is rolling three promotions into one for the opener. The game is being dubbed the Illinois Band and Pork Barbecue Fest. That's a combination of past promotions Band Day, Pork Day and Tailgreat.

All but the finale against Michigan State have some sort of promotional tie-in. The Sept. 20 game against Washington State is part of Dad's Day. On Oct. 4, it's Penn State on Varsity I Day. The Oct. 25 game against Purdue is Homecoming. And when Northwestern visits on Nov. 8, it will be Sibling's Day and 4H Day.

Ticket costs have changed. In the past, select single-game tickets were higher priced. This year, all single-game tickets are $25, except for the $12 seats in the first five rows of the stadium and the north bleachers.

Regular season tickets are $137. A season ticket in the horseshoe section costs $113. Season tickets in the first five rows and the north bleachers are $77.

Ex-Illini Baseball update

– John Ericks, Pittsburgh Pirates – The News-Gazette jinx is starting to rival Sports Illustrated's famous curse. Ericks was rolling along just fine until we decided to do a feature story on him. Since then, pitching has been a pain in the neck, literally, for the Pirates closer. Ericks went on the disabled list with a pinched nerve in his neck. He was to begin a rehab assignment this weekend, but the injury still hasn't healed. Off to a great start with six saves early in the season, Ericks' dream of a healthy year is gone.