Asmussen: Illinois football a tough sell
It’s easy to sell football tickets at Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska.
Send out a group email, maybe a flier or two and wait for fans to start lining up.
They always have. They always will.
Want a challenge? Step into Jason Heggemeyer’s office.
For nine years, Heggemeyer has been in charge of selling tickets for an inconsistent Illinois football program.
Sure, there have been positive bumps.
Like right after the team reached the 2008 Rose Bowl. But that out-of-character season was followed by 5-7 and 3-9.
Any ticket-selling momentum was zapped by the failure of the program to keep winning.
There was a coaching change, followed by more losses.
In his first two years, Tim Beckman’s teams went 6-18. Not a great way to put fans in the seats.
“There’s no question that people are more excited to buy tickets and come to games when the team is doing well,” Heggemeyer said. “There are a great core of fans who have been with us a long time that are happy to go out to games and see our team. When we’re playing well, the tickets sell faster. There’s no question about that.”
In 2013, the team averaged 43,787 at Memorial Stadium, which seats more than 60,000.
Heggemeyer and the Illinois athletic department have tried to make it easier on the fans’ bank accounts.
A few years back, the school introduced special pricing for the horseshoe section.
Those seats filled up quickly in the early years.
Last year, capacity in the horseshoe was at 97 percent to 98 percent.
As the school completes season ticket renewals for 2014, there are about 2,000 $99 season tickets waiting to be gobbled up.
“This is a regular occurrence,” Heggemeyer said, “It’s just part of the natural ticketing cycle. Not everybody comes back every year. Then, you get new customers to replace them.
“We have a sales team now. We have a group of four individuals who are working full time to help us identify new ticket-holders and build some new relationships. We’re working pretty hard at it, and we’ve had some success at it. The sales team already has sold 1,500 new season tickets.”
Last year, the $99 pricing was expanded beyond the horseshoe into the main grandstand (sections 102 and 109).
The cheaper seats have been popular.
“We like to refer to that as the best value in college football,” Heggemeyer said. “It’s a great price. We’re trying to put an affordable package out to our community. People have responded to that.”
At a meeting in January, the athletic department decided to keep the same number of value-priced seats.
“We didn’t add any,” Heggemeyer said. “Right now, we’re pretty comfortable with what we have available at that price.”
Illinois is trying to find a balance between drawing more fans into the stadium and adding to its football revenue.
“In any business, people who are pricing their products always have that decision to make,” Heggemeyer said. “We try to do both.
“In recent years, our focus has been more on putting a price where it’s affordable and competitive in the marketplace.”
Heggemeyer talks to the other ticket managers in the Big Ten.
“I think setting prices at Illinois is different than at Minnesota or different than at Penn State,” Heggemeyer said.
Someday, Heggemeyer hopes to be like his cohorts at Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska.
He wants to be the one with a waiting list.
He wants to be the one with a long sellout streak.
Right now, that number is at zero.
Last time at home, Illinois drew 37,058 for a late-November game against Northwestern.
In 2013, Illinois sold about 30,000 season tickets.
That’s close to where the number has been in recent years.
Before the Rose Bowl season, season-ticket sales were below 30,000.
The quality of opponents can help. But the spike is more likely for single-game sales than for season tickets.
Fans aren’t likely to buy a year’s worth of seats just because Penn State and Iowa are on the schedule.
“A season ticket-holder is really interested in coming to see Illinois and enjoying the tailgating,” Heggemeyer said.
“For them, it’s not just about the football game. It’s about the whole gameday experience.”
Heggemeyer came to Illinois in 2005. Before that, he worked at Missouri and Pitt.
How about a comparison?
“The fan base here is a lot better than it was at Mizzou or at Pitt,” Heggemeyer said.
Bob Asmussen writes Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.