UI fans Iowa

Fans in the student section try to perform a card stunt during halftime of an NCAA college football game against Iowa at Memorial Stadium Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018, on the University of Illinois campus in Champaign.

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CHAMPAIGN — Beer will be flowing, a new patio is ready for students and the Illini home schedule features three top Big Ten opponents.

Whether that will reverse a two-year slide in football attendance remains to be seen, with season ticket sales down slightly from last year at this point.

It’s still early, says Jason Heggemeyer, associate athletic director for ticketing and sales, who calls Illini fans a “notoriously late-buying audience.”

“In terms of numbers, we’re not seeing a sharp increase,” Heggemeyer said. “We are hopeful and we are waiting for that to happen.”

He hopes fans will flock to see Nebraska, Michigan and Wisconsin play at Memorial Stadium in September and October.

“People are excited about the schedule. They’re pretty marquee games,” Heggemeyer said, as Michigan hasn’t visited Champaign since 2011. “Those do seem to be the games that people are most interested in.”

Beer sales, which will be allowed for the first time in general seating, have been “received positively” but were designed to improve fan enjoyment at games, not necessarily be a “decider” on whether people come, he added.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say you can see that in ticket sales,” he said.

Heggemeyer declined to release sales numbers for individual games but is expecting a crowd of 30,000 to 35,000 for the Aug. 31 home opener against Akron.

About 22,000 season tickets have been sold so far, down about 1,000 from last year, he said.

But this is the time when sales typically pick up, as training camp and the new semester get underway and people turn their attention from summer to fall and football, he said.

“We definitely have seen things start to progress,” said Cassie Arner, associate AD for marketing and fan development.

Sales of “I Fund Four Packs” — four season tickets in the east balcony and a parking pass for $350, an affordable option for families — have sold “really well,” she said.

As of Wednesday, fewer than 100 of the 600 offered were still available, topping last year’s sales, and Arner is hopeful they’ll sell out.

The packs have been sold in the past but weren’t targeted in advertising, she said. A digital and social media marketing push is planned for the next two weeks.

That’s just one tool the DIA is using to spur fan interest after seven consecutive losing seasons.

A new fan formula

Average home attendance jumped by about 3,000 in 2016, during Lovie Smith’s first season as head coach, to 45,644. That year also saw the last Illini sellout — against North Carolina, when Illinois lost 48-23. Stadium capacity is 60,670.

But in 2017, the average fell below 40,000 for the first time in decades, to 39,429 — the lowest since 1970.

And last season, the six games at Memorial Stadium drew an average of 36,151 fans, the fewest since 1962. Factor in the 21,725 fans who took in the South Florida game at Soldier Field and the average dropped to 34,090 — the worst since 1945.

A winning team would obviously be the biggest driver of ticket sales.

But the DIA is exploring other ways to lure fans and improve the “game-day experience,” in part to compete with the availability of live sports on streaming services or high-definition TV.

“Every athletic department is starting to think about football games and basketball games much differently than we would 10 to 15 years ago,” said Arner, who worked at Auburn and the University of Houston in between stints at Illinois.

“We do think about it as the whole event, from the minute you leave your house — the traffic, parking, what kinds of activities we can provide outside of the game that make memories, what kinds of things we can do inside the game to make it exciting and create a better atmosphere,” she said.

Amenity No. 1: Beer

The DIA recently surveyed fans — those who go to games and those who don’t — to “get a sense of what we need to prioritize” in terms of facilities and capital improvements as well as amenities, Arner said. Fans were asked to rank priorities for what DIA should invest in and what would make them buy a ticket, she said.

On the facilities side, there were lots of answers, with renovations to the south and east sides of the stadium a top pick, Arner said.

As for amenities, the priorities were clear: beer sales (which were already under consideration), free parking and shuttles — in that order, she said.

Beer will be sold this fall at separate kiosks in the east and west main halls, to keep lines manageable, and at regular concession stands in the horseshoe area, where there isn’t room for separate stands, she said.

In the north end zone, where students sit, one of the four concession stands will be devoted to beer sales, she said.

Marty Kaufmann, senior associate AD for external relations, expects beer sales will prompt more people who have tickets to use them, rather than just tailgating outside. It will pay dividends over the long term, he said, “if the team is more successful and the environment inside the stadium is good.”

Arner thinks it will also help with fan retention — “the people who come to a game and then leave at halftime to go back out to the tailgate,” she said.

Student push starts now

Another addition is a new student patio deck in the northeast corner of the stadium, featuring concessions, high-top tables with umbrellas, outdoor couches and chairs and TVs tuned to other college games.

It’s being developed just outside where the coaches offices were located before moving to the new practice facility east of the stadium. Knocking down a wall connected it to the student Block I section in the north end zone.

Arner said some type of patio deck/bar was second on the priority list among survey respondents 25 years old and younger.

Bar areas or restaurants overlooking the field are popular at Major League Baseball stadiums, where fans can relax, talk to friends and watch the game, Arner said.

“I hope we’re tapping into how that age group really does consume sporting events,” she said. “You can get the ambiance, see the videoboard and also feel like you’re at a social event.”

What was the No. 1 priority for students? Better WiFi service and connectivity, an ongoing issue when tens of thousands of people use their cellphones at once.

Arner said both AT&T and Verizon have improved a distributed antenna system that helps with 4G and 5G service.

“These are the things we hope will help move the needle” on student ticket sales, Arner said.

The Illini Pride pass, which covers student admission to football and men’s basketball games, is $125, or about $6 a game, Arner said. Individual game tickets for students are $10.

The UI sold about 2,500 Illini Pride passes last year, and so far about 1,300 have been sold for this season. The Block I section, which has been a bit sparse of late, holds about 5,000 students.

But the prime sales period starts this week with students returning to campus, Arner and Heggemeyer said.

“Most of the sales are when kids are back,” Heggemeyer said.

Low prices, turnstile count

The nonconference home schedule this year features two smaller schools, Akron and Eastern Michigan. But Heggemeyer said Illini fans have traditionally been more interested in Big Ten games anyway — and don’t buy early.

“We are expecting a lot of business to come in from now until those games,” he said.

Illinois has the lowest ticket prices in the Big Ten, according to a DIA compilation, ranging from $20 to $80 for a Big Ten game. At Penn State, they run from $80 to $240.

Yet Memorial Stadium was 56.2 percent full on average last year, worst in the league. Maryland was next at 64.9 percent.

The Big Ten has a number of schools that regularly sell out and have fans who travel, including Nebraska and Michigan, so there may be some extra red or maize in the stands for those games. Like other schools, they also have lots of alumni in the Chicago area who can make the two-hour trip to Champaign for a game, Heggemeyer said.

Regardless of how many visitors show up, he’s hoping those games generate more Illini fans.

The DIA is promoting an $89 “Family Four Pack” for the Nebraska game, which is a “fantastic” price, he said.

Fans can also get into the horseshoe area for as little as $20 during nonconference games and $35 for most Big Ten games, he said. The only exception is Michigan, “a premium game for us,” when horseshoe tickets will be $65 just like sideline tickets, he said.

‘Helps if they win’

Other promotions this year include:

— The return of the 1980s-era “TailGREAT,” for the Sept. 21 Nebraska game, with lucrative prizes for “best BBQ” and “most creative tailgate.” Top prize is a four-day trip to the Kentucky Derby, with tours of the racetrack and local distilleries, tickets in the grandstand and deluxe hotel accommodations.

Second prize is a suite at the stadium, food and beverages included, for any remaining game this season. Third prize is a $500 shopping spree at Gameday Spirit and a Coca-Cola tailgating package.

— The unveiling and dedication of the new Dick Butkus statue on the east side of the stadium the day before the Oct. 12 Michigan game. On game day, the men’s and women’s basketball teams will be in Grange Grove to meet with fans.

Arner said the overall goal is to improve attendance and “provide a great experience for people who do come.”

Longtime Quarterback Club member Todd Lindsey of Urbana said adding beer sales was a “no brainer” and bringing back TailGREAT for the Nebraska game should produce a good atmosphere if the Illini are competitive at that point.

But he added: “I really think the general fandom around here wants to see the product on the field get better before they start getting too excited. It just always helps if they win. That’s what everybody’s waiting for.”

News-Gazette

Reporter/Columnist

Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).