Fans endure tight times

Some aren't buying, but schools find season tickets for football are still selling.

Staff WriterAugust 5, 2009 

Even during a severe economic recession, college football fans in the Carolinas have been reluctant to part with their season tickets.

With practice beginning this week, athletics officials at Bowl Subdivision schools in the Carolinas generally are reporting modest decreases at the most in season-ticket sales.

Two of the six schools surveyed -- Duke and East Carolina -- are reporting sales increases over a year ago. (South Carolina was the only FBS school in the Carolinas for which season ticket figures were not immediately available early this week.)

Defending Conference USA champion East Carolina had sold 20,824 season tickets as of Saturday, compared to 20,683 the previous year. The school also already has sold out of single-game individual tickets for the season-opening home game against Appalachian State.

At Duke, excitement over coach David Cutcliffe's first season in 2008 resulted in a 60 percent increase over 2007 season-ticket sales. Duke sports information director Art Chase said that as of Tuesday, sales from 2009 are ahead of 2008.

"Obviously, the foundation that was created a year ago is what you hope continues to build as the program builds," Chase said.

Other schools are facing small deficits compared to last year. Wake Forest has sold 14,500 season tickets after selling 15,000 last year. North Carolina is about 1,400 tickets short of last year's sold-out season total of 36,100.

As of Monday, North Carolina was just 100 season tickets short of the second-highest total of all time. Associate athletic director Clint Gwaltney said football has benefited from the momentum the athletics program generated with an NCAA title in men's basketball and a College World Series appearance.

The Tar Heels also won eight games and a bowl game for the first time in seven years last season under popular coach Butch Davis.

"I think North Carolina fans are very excited about football right now," Gwaltney said. "Coach Davis has done a good job building this program up to where it has been, and hopefully we're going to carry the torch and take it further. I think our fans recognize that and want to be a part of it."

N.C. State's numbers are similar to North Carolina's. Season-ticket sales for the Wolfpack were just short of 36,600 on Monday.

For the past eight years, N.C. State has sold out its season tickets. The 2008 total was 37,500. N.C. State assistant athletics director Brian Kelly said the economy has taken a toll.

"When we did our non-renewal phone calls, there were definitely some fans that said that, and we completely understand," Kelly said.

Kelly said the school has a plan to allow fans to buy season tickets in payments over multiple months. He said that plan was started late in the season-ticket cycle and will function more effectively now that it is in place for men's basketball and future football seasons.

Clemson is facing a more significant downturn. Sales are down 11.7 percent after the school sold a record 58,134 season tickets in 2008, when the Tigers were the preseason media favorites to win the ACC.

Expectations aren't as high now as coach Dabo Swinney begins his first full season. Sales are lagging even though fans' interest remains high. Clemson still has sold more than 51,000 tickets and saw 4,000 "C.J. Spiller for Heisman" posters distributed within hours at local outlets.

Tim Bourret, Clemson's sports information director, said some fans may have been more inclined to wait and purchase individual-game tickets this fall.

Clemson is one school offering what are known as "mini-plans" that include tickets to more than one game but not the entire season. The school is packaging Florida State and Coastal Carolina tickets together, for example, for $95.

On Friday, N.C. State began selling mini-plans offering tickets to South Carolina and Murray State for $87 and to Clemson and Gardner-Webb for $80. Athletic director Lee Fowler said that strategy should help N.C. State sell out this season again.

That's crucial, because Fowler said the athletics department budget was based on selling out eight home games.

"We still think we're going to sell out," he said. "It's just going to be a little bit different than it was in the past."

ktysiac@charlotteobserver.com or 919-829-8942

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