To the naked eye, a person attending a Coastal Carolina University football game this season would assume there is no way the school will meet the 15,000 in average attendance required by the NCAA of Football Bowl Subdivision programs.
The newly expanded Brooks Stadium now seats approximately 15,500, and it has been maybe 70 percent full at its peak this season.
But the naked eye can’t see total ticket sales, and with one game remaining, Coastal says it will meet the requirement, and all of the others associated with the school’s move from the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA) to the FBS (formerly I-A).
But it’s not going to happen by chance. The school had to get creative and employ some corporate strategies and internal ticket purchases, specifically about 2,500 per game by the Chanticleer Athletic Foundation that have been marketed and distributed by the school’s alumni association.
“We’re not as much concerned about the attendance requirement because we knew we had to meet it, we’ve planned, we’ve implemented strategies with corporate partners so that we sell what we have to sell,” CCU director of athletics Matt Hogue said. “That’s maybe more of a controllable figure because you don’t want to leave yourself up to variables you can’t control, like consumer choice. That wouldn’t be a very smart way to approach it.
“Let’s say you had a hurricane come through. You can’t take a chance on that when you’re up against something that is mandatory. You have to implement strategies to meet the number.”
The CCU football program is in its second year of transitioning to the FBS and the move includes several benchmarks the university must achieve. Other requirements include scholarship and athletic team numbers, but the attendance figure is the one that is most visible to the public.
A school must average 15,000 in attendance at least once every two-year period, with penalties for multi-year violations of the policy including a postseason ban and demotion from the FBS.
Hogue said Coastal is required to meet that minimum this season because it’s in its second transition year. So last year counts even though the Chants played an FCS schedule and didn’t belong to an FBS conference. It joined the Sun Belt Conference in football this year.
The attendance figure can be actual or paid attendance. Coastal is claiming paid attendance, which many non-Power Five Conference schools will do.
“If you know you’re in a situation where we’re growing and changing, obviously paid attendance is what we would go with,” Hogue said. “Paid attendance is not going to be what the optics are at a game.”
According to Hogue, CCU has averaged 14,812 sold tickets through its first five games, and will sell at least 15,930 tickets for Saturday’s season finale against Georgia Southern to hit the 15,000 average for the season.
“We’ve worked on a couple things to add to what we’ve already done for the final game against Georgia Southern,” Hogue said. “We’re confident we’ll be where we need to in order to meet the bylaw.”
The university has to provide its attendance figures to the NCAA by Feb. 15 each year, and include a certified audit to authenticate the figures. The audit is subject to additional NCAA inspection for four years.
Though it will hit its number, Coastal would like to see the gap lessen between paid attendance and actual attendance, and targets much of its marketing to that aim.
“What we’re more interested in, and I think everybody is trying to find improvement, is when you get those tickets sold and they’re in somebody’s possession, whether that’s a sponsor who gives them out at the drive through if they’re a restaurant or whatever it is, is how do you encourage more redemption of what’s out there,” Hogue said. “Then obviously if that occurs your crowd looks good. I think you’re always battling that fine line.
“… For us it’s more about re-promoting use of the ticket more so than it is concern over whether we’re going to meet the requirement, because we have to meet the requirement.”
In order for a sold ticket to be counted by the NCAA, it must be redeemed or sold at a minimum price of one-third of the most expensive ticket price established prior to the season, which Hogue said is a version of a season ticket that is about $25 per game. So a ticket that can be counted for attendance must be sold for more than $8 if it is not redeemed for admission.
“It has been a little bit of a challenge on the messaging when I’ve spoken to folks who ask for comp tickets or whatever the case may be, because we have to stick to that one-third number,” Hogue said.
Hogue said he has worked in a few rare instances for less expensive tickets that have guaranteed a certain number will attend the game, including church and youth groups.
“That’s a slippery slope. That’s something we haven’t tried to bother with a whole lot,” Hogue said. “That becomes very hard to account for, so we’re pretty much just living off that one-third option. … Some of this is counter to what I think you would do in a strict marketing sense. You have to be very careful when you’re doing anything marketing or ticket-wise, especially when you’re working with group sales, that we stay true to those rules.”
CCU students are granted free admission to games.
At the FCS level, Coastal considered students who reserved and picked up a ticket to be part of its paid attendance.
But in order to count for FBS attendance a student must attend the game. They must redeem a ticket to enter, or go through a turnstile or gate that is designated solely for students and has an employee of the athletics department monitoring that entrance who provides a written statement verifying the accuracy of the count.
Band members can be counted for attendance, but that’s about it for anyone who is at the game with a responsibility such as performing or providing a service.
Players, coaches, cheerleaders, event workers and students working as concessionaires, ticket booth attendants, parking lot attendants, ushers, etc., can not be included.
Visiting teams are contracted to purchase a minimum of 300 tickets, and there are often additional visiting team consignment sales. A visiting band could be additional attendance, as well.
The student attendees, visiting team sales and walk-up sales are the three primary variables in paid attendance. Standing room tickets can be sold to exceed the stadium seating capacity.
So how is Coastal meeting the 15,000 requirement?
The school is using a combination of things to get there. They include season tickets, individual game tickets, corporate sales, group sales, special promotion sales and student attendance.
“You don’t just kind of set it and forget it at the beginning of the season. You have to continue to stay on top of it,” Hogue said. “One thing I think we’ve done a good job of is what can we do as a promotion or what can we do working with various groups?
“We’ve had great support from our sponsors and corporate folks who have bought season tickets, we’ve gotten support from our foundation, from our alumni association, so we know we’re going to be there, but these tickets we know are out we want people to use.”
The Chanticleer Athletic Foundation (CAF) is a nonprofit CCU athletics booster organization that is based on campus. It has purchased approximately 15,000 tickets over the course of the season and the school’s alumni association has then enacted promotions offering those tickets for free redemption to recent graduates.
“It’s a twofold strategy,” Hogue said. “One, you’re trying to engage people who have recently graduated, and that helps everybody, and two, it’s a way that we can sell a ticket.”
The Chants have a promotion for the last game that involves students in Horry and Georgetown schools.
The university created special ticket packs – for Sun Belt games only, for example – and held game-day promotions for students that include free food and T-shirt giveaways. Each home game has a theme occasion such as Military Appreciation, Family Weekend, Homecoming, etc., and each game has a game sponsor that is recognized during the game that generally purchases 50 or more tickets.
“It’s really more of an amalgamation of all these little things that are going on from game to game versus something that maybe is out there as an overriding factor,” Hogue said.
The athletic department conducts surveys at the end of the year to determine what fans like and what it should do for game-day activities and promotions.
“Our efforts are more focused on what can we do to energize the market, what can we do to get people excited about coming, and how can we spend our marketing dollars smartly in doing that,” Hogue said. “And then you grow it. This is a build-it-over-time process.”
The other FBS requirements Coastal must meet include: playing at least five home games against FBS opponents; offering a total of either 200 athletic scholarships or $4 million in scholarship grants across all sports; providing an average of at least 90 percent of the 85 maximum allotted football team scholarships over a rolling two-year period; and fielding at least 16 sports including eight all-female and six male or co-ed teams.
Hogue said the school is meeting all requirements. It fields 19 athletic teams.
“We’re basically at our max with every sport in terms of scholarships, so we haven’t been too concerned with that,” Hogue said.
The Chants have to provide the NCAA with scholarship information on every student on athletic scholarship at the school.
CCU not alone
No team has ever been demoted to FCS or below because of poor attendance.
According to NCAA FBS bylaws, failing to satisfy any of the FBS requirements results in a notice. Any further noncompliance within a 10-year period causes the school to be placed in restricted membership, which prohibits postseason play for at least one year. Further noncompliance could result in demotion to the FCS level or below, depending on what qualifications the school meets.
It’s unclear if a school has been reprimanded with more than a notice.
Christopher Radford, the NCAA Associate Director of Public and Media Relations, told The Sun News this week that the NCAA generally does not publicize notices of attendance noncompliance.
There are numerous FBS teams among the 130 in the country in the same position as CCU, having to manufacture ticket sales to meet the 15,000 threshold.
They are generally in the Group of Five Conferences including the Sun Belt, of which Coastal is a member, and Mid-American (MAC).
“We’ve seen all the stories,” Hogue said. “You see what people do and you see there are some real creative strategies out there to sell tickets because it’s a requirement.”
Eastern Michigan annually struggles to meet the attendance requirement and has fallen short in past years, according to NCAA statistics. Pepsi, a corporate partner of the EMU athletics department, purchased as many as 50,000 tickets in 2010 for $3 each to help the school hit its requirement, according to a story in the Ann Arbor News.
Others schools buy the tickets themselves — as the University of Akron reportedly did in 2013. The Zips posted an average attendance of 17,850 that year, but to get to that figure, the school purchased nearly 57,000 tickets at $10 each, according to a 2015 story in Crain’s Cleveland Business magazine.
“There has been discussion about whether or not it’s a reasonable requirement, but I haven’t seen that go anywhere so we carry on fulfilling the bylaw,” said Hogue, who added the school tries to sell all of its tickets in a way that makes them potentially redeemable.
The university will further expand the football stadium to exceed 20,000 seats over the next year, and with the school continuing to grow Hogue believes ticket sales will become less and less of a concern in coming years, even with increasing competition for consumer attention and the availability of all of CCU’s games online and/or on television.
“The thing I’m optimistic about is we have all the ingredients that we’re going to keep growing, because that’s what we’ve done,” Hogue said. “Even this year we’ve seen individual ticket sales increase, we’ve seen our revenue increase. When you look at all those things, things are very healthy. Those things tend to happen more incrementally. That’s what you have to model after.”