CHAMPAIGN - Selling Illinois football tickets hasn't been the easiest task in recent years.
Senior associate athletic director Jason Heggemeyer's crew at the Illinois Ticket Office could only do so much to sell a bad product, usually trying to increase interest with creative offers that included decreased ticket prices and concessions and discounted multi-game bundles.
But Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman made their job a lot easier -- and busier -- when he announced Lovie Smith as the new Illini football coach on Monday.
"I can tell you this, there were a lot of fist pumps internally when we heard the news," Heggemeyer said. "Then it was, 'Hey, we better get to work. This is going to be huge.' It's one thing to hire a coach like Lovie, but you got to do the work to be able to handle that kind of response. Fortunately, our staff did a really good job. We we ready for it. We talked to a lot of people yesterday. The results speak for themselves."
Since Smith's hire on Monday, Illinois has sold 2,000 new season-ticket packages, enough to generate morr than $540,000 in revenue -- and that doesn't include the corresponding revenue created through parking, concessions and merchandise.
Last season, Illinois had about 28,000 season-ticket holders last year, which does not include students. Heggemeyer said sales remained "steady" on Tuesday, though they expectedly slowed from Monday's unprecedented pace.
On Monday, hundreds of students -- almost as many who have shown up to a few sparsely attended games in recent seasons -- showed up to the Student Union to catch a glimpse of Smith, the former Chicago Bears coach many grew up watching. Smith made a short speech before shaking hands and taking selfies with the assembled students for more than 20 minutes..
"Lovie gets announced and all of a sudden everyone is all in," Heggemeyer said. "You got new people buying tickets. You got people renewing and getting their stuff in. It was a huge day for us."
Illinois paid football attendance actually increased -- very slightly -- last season, ending a five-year streak of declining attendance. Since the Rose Bowl appearance following the 2007 season, Illinois' performance declined rapidly (17-49 Big Ten record) and attendance mirrored that, dropping 30.9 percent from 2008 to 2015.
|Year||Average attendance||% capacity||% change||B1G rank|
|2008||61,707||98.2||n/a||7 of 11|
|2009||61,745||98.2||+0.1||7 of 11|
|2010||54,188||86.2||-12.2||7 of 11|
|2011||50,687||83.5||-6.59||8 of 12|
|2012||45,564||75.1||-10.1||9 of 12|
|2013||43,787||72.2||-3.9||11 of 12|
|2014||41,349||68.5||-5.5||12 of 14|
|2015||42,647||70.3||+3.1||11 of 14|
Judging by the response in the two days since Smith's hire, 2016 attendance may see its biggest spike since 2008 -- when Illinois attendance rose 12.5 percent following the Rose Bowl.
"Our expectations absolutely changed in a heartbeat," Heggemeyer said. "We held water last year, but let's be honest we weren't near where we'd like to be or where our fans want to be. I think we've done a lot of good things this year in advance of this hiring. But hiring Lovie Smith adds a certain legitimacy. It just makes you relevant again. Our AD stepped up and he made a commitment. Our fans are making that commitment back. I expect our crowds to be bigger. What that level will be? Who knows? We're going to go along for the ride though and find out, and we're going to do everything we can to get as many people there as we can."
Check out Illini football ticket deals at FightingIllini.com.
The Lovie Smith media car wash continued on Tuesday.
After his Monday afternoon introductory press conference, Smith went through an assmebly line of one-on-one interviews with local, Chicago and St. Louis television stations, and appeared on four live radio shows and several live newscasts, wrapping up late Monday night.
Smith continued the media blitz on Tuesday, appearing on a Chicago sports radio station, CBS Sports' nationally syndicated morning show, a local radio station, ESPN Radio's "Mike and Mike" and Fox Sports' "The Herd."
No Illinois hire has created as much national interest nor as much praise.
Mike Golic, a former NFL player and co-host of "Mike and Mike," said "Illinois just struck gold" with the hire.
Former NFL coach Herm Edwards said: "If your family has a young child, he's a football player and Lovie Smith is recruiting him, send him to Illinois."
ESPN personality and Northwestern grad Mike Wilbon said Whitman's hire was "genius."