USA Today // Trevor Ruszkowski

Following Lovie Smith's hire, Illini football ticket sales are 'trending up'

Illini expecting bigger crowds to start the 2016 than past few seasons

CHAMPAIGN - Illinois football hosted a crowd of 36,693 for last season's home opener against Kent State -- at least that's what the official record states.

That official number reflects the quantity of tickets sold to last season's opener. But after the Friday night opener was postponed due to inclement weather, only about 12,000 fans went through the turnstiles the following Saturday for the make-up date -- providing an odd backdrop of empty bleachers (more empty than usual) to what had already been an odd start to the Illini season (head coach Tim Beckman fired the week prior to the season opener).

The 2016 opener should provide a much fuller and more festive crowd. Illinois football tickets are a much hotter item (even against FCS opponent Murray State). The Lovie bump is real.

"It's funny, all of a sudden this week, I have a lot more friends," joked Jason Heggemeyer, Illinois associate athletic director and head of the ticketing office

Heggemeyer said Illinois expects about 45,000 for Saturday's opener, which would be a 22 percent increase over last year's opener. The last home opener to draw more than 45,000 was a 2011 win over Arkansas State (fun fact: which was then led by current Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze), which came after the Illini's 2010 win over Robert Griffin III and Baylor in the Texas Bowl.

"We're trending upward," Heggemeyer said.

Illinois has added more than 4,000 new season-ticket packages since Lovie Smith's arrival. Heggemeyer said student season ticket packages are up to 2,500 this year, higher than either of the last two seasons. But Saturday's surge also is due to a special, creative promotion. Illinois partnered with professional services giant Deloitte to offer two complimentary tickets to all Illinois students for the opener. Heggemeyer said the ticket office has already given away 7,000 tickets to students for Saturday's game as part of the promotion.

"It's turning into a good crowd," Heggemeyer said. "We're pretty fired up. It's still growing. We're looking at 45 (thousand) right now, but every day that goes by, we're talking more and more people. Hopefully, we sell a few thousand before the game kicks off."

But the Lovie bump only goes so far.

Illinois averaged a paid attendance of 42,647 last season, 11th in the Big Ten ahead of only Maryland, Purdue and Northwestern. Illinois hasn't averaged more than 50,000 fans per home game since 2011 and had just one home game last season that topped 50,000 (when No. 3 Ohio Sate came to town on Nov. 14).

Just like Lovie's rebuilding effort on the field. The Illini's attendance rebuilding effort will take some time. "I don't think we'll get close to a sellout (this year)," Heggemeyer said. "We might have sections that might sell out, but you'll never hear me use that term. Because as soon as you hear that term, people will stop buying."

Illinois could hit a milestone for next week's home game. Smith's arrival combined with primetime kickofff (6:30 p.m.), premier opponent (North Carolina is No. 22 in this week's AP poll) and an aggressive ticket offer have turned the Week 2 attendance into "our premier crowd right now," Heggemeyer said.

Illinois hasn't topped an attendance of 50,000 for a nonconference home game since the Illini upset No. 22 Arizona State at home in a primetime game in 2011. To help try and top that number, Illinois has offered a family four-pack that included four tickets and a $20 concession voucher for just $49. Illinois has sold 6,000 tickets as part of that deal.

"Right now, that crowd is trending toward the 50,000 type number (for North Carolina)" Heggemeyer said. "We have a little bit of work to do there still, but with an offer like the four pack that we have going, we're seeing numbers every single day from that. Quite frankly, we continue to keep building on that through this week and next week. Let's kick it off on Saturday. Let's go beat Murray State, and let's see where that momentum takes us into North Carolina. That's the game everyone's asking about. It's a night game. It's a marquee opponent. We got a really good ticket offer. Hopefully we'll get good weather and put it all together and we'll get a good crowd."

Could Illinois continue to offer free student tickets?

When asked if Illinois could feasibly offer free tickets to students for all games in the future, Heggemeyer said:

"Obviously you have to look at what the revenue is on that. How much revenue are you getting to give away those tickets versus how much are you can sell them for? For us right now, this individual game offer makes sense for us. So we went with it. We've talked about that for the last few years: what do we need to do to get our students more involved within our football program? This was a step we were willing to take. All things are on the table moving forward, but we really need to see what happens right now. It's not just about ticket offers and ticket packaging. We could work on that for days and weeks and years. But the real deal is there has to be excitement in that stadium. Right now, with the hiring of Coach Smith and with the momentum we've had, that right now is our biggest asset. What we need to do is find ways to package those things along with that excitement so that we provide great offers for a product that people want. The saying around the office is that we want to sell things that people want to buy. We don't want to try to sell things we want them to buy."

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