Ticket sales lag

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Things are tough all over. Just ask the Auburn Tigers, who won college football's national title in 2010 but still saw a drop in season-ticket sales for 2011.

If Auburn experienced a decline after winning an NCAA championship, you can imagine what has happened to Tennessee's season-ticket sales on the heels of 5-7, 7-6, 6-7 and 5-7 records the past four years.

Chris Fuller, senior associate athletics director for external operations, doesn't have to imagine. He knows the figures all too well.

"We've been on sort of a slide for almost eight years," he said recently. "Since 2002 we've gone down — at times in slow increments and at times in bigger increments."

The latest increment currently stands at nearly 10 percent. After selling 61,400 season tickets in 2011, the Vols have sold just 57,000 for 2012. Although the renewal deadline passed May 1, Tennessee is still working the phones to try and match last year's figure.

"We're still busy," Fuller said. "Our deadline has always been a little bit of a loose deadline. There are still accounts we're working with and trying to get renewed, so we're optimistic we'll get back to at least the threshold we were at last year."

Tennessee surveyed ticket-holders last year asking for ways to improve the game-day experience. The fans responded with considerable candor, prompting some changes that should be noticeable during the 2012 season.

"We're rolling out some improvements at the stadium this year that were a direct response to the ticket survey we did last year," Fuller said. "Hopefully, that will be a demonstration to our fans that we heard them."

Tennessee's all-time high for season-ticket sales was 76,000. Now that Neyland Stadium has more sky boxes and fewer seats, there aren't as many season tickets available as seven years ago.

"Our overall season-ticket capacity is 72,500," Fuller said, "so we're quite a distance from where we want to be with that."

The 2011 Auburn Tigers notwithstanding, programs that win generally sell plenty of season tickets. Tennessee hasn't won big since 2001, when it went 11-2 and finished No. 4 nationally. The '02 Vols slipped to 8-5 and season-ticket sales have been eroding ever since.

"It's time we start giving some things back to our fans competitively," Fuller said. "Our issues are well documented. Part of it is that we need to get our performance back. Coach Dooley and his staff are taking care of that, in terms of our roster and the coaching."

Improving the on-field performance doesn't solve every problem, though.

"I also think there's a lot of other factors that are happening everywhere, not just here," Fuller said. "Last year Auburn was the defending national champion and their season-ticket sales were down. The NFL's the strongest property in the world, and their ticket sales were down across the board last year. If we're smart we've got to pay attention to what that means in terms of how people are consuming."

Here's the problem in a nutshell: Almost every game is on TV. The economy stinks. Ticket prices are high. Gas prices are high. Parking fees are high. Concession prices are high. Given all of this, many fans are choosing to watch games on a 48-inch high-definition television in the comfort of their living rooms. Fuller understands that the world has changed.

"When I was in college I didn't have a cell phone," he recalled. "I didn't have The Internet. I didn't have cable TV. I didn't have HDTV, for sure. And the economy was different. I was at a tiny NAIA school but I was still going to the games. I think we've got to understand how much that has changed.

"The ticket-buying patterns and attendance patterns are down everywhere. If you win at a really high level, it erases some of that but not all of it."

Technologically, Tennessee is making some upgrades it hopes will put more butts in the seats.

"A couple of things we're doing at the stadium I'm really fired up about," Fuller said. "We've finally improved the wireless capacity at the stadium, which will be good for the fan experience. It will also be good for safety. We're replacing all of those TVs at the overhangs with large flat-panels, which will be much better for our fans that don't have a view of the video board. We're also doing some family-friendly things with (diaper) changing tables and restrooms that I think people will notice."

Most of all, people will notice if Tennessee is winning. Victories may not fix everything but they fix a lot.

"I think we have the best fans I've ever been around, and I think they want to be on-board with this team," Fuller said. "I don't think it will take much (to win them back). If we get out of the gate good, I think we'll see that response."

Ticket sales in Knoxville are likely to improve if the Volunteers can show an improved product on the field.

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