Season ticket sales for 2014 already zoomed past the total for all of 2013, suggesting Vol Nation believes Jones has the program headed in the right direction after four consecutive losing seasons.
“We’re at about 62,000. We finished at 57,500 last year, so we’re about 4,500 up from where we finished last year,” said Chris Fuller, senior associate athletics director for development and external relations. “We’ll be moving tickets right up to kickoff (Aug. 31 versus Utah State), so we’re not done this year. That’s really good.”
Several more indicators suggest that Vol football is regaining its health after a long illness.
“We’ve sold a higher percentage of our premium seats than ever,” Fuller said. “We’ve got the largest incoming freshman class in history – 4,700 – so that’s good. Another thing that’s trending really good: I believe Utah State will end up being a hard sellout.”
Season-ticket sales peaked at 76,000 back in the days when Neyland Stadium’s capacity was 104,079. The addition of luxury boxes reduced capacity to its current level of 102,455.
The 2001 Vols won the SEC East and just missed playing in the Rose Bowl for the BCS title. Since then, however, attendance has eroded steadily.
“We’ve been in a gradual decline since 2002,” Fuller noted.
After 12 years of slippage, however, ticket sales are trending upward in 2014. This is the first time in years that Tennessee managed to crack the 60,000 mark.
“I’d say you’d have to go back to 2009 – Lane Kiffin’s year,” Fuller said. “I think it was around 60,000 or a little over that year.”
Since Kiffin posted a 7-6 record in ’09, Tennessee has gone 6-7, 5-7, 5-7 under Derek Dooley and 5-7 under Jones last season. Counting the 5-7 mark Phillip Fulmer put up in 2008, Tennessee’s record over the past six years is an abysmal 33-41. Coming off that kind of futility, a bump in season-ticket sales is incredible.
“That’s very positive,” Fuller said. “I think it’s definitely a reflection of how the fans feel about Butch Jones.”
Jones isn’t just a coach; he’s a marketer. He promotes his program at every opportunity with public appearances and media interviews.
Fuller says Jones’ marketing efforts are “a big component” of the ticket-sales increase, adding: “I also think the staff’s relentless attention to recruiting is attributable for part of that spike.
Coach is a fantastic marketer and he’s always selling the program. No one has more faith and passion and belief that we’re going to get back to being who we’re supposed to be than Butch. He’s been able to evangelize the fans from Day One. I think the recruiting intensity translates to the fan base, too.”
Jones’ marketing acumen was on display Saturday night at Neyland Stadium. With practice open to the fans, the workout drew 40,000 curious onlookers. Quite a few of them saw enough to encourage them to buy season tickets in the days since then.
“We’ve had a little spike,” Fuller noted. “It was pretty amazing … 40,000 people coming to see a practice. There’s a big difference between a scrimmage and a practice, and this was a practice.”
With the opener just 10 days away tickets continue to sell at a steady pace. The fact Games 1 and 2 are against Utah State and Arkansas State, two teams who played in bowl games last winter, should help that trend continue.
“Utah State and Arkansas State are a lot more competitive games than most people probably realize,” Fuller said. “I think when the season gets closer and prognosticators tell people how good these teams are fans will buy tickets for those games.”
A lot of fans like to wait until game day to buy their tickets. Fuller has a word of warning for them:
“You generally have a big walk-up crowd for Game 1 but it would be good for people to get their tickets before that day,” he said. “If they wait they’re going to be in a long line at Gate 21 because we’ve got a limited number of windows. When those people stack up out there, five sales windows aren’t going to move the lines at the pace people would want. It would behoove them to get their tickets early.”
Long lines at ticket windows are annoying but they’re another indicator that Tennessee football is on the way back. That’s not just a credit to Butch Jones. Fuller believes there is a renewed faith in the entire athletics department, starting with athletics director Dave Hart.
“I think we’ve gotten a lot of positive reaction to the overall direction of the department,” Fuller said. “I think people feel good about Dave’s leadership, the direction we’re going. They know that Dave, Butch and some other coaches inherited pretty tough situations. This is a referendum that they’re doing the right things. The fans are saying, ‘We approve of what you’re doing and we’re going to get back on board.’”
With freshmen due to fill a lot of key roles this fall many fans appear resigned to the idea that 2014 could be another mediocre season. The outlook for 2015 and beyond is a different matter. Tennessee’s ticket allotment for the “Battle of Bristol” at Bristol Motor Speedway on Sept. 10, 2016 sold out in no time flat. Fans seem excited about the long-range future.
“I don’t know that any fan base thinks long-range anymore,” Fuller said with a laugh. “The expectations are high for us. They certainly should be. Our fans have been amazingly patient to stay with us during a difficult period. There’s optimism and enthusiasm.
"People feel we’re moving in the right direction and they’re excited about the future.”