Six years after a controversial move to reseat Scott Stadium, the University of Virginia football program — playing an unprecedented eight-game home schedule and a host of top-tier teams — is on pace to set a single-season record for ticket revenues.
Through two games, performing before packed crowds against Brigham Young and second-ranked Oregon, UVa has racked up $10.7 million in ticket revenues, including sales of 28,800 season tickets. With third-ranked Clemson and arch-rival Virginia Tech scheduled to visit Charlottesville in the coming months, the program is on track to surpass the nearly $11 million in ticket revenues tallied in 2008.
That high-water mark, reached in the first year of reseating, was followed by four straight seasons in which ticket revenues ranged from $8.1 million to $9.4 million and attendance slumped from a near-capacity single-game average of 59,824 in 2007 to 47,000 from 2009 through last year. Scott Stadium seats 61,500.
The slide coincided with the Great Recession and a dip in the Cavaliers' performance on the field - they went 24-37 over their past five seasons, endured a coaching change and appeared in just one bowl game.
"I do think it's a combination of the economy, our competitive success - which has been up and down," UVa Athletics Director Craig Littlepage said, referring to the attendance decline.
There also is the factor of reseating, which has come in vogue in recent years at major colleges. The practice frequently entails restructuring stadium seating with calls for increased giving in exchange for better seats. Roughly half of the National Football League's 32 teams do something similar, requiring fans to buy what's known as a personal seat license to secure a particular seat.
Both concepts carry the risk of riling fans, and both are all about money.
In the NFL, selling seat licenses commonly is billed as a way to help cover the cost of stadium projects. At big-time universities, where football and men's basketball are major money-makers, reseating often is used to raise money for other sports in the school's overall athletics program.
That was the case at UVa, where on May 10, 2007, the Scott Stadium priority and seating and parking policy was introduced with information and updates posted on the Virginia Athletics Foundation's website.
For the first time in its history, Virginia was going to reseat its stadium as a way to get season ticketholders to increase donations to the foundation to fund scholarship costs for the school's 25-sport athletic program.
A brochure sent at about that time to donors and season ticketholders explained: "Over the past several years, more Virginia fans than ever before have become season ticket holders and the number of Virginia Athletics Foundation donors has increased to more than 9,600.
"This growth has made it necessary to develop and implement a new policy to allocate seats in Scott Stadium. This policy is based on an equitable priority structure and will begin with the 2008 football season."
Leading up to reseating in May and June 2008, the school Athletics Department staged a news conference for the announcement, sent the detailed brochure and held one-on-one meetings.
"It wasn't just sprung on you," said longtime UVa season ticketholder Tommy Shields Jr., 54, of Waynesboro. "You had plenty of time."
In addition to funding scholarship costs, projected at $15.2 million this school year, reseating provided a way for UVa to reward donors who gave more, officials said.
"We had people who were new and longtime contributors to the program that increased their gift and wanted to have seats commensurate to that level of giving," said Dirk Katstra, the athletics foundation's executive director. "We really had no way to improve their seats because the better seats, in a good number of cases, were occupied by people with lesser giving. Those people knew that and they were increasingly frustrated and said, 'I want to get better seats and I can't. And I know people that are seated on the 50-yard line that aren't giving anywhere close to what I'm giving.'
"So we're trying to balance that whole phenomenon of rewarding donors who are increasing their giving, continuing to meet the needs of the department, primarily the scholarship costs that were rising very rapidly. And also trying to find the right balance with our longer-term season ticketholders ..."
Another reason for the reseating, Littlepage said, was to provide more resources during a time in which the Athletics Department's budget was frozen.
Facing the fans
The policy wasn't popular with all fans.
"It alienated a lot of people because if you think about the longevity of giving versus someone comes in the first time and donates and you've been giving for like 15 to 20 years," said Shields, a season ticketholder since the mid-1980s. "There should have been more of an emphasis on the loyalty."
He and his brother, Todd, had seats on Scott Stadium's west side near the 40-yard line.
Before reseating, Shields said, he and his brother were donating in the range of $2,000 to the foundation to keep their seats.
"They kind of asked in the level of $6,000 or so," Shields said. "It was a pretty steep jump."
Several fans contacted for this story said they were upset by the move but were reluctant to comment publicly for fear of being perceived as not supporting the program. That was a concern of Shields', too. The father of a UVa student and a dedicated Cavalier fan and university supporter, Shields said he remains a season ticketholder, but watches the Wahoos from a different location inside the stadium.
"For years, we kept moving farther away because we didn't up our pledge, I guess," Shields said.
Katstra said handling situations like Shields' wasn't easy.
"There isn't a school in the country that has made a change in their seating policy that they haven't had to deal with people that don't like the change or can't do the change or disagree with the change," Katstra said. "You deal with those on a one-by-one or case-by-case basis. We work within the system that we set up and tried to make sure people understood what they needed to do if they wanted to stay there."
The evolution in the economics of sports played a part, too.
"At the end of the day, if somebody was giving a couple-hundred dollars for seats on the 50-yard line, that's a hard discussion to have," Katstra said. "The value of the seat has gone up since 1970 or whenever they started sitting there.
"That's a hard discussion to have and not a lot of fun, but it's a part of the new policy."
A larger trend
Reseating stadiums isn't exclusive to UVa.
Skip Sauer, a professor of economics at Clemson and founder of TheSportsEconomist.com, said there's been a national move in this direction over the last decade.
"The money coming into the college game, particularly football, is growing and growing," Sauer said. "And schools realize that they were a little bit behind in terms of monetizing their on-field product and stadium product, and particularly with the old way of creating legacy fans and legacy donors.
"The old world had what looked like perpetual rights to prime seats in a market where those prime seats became worth a lot more money than they were being asked to pay. So school after school after school has tried to manage this issue somehow without getting everybody mad at them."
Other notable schools that have reseated stadiums include North Carolina, Penn State, Texas A&M and Virginia Tech.
Blacksburg's Lane Stadium was reseated for the second time last season and the first since 2005. A 93-game sellout streak at Lane ended Sept. 7 as the Hokies downed Western Carolina.
"You try to reward those donors who support the athletic program as much as possible," said Tim East, Virginia Tech's associate director of athletics for external affairs.
No program reseats precisely the same way, but the reasons for doing it often are similar.
"Some schools do it as per-seat, what we call a capital gift charge in addition to annual gift. There's all kinds of examples to how schools do it," Katstra said. "We just chose to build on annual giving for scholarships. When we did it in 2008, Iowa State did exactly the same program that we did for exactly the same reasons and almost did it exactly the same way. Clemson did it on the same timeframe that we did, but with a slightly different model and for a slightly different purpose."
The money raised through the new seating policy at UVa was all annual fund money used for scholarships. In 2008, the foundation raised $16.9 million, an increase of $2.1 million over the previous year.
"That allowed us to get ahead of the curve of what we had projected to be the scholarship costs moving forward," Katstra said. "Had we been able to maintain that, we would have been in very good shape moving forward."
That same season, with UVa opening to a sellout crowd against powerhouse Southern California, ticket revenues totaled $10.98 million, a school record.
The program weathered the economy's tumble in the second half of that year, Katstra said, because "we had already put the fundraising piece to bed, because we already had the money and we had the pledges."
But it all changed the following fall. The foundation's annual fund slid by 18 percent, ticket revenues and average attendance each declined by more than 10 percent and the Cavaliers slumped to a 3-9 record.
By 2010, revenues had fallen nearly a fourth from the record set two seasons earlier and average attendance slipped below 46,000, the lowest mark in the last decade.
"Everything in 2009 ... started to fall back due to kind of the perfect storm of football record and some of the fallout of people having to give more to get seats," Katstra said.
Fans felt the economic fallout, too.
"I'm a contractor, so the economy was killing me at the same time," said Shields, who opted not to renew his 40-yard-line seats.
"If business was doing well, which it wasn't in '08, '09, '10, maybe it wouldn't have been a big deal. ... I just think the timing of this [reseating] is very unfortunate."
Reseating was inevitable.
"If it hadn't been announced for '08, we certainly, just given the way that the economy sunk at that point in time, it would have been done in '09," Littlepage said. "I'm absolutely certain of that."
The foundation's annual fund mirrored the economy's lingering malaise and slow recovery. The fund dropped another 2 percent in 2010, was flat in 2011, grew 3.5 percent last year and is on target for a 4-percent gain this year, although there is ground to make up following a recent tuition increase, Katstra said.
"Even if we hit our annual fund goal this year," Katstra said, "that's still not enough to pay the scholarship cost."
Other struggles remain, starting with continuing to draw Saturday crowds.
"The 52-inch H-D screen in your home, where there's no line for the bathroom and a stocked fridge versus driving, parking, walking to the stadium," Katstra said. "In most stadiums, you're struggling with WiFi access, you're somewhat disconnected from the outside world ...
"So we're all trying to figure out this new paradigm in college athletics and how we keep fans engaged and how we fund our program in the process."
Still, the outlook is brighter at UVa than it's been in years. Average attendance was 56,056 for the Cavaliers' opening two games, the best attendance to start a season since 2008.
Winning in the financial column remains about winning on the scoreboard, Littlepage said.
"I think having a home schedule that's attractive ... that does help drive the interest," he said. "Obviously, the overall performance of the team is a big factor, too, and the excitement people might feel about the team and the prospects for the season."
Virginia (1-1) returns Saturday to Scott Stadium to host Virginia Military Institute with five more home games to follow.
Daily Progress correspondent Fritz Metzinger contributed to this story.