CHICAGO — Fan bases at Iowa and Nebraska are known nationally to take over bowl sites and the turn the stadium into a pseudo-home environment for their football teams.
Yet each school's athletics department sold around half of its bowl ticket allotment last year, costing both the school and Big Ten significant revenue. Iowa was required to take 11,000 tickets for the Insight Bowl per the league's four-year contract. Iowa sold 5,411, yet observers estimate between 17,000 and 20,000 Iowa fans attended the game.
Nebraska took 12,500 tickets for its Capital One Bowl trip, and sold 6,594 through the school. Nebraska Athletics Director Tom Osborne said more than one-third of the bowl's 61,351 announced attendance featured Cornhusker fans.
"Just looking at the crowd and looking at the attire of everybody was there, my guess is there was between 20,000 and 25,000 Nebraska fans down at the bowl in Florida," Osborne said.
Despite sending hordes of Big Ten fans to destination environments and receiving nearly $45 million in bowl revenue last season, the cost of unsold tickets is eroding enthusiasm for the status quo among Big Ten administrators. According to documents supplied by eight Big Ten schools to The Gazette through state open-records laws, nearly every league school struggled to sell their non-Rose Bowl ticket allotment. Those unsold ticket costs syndicate to each league school and the league office.
Of the 10 Big Ten schools attending bowl games last year, eight sent their NCAA survey for bowl expenses to The Gazette as part of a state open-records request. Northwestern, as a private school, was not required to disclose the form. Penn State also did not submit information.
Outside of Wisconsin and the Rose Bowl, the other seven Big Ten schools committed 96,001 tickets to bowl games. Only 41,739 tickets were sold. Of the seven bowls, only one — Michigan in the Sugar Bowl — did the Big Ten school's sold ticket total sold reach more than 10 percent of the overall game attendance.
The primary problem league officials have is with the location of bowl tickets. The schools often are given tickets in the upper deck or away from the field, while the bowl itself sells tickets in prime locations. Instead of purchasing tickets from the school, fans are buying directly from the bowl either over the phone or online.
"Part of the reason is sometimes your bowl allotment for the school is not situated in the best parts of the stadium," Osborne said. "Therefore people have gotten sophisticated enough to realize if we go directly through the bowl, you’ll get better seats."
"It’s not necessarily the old days of go right to your school and buy the tickets," Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta said. "So can we come up with a plan that meets your goals, the bowl, of selling tickets and meets our goals for our fans to have access to better seats. Maybe we have to adjust the financial model in tune with that, and we’re willing and open to look at that.
"The thing I would see happening in the next round of bowl negotiations is try to create a win-win but acknowledging doing business the old way doesn’t necessarily make sense."
Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said the league might take a lower payout from the bowls or engage in a different form of revenue sharing so the ticket situation changes.
"I don’t think that it’s necessary that we take huge blocks of tickets in advance," Delany said. "It may be important for us to take a different payout and have the upside be based on how that game is sells in a local community. But we want our fans to have access to good tickets, to have a reasonable number of tickets and to use technology to make sure that the demand and supply curve works well."I don’t think it’s healthy to have so many tickets floating around, and I think conferences and bowls, you’ll see restructured relationships, maybe the payouts aren’t as high but they’ll be predicated on the real demand for the game."