Students Cash in on College Football Ticket Frenzy

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Dave Martin / AP

Like any good southerner, Auburn University senior Jordan Deason loves football. He even had a job working security during the team’s games during his sophomore year. But last season, Deason discovered that there was at least one thing that could stand between him and his affection for the Tigers—profit. He bought a set of season tickets for $120, a discount offered to students, then sold it to another student for $500. What did he do with the extra cash?

“I put every dime towards an engagement ring,” says Deason, who proposed to his girlfriend this month. “It was not close to covering the price of the ring but it was a nice addition to the savings.”

Across the state at rival University of Alabama, graduate student Elliot Knight has sold individual tickets, which cost him $5 each, for as much as $200. “I realized how high a price people would pay for some of these tickets,” Knight says. “You don’t really make any money as a graduate student, so it definitely helps supplement being able to eat.”

College football’s explosion in popularity over the last decade has coincided with the emergence of a thriving ticket resale market, where it’s easy for anyone to offload an unwanted sports ticket through eBay, StubHub or even Facebook. With the 2012 season set to kick off tonight, there are currently 38 college teams whose individual tickets have an average resale price above $100, according to ticket price aggregator TiqIQ. That’s six more teams than are in the NFL, whose current average ticket values also bottom out around the $100 mark. The huge prices are likely bolstered by a steady creep in the face value of college football’s general admission tickets, which climbed 30% over the past three seasons to an average of $65, according to a study by The Oregonian.

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Penny-pinching college students, typically offered prime stadium seats at steep discounts, stand to make the most from reselling tickets. While the practice often draws the ire of athletic departments and sometimes fellow fans, some of college football’s biggest schools either allow it or only hand down minor punishments.

“We all know students are very creative when it comes to shoring up their finances,” says Brett Scarbrough, the assistant athletic director in charge of ticketing at Ohio State University. “On years when Michigan is at home, a student could potentially pay for all the other games [by selling one ticket].”

At Ohio State and many other successful college football programs, students are eligible to purchase discounted tickets and then “upgrade” them into guest tickets usable by non-students. The service comes with a fee, usually the difference in price between the discounted ticket and a general admission ticket. The rationale for universities is that it allows students to bring a parent or a girlfriend to a game and lets them enjoy the typical rowdy excitement of the student section. But once a ticket is no longer tied to a specific student ID, it can become a hot commodity on the secondhand market.

Last season almost 7,000 student tickets were upgraded during the season at Nebraska. The number was near 8,000 at Michigan and more than 9,500 at Alabama. And that’s to say nothing of the active exchange market that exists among students themselves, who often eschew broad-based resell tools like StubHub in favor of deals made through campus fliers, word-of-mouth or social media.

Despite the lucrative market, most schools want to see their student sections filled with students, not random fans, so they put roadblocks in the way of young would-be scalpers. Ohio State charges a processing fee that increases in price each time you upgrade during a season. Upgrade too many times at Alabama and you’re banned from getting tickets at all the next season. Some schools, like USC and West Virginia, prohibit the practice entirely. At LSU you could face criminal charges and community service hours for reselling tickets.

“We have a situation [at Ohio State] where we’ve gone a lot of years where we were not able to meet student demand,” Scarbrough says. “[Selling your ticket] is unfair to students who get shut out who really want to come to the games.”

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But cash-strapped students don’t see it that way. “I’ve never had an issue with doing it,” Knight says. “I feel like it’s the same as any other market transaction. If somebody’s willing to pay that much money for a ticket, and I have gone to school for four years and earned those number of hours to be able to buy those tickets, then that should be acceptable.”

These student tickets are growing more valuable as the means to gain entrance to a big game directly through colleges becomes more difficult. Most tickets are sold in season passes for students, alumni and boosters. Single-game purchases for big-time matchups are snapped up almost immediately—Scarbrough said such tickets for this year’s Ohio State-Michigan game sold out in about 20 minutes. “For our product, a lot of people are forced to go the secondary market,” he says. “When you have that demand, the simple economics is that price is going to increase.”

That price is especially high in the preseason, when every major conference team still has a shot at the national championship. Preseason resale values serve as a type of market prediction on which games will have title implications. Right now, the Nov. 3 matchup between No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 LSU is the most valuable ticket, averaging about $630 in asking price. “If Alabama and LSU are 4-4 going into that game, the price of that game is going to drop significantly,” says TiqIQ data analyst Chris Matcovich. “It’s a lot different than say baseball, basketball, or NFL in the sense that if you lose a game, you’re basically out of the major championship picture.”

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It’s possible that next season, when college football shifts to a four-team playoff format, regular season tickets may lose a bit of their allure since every game won’t necessarily have do-or-die stakes. “When you add more playoff spots, each one of those games isn’t as important during the regular season,” Matcovich says. “You can lose a game now.”

But the strongest brands in college football are likely to retain their high asking price. Nebraska has only had three 10-win seasons in the last decade, but they’ve sold out every game at Memorial Stadium for the past 50 years. And their tickets, which students can use as they please, lead the market in resale value at $260.

Right now, before tough losses have dampened fans’ eagerness to open their wallets, students may be most tempted to part with their tickets. But choosing cash over football pride can come with a stigma. “I have friends who almost take on a moral or ethical issue with me selling tickets because somehow it degrades my love of all things Alabama,” Knight says.

Liz Shults, a 2011 Bama graduate, says friends thought she was crazy for parting with her tickets while Alabama was vying for national titles. Her senior year she partnered with her then-fiance, John, to sell off both their season packages. The $800 they made helped fund their honeymoon in Panama City.

“I’m always going to root for Alabama, but neither of us grew up in a culture of going to football games,” says Shults of her and her husband. “I didn’t go to the games and someone who wanted to go went. To me, it was just capitalism.”

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Can the spirit of college football really be reduced to dollars and cents? In many other ways, from eye-popping coaching contracts to lucrative deals with television networks, it already has been.

But even when thousands of students choose to cash in on their team’s success, many more still troop into the stadium on gameday, golden ticket in hand. Deason, the Auburn student, is holding onto his 2012 tickets so that he and his fiance can enjoy watching the Tigers play during their last year of college together. “I believe it is all about priorities,” he says. “In the south, football is usually number one, but some people place other things in their life above football.”