Step inside Mizzou football’s new south end zone project
Before Missouri kicked off its football season at Wyoming this past Saturday, athletic director Jim Sterk sat in his box and surveyed the scene.
War Memorial Stadium, the Cowboys venue, was nearly sold out with fans wearing brown and yellow in alternating sections, similar to what Missouri does at home games with its “Tiger Stripe.”
Though the stands only held around 30,000 fans, the color scheme almost looked like Missouri’s black and gold. The scene couldn’t help mirror Sterk’s vision: a packed stadium on a Saturday early in the season.
When the Tigers kick off Saturday morning against West Virginia on Faurot Field, Missouri will be primed to rebound against slumping attendance and ticket revenues for the first time since 2015, a problem that has become common around college football.
Jay Luksis, Missouri’s executive athletic director who runs marketing and revenue generation, said season ticket renewals are at 87%, up from 81% in 2018 and the highest rate since 2015. On top of that, the program will debut a new south end zone facility in Memorial Stadium and former Clemson quarterback Kelly Brant, who threw for a career-high 423 yards in the Tigers’ loss to Wyoming.
In 2015, the football team joined campus protests against racism, which led to the exit of both system president Tim Wolfe and chancellor R. Bowen Loftin. Former athletic director Mack Rhoades talked about a grand plan for growing season ticket sales when he was hired but saw that plan go wayside after November. When Sterk took the job the summer after Rhoades left for Baylor, it took him a few months to understand what he was grappling with.
“Everyone kind of underestimated the impact of what would happen,” Sterk told The Star of fans’ reaction to the protests. “It was about double of what they had thought would occur. That was hard. What we’ve tried to do is build our reputation back up around the state.”
When Missouri got word two years ago that the 2019 schedule had five straight home games, the department altered its game plan. Getting anyone to commit to five consecutive fall weekends could be an uphill battle, so Luksis and chief financial officer Tim Hickman put an emphasis on single-game sales and mini-plans.
“That was our main excuse for folks not wanting to renew,” Luksis said. “‘I can’t commit to five games in a row so I’d rather buy a mini plan.’”
Luksis said both single-game sales and mini plans are both up from last season and could continue to trend that way if MU starts winning. Memorial Stadium’s capacity is around 66,000 following the south end zone renovations, and most of the complex is close to sold out.
Nick Joos, MU’s spokesperson, said the money coming from single-game and ticket packages gives the department a stronger chance at hitting its sales goals, even if it’s a little unconventional.
Under fourth-year coach Barry Odom, MU has struggled to get out to fast starts, which hasn’t helped ticket sales. Even with its loss to Wyoming, MU is projecting attendance for Saturday’s game to be between 50,000 and 55,000, Joos said. Missouri’s 2018 home opener against Tennessee-Martin drew just 44,000. Odom is 6-6 in September games, but has the chance to improve that with Southeast Missouri and South Carolina following WVU on the schedule.
Despite Saturday’s loss, MU still has plenty of reasons to feel good about attendance. The suites in the south end zone are sold out and 70% of the club seating has been sold. Eighty percent of Missouri’s Bunker Club, which requires a separate pass and allows spectators to greet the team as it takes the field, has been sold.
“I think once you get people into the space, they love it and want to be a part of it,” Luksis said. “So I expect the Bunker Club to be in the 90s to full capacity by mid-season.”
Hickman said MU projected the south end zone seating to account for 70% of ticket revenue, because even though MU is reducing stadium capacity, it’s replacing cheap seats with more expensive ones.
MU ran a budget shortfall around $2 million during its last fiscal year. That accounted for Odom’s second season, which ended with a loss to Texas in the Texas Bowl, and Michael Porter Jr.’s lone basketball season in Columbia. The Tigers brought in $10.5 million in football revenue, a decline of roughly $500,000, while attendance stayed around 51,000 in a reduced-capacity stadium. The department also saw student tickets increase by 800.
Hickman said MU’s budget for the year is around $102.6 million, almost identical to the previous year, and added that the department mainly had flat projections with a slight increase in certain categories.
Another cog in MU’s football revenue is the one-year postseason ban hanging over the program, with the Tigers still awaiting their fate after meeting with the appeals committee in July. Hickman said if the ban is upheld, the department will lose $9 million in bowl revenue, which it would carry on its books as a deficit and pay off over time. The school did the same thing with its Big 12 exit fee when it switched to the Southeastern Conference. MU could recoup the bowl money in a few years if it stays in good standing with the NCAA.
Missouri is also adding alcohol sales to games. Beer, including Anheuser-Busch, Boulevard and Logboat brands, will cost $8-$9, and wine is $7. Hickman said the department has projected sales of $500,000 across all sports, which will be reinvested to help improve security in the stadium.
“That’s a shot in the dark,” Sterk said of the alcohol revenue projection.
Missouri’s primary revenue in recent years has come from TV contracts, which continue to increase. The SEC Network has provided additional money and exposure for the department, but Sterk’s cabinet understands that can’t be MU’s only source of major income. Saturday could be the game where that starts to change.
“It’s harder to get (fans) back,” Joos said. “The competition is harder now than five, six years ago. The broadcast quality, there was a time where the TV was grainy, now we’re going to blow it up. The competition today is insane.”