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Post Keep your seats, everyone

Thursday May 16, 2019

Some good news on the scheduling front as Georgia announced a series with Oklahoma to follow last month’s announcement of future home-and-home series with Florida State and Clemson. Georgia will head to Tallahassee on Sept. 4, 2027 (sure to be a cool, refreshing early September day in the Panhandle), and the Seminoles will come to Sanford Stadium in 2028. The Clemson series will take place in 2032 and 2033, and that’s on top of a 2024 date already set with the Tigers in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff. The Dawgs will travel to Norman in 2023 with a return date against the Sooners in Athens in 2031. Georgia also has home-and-homes set with UCLA (2025/2026) and Texas (2027/2028), and more still might be in the works.

(If the current SEC scheduling rotation is renewed after 2025, and that’s not a sure thing, Georgia would face FSU, Texas, and Alabama in 2027.)

What interests me as much as whom Georgia will be playing is where they’ll be playing.

The trend has been for the biggest nonconference games to be at neutral sites. Of course there are exceptions, but take Alabama: they haven’t played a P5 opponent at home since Penn State in 2010, but they’re in a major kickoff game nearly every year. And why not? Guarantees for the neutral site games are worth millions of dollars, premium seating can drive ticket prices over $300, and a school like LSU can make around $23 million from seven neutral site games. Sure enough, Georgia will play in three Chick-Fil-A Kickoff games in Atlanta between the 2020 and 2024 seasons. Notre Dame’s trip to Athens in 2019 is the only significant home nonconference game currently on the books between Clemson’s 2014 visit and UCLA’s appearance in 2026.

I’m happy though to see a shift back towards home-and-home series. Alabama will host Texas, West Virginia, Notre Dame, and Oklahoma betwen 2023 and 2033. LSU will host Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona State, and Clemson. Georgia now has five P5 home-and-home series set on top of its annual tilt with Georgia Tech. I’ve said plenty over the past decade about my preference for big games on campus, but you can’t ignore the financial appeal of neutral site games. With potential paydays of $5-$6 million, a school with its eye on the bottom line would be foolish to turn them down. So why the swing back to home-and-home series in the long term?

It’s nothing but a win for fans. You get a big game on campus and all that comes with it, and it’s included in the season ticket package. There’s no separate priority system and additional premium ticket price on top of what you’re already paying. Fans will also have the opportunity to visit several iconic college football towns and stadiums (even if the visiting ticket allotment is ridiculously miserly.) We know that what fans want can be a secondary concern (to put it generously), so where’s the benefit to the football program? Why go home-and-home rather than a single higher-grossing neutral site game? A few reasons come to mind:

  • Recruiting. You can’t host prospects at neutral sites. No one will make more out of the recruiting opportunity offered by a marquee nonconference game than Kirby Smart.
  • Recruiting, part two. The schedule itself becomes a recruiting tool. As Smart said when these series were announced, the best players want to play in big games and big venues. Georgia will have a high-profile nonconference game nearly every year from 2022 through 2033.
  • Your strength of schedule (real or perceived) is improved in two seasons rather than just one.
  • You sustain renewable season ticket sales in anticipation of these games.

As long as fans are selling out the home schedule, some neutral site games can be big revenue boosters. But what if there are more and more empty seats for home games? If there is a nationwide slump in college football attendance, and there seems to be, the incentives begin to change. In the SEC the loss of a season ticket represents the loss of a multi-year revenue stream if the ticket isn’t picked up by someone else. Georgia’s not in that position – yet. There’s still a cutoff for new season tickets. Other schools aren’t as fortunate, and signs of lagging demand are there.

Georgia’s in a position to shore up its demand for renewable tickets, but it means playing better opponents at home. The motivation to buy season tickets goes away if the best games are moved off-campus and aren’t part of the season ticket package. In the eight seasons between 2026 and 2033, Georgia will host UCLA, Clemson, FSU, Texas, and Oklahoma in addition to whatever the SEC slate brings to town. Fans will want those tickets even if it’s just to sell in the secondary market, and the surest way of getting those tickets is by renewing season tickets each year.

Of course ticket demand will be high for these games themselves, but that would be the case if they were held off-campus. If all Georgia cared about was selling tickets to these games, it wouldn’t matter if they were played in Athens or Atlanta. But by attaching these games to the season ticket package, Georgia is able to more or less sustain its season ticket revenue, and the requisite donations of course, even in years without a top-quality home schedule. Fans with renewable season tickets are more likely to hold on to them from year to year if it means guaranteeing a spot for these big nonconference games in the future. A neutral site game might pay out more on a game-to-game basis, but it’s less impressive next to the income represented by sold-out season tickets. There is big money in a steady and strong season ticket renewal rate year over year (and the donations that come with it.)

It’s tough to buck a nationwide attendance trend, and even a more attractive home schedule might not be able to stem the tide of decline. The schedule is just one factor in attracting fans – schools must consider the stadium, amenities, parking, the game day experience, and any edge they can find in competing for entertainment dollars, and these games are still years away. Improving the schedule is a positive step though when combined with a successful team, and it’s something many fans are already anticipating as Kirby Smart continues to build the program into a national contender.

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