Medi­ocre play be­hind slump­ing ticket sales?

Un­der Sum­lin, Ag­gies have fin­ished 8-5 three straight sea­sons

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - COLLEGES - By Brent Zw­erne­man brent.zw­erne­man@chron.com twitter.com/brentzw­erne­man

COL­LEGE STA­TION — Like many long­time Texas A&M sea­son-ticket hold­ers, Jon John­son is hope­ful this is the sea­son the Ag­gies com­pete for a South­east­ern Con­fer­ence ti­tle. Like many of his A&M brethren, he’ll be­lieve it when he sees it.

“Kevin Sum­lin is an OK coach,” said John­son, a Hous­ton-area vet­eri­nar­ian who’s held sea­son tick­ets for most of the past 20 years. “I just don’t think he’s good enough — not for this job.”

The Ag­gies, who open their sea­son in one week at UCLA, haven’t pro­duced a win­ning record in league play since their first sea­son in the SEC in 2012, with three of those four fin­ishes at 4-4. Not good enough to com­pete for an SEC ti­tle, but good enough to keep Sum­lin around and for some Ag­gies to be hope­ful the next sea­son might fea­ture a break­through.

Based on the weari­ness of John­son and plenty of his peers, sea­son-ticket sales are down a few thou­sand from two years ago, when A&M opened a re­built Kyle Field fea­tur­ing more than 100,000 seats. John­son also is a prime ex­am­ple of Ag­gie loy­alty, con­sid­er­ing he re­duced his num­ber of sea­son tick­ets from three to one this sea­son — he couldn’t stand the idea of cut­ting them loose al­to­gether.

“Tra­di­tion,” John­son said with a chuckle of why he held on to one ticket for the up­com­ing sea­son. “I haven’t given up on my school or this pro­gram. But with Sum­lin, we’re not go­ing to win the SEC, and right now, we’re not even com­pet­ing for ti­tles.”

At $5 mil­lion an­nu­ally and zero ti­tles to show for it over five sea­sons, Sum­lin’s seat is one of the na­tion’s toasti­est. The Ag­gies have fin­ished 8-5 in three con­sec­u­tive years, and he’ll likely need at least eight wins to be con­sid­ered for a sev­enth sea­son. The shine is off

Two years ago, A&M ex­pe­ri­enced a boon in sea­son ticket sales, based on open­ing the en­closed, mod­ern­ized and nearly half-bil­lion dol­lar Kyle Field. The bloom has faded a bit, how­ever, from the 102,733-seat rose.

“There was the ex­cite­ment of open­ing a new sta­dium,” said Ca­role Dollins, A&M’s se­nior vice pres­i­dent of tick­et­ing. “Ev­ery­body wanted to be here and be a part of it.”

Now, A&M is at­tempt­ing to keep the mas­sive amount of seats at least mostly full with pro­mo­tions it hasn’t of­fered in years past, start­ing Sept. 9 against Ni­cholls State. The uni­ver­sity has cut the price of a 20-ounce bot­tle of wa­ter from $4 to $2, and is of­fer­ing a “value pack” of four hot dogs, four drinks and pop­corn for $25. The same deal would have cost $42 last sea­son.

“We hope (fans) will more fully en­joy their time at Kyle Field,” said A&M pres­i­dent Michael K. Young, who spear­headed the move to cheaper con­ces­sions. “It’s known as one of the best col­lege game-day ex­pe­ri­ences in the na­tion.”

It’s largely known for that based on the record num­ber of stu­dents in the crowd. A&M an­nounced this sum­mer more than 35,000 stu­dent sports passes have been sold, more than half of the uni­ver­sity’s en­roll­ment of roughly 66,000.

A&M fea­tures the largest stu­dent sec­tion in the na­tion, and stu­dent sports passes (which run $290) sold out for a sev­enth con­sec­u­tive sea­son. Mean­while, A&M has turned its at­ten­tion to group sales to help fill the sta­dium, a pos­i­tive for those who might not oth­er­wise be able to at­tend a game at Kyle. Search­ing for an­swers

“We’ve looked at what other teams and what other schools are do­ing,” Dollins said. “Whether it will be school or cor­po­rate, we’re try­ing to bring groups in here and build their ex­pe­ri­ences, and make them ex­cited to come back. About eight years ago, we had more of that — youth groups, Boy Scouts, FCA, dif­fer­ent groups across the state com­ing in.

“We’re start­ing to work that back in, and it will help in­tro­duce a lot of fu­ture Ag­gies to the school, and hope­fully cre­ate me­morable ex­pe­ri­ences that will make them want to come back.”

While John­son puts the team’s on-field per­for­mance at the top of his list as to why he cut down on his sea­son tick­ets, he also cited poor park­ing op­tions, long tele­vi­sion time outs, “bak­ing in the sun” be­cause of late-morn­ing or af­ter­noon starts based on TV’s dis­cre­tion, and the time it takes to get in and out of the sta­dium.

But, if the Ag­gies were to com­pete for an SEC ti­tle?

“I’d def­i­nitely buy more sea­son tick­ets,” said John­son, who was part of a group of 14 friends hold­ing sea­son tick­ets now down to eight.

Sum­lin, who has two years re­main­ing on his con­tract af­ter this sea­son, said he un­der­stands fans’ frus­tra­tions with mid­dling-to-worse fin­ishes.

“We all want the same thing,” Sum­lin said. “I’m here to do a job and to win a cham­pi­onship, and we haven’t done that yet. … Are we bet­ter at Texas A&M than when we got (here)? You bet. Is it where we want to be? No. No­body wants to win more than me.”

The new­ness of things will still sell tick­ets to Ag­gies, too. A&M is play­ing in the Rose Bowl for the first time on Sept. 3 in its sea­son opener against the Bru­ins, and Ag­gies have bought 8,000 tick­ets for the road game. Typ­i­cally, their al­lot­ment on a road trip like Alabama is about 6,000.

Six days later against Ni­cholls State, there’s no doubt the num­ber of fans in the Kyle stands will be in­flu­enced by the out­come at UCLA — it’s the na­ture of the busi­ness.

“The bet­ter we do,” Dollins said in stat­ing a uni­ver­sal truth, “the more peo­ple get ex­cited about the team.”

Michael Cia­glo / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Texas A&M coach Kevin Sum­lin has yet to earn the trust of some fans who blame him for the team’s lack of on-field suc­cess.

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