Mediocre play behind slumping ticket sales?
Under Sumlin, Aggies have finished 8-5 three straight seasons
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.”
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.