Rod Butler started attending Gonzaga basketball games in 1980 when a guy named John Stockton began throwing the ball around on his way to the NBA Hall of Fame.
Just weeks ago, Butler received the last pair of season tickets, only the 30th such pair that have become available in the decade since Gonzaga opened the McCarthey Athletic Center.
“I’m happy to be there,” said Butler, a 60-year-old architect. “It’s a path, but it’s achievable.”
While the waiting list doesn’t rival some of the great decades-long waits for season tickets in places like Green Bay, the quest to get season tickets to watch the Gonzaga men’s basketball team has become the holy grail of Spokane sporting events as the Zags continue their unprecedented run of success.
With this the 10th anniversary of the opening of the McCarthey Athletic Center, the perennial success of the team has funneled cash into the school ever seeking to turn its “mid-major” David-and-Goliath mantra into a national championship.
“If you are not winning, you are dead in the water,” said associate athletic director Chris Standiford said. “The true nature of success begins and ends with the success of the team.”
Last year for the first time, the Zags attained a No. 1 ranking in the Associated Press poll for the last three weeks of the season before falling to Wichita State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Last year also marked the 14th straight year that Gonzaga has made the tournament dating back to 1999.
As a result of that success, the demand for season tickets has skyrocketed. And nobody is getting rid of them.
Some people have had their name on the list since it was created a decade ago. But only those, such as Butler – who committed to pay $5,000 to the Bulldog Club over three years – have a real chance of getting tickets, Standiford said.
“We have a list of everyone who has expressed interest in tickets,” Standiford said. “But priority is not based on when you get on the list. It’s really just the amount of giving. It’s basically just how much money you have donated over time.”
In Green Bay, parents put their children on the Packers waiting list as soon as they can obtain copies of their birth certificates. That wait is currently somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 years. In college football, Nebraska has sold out every game since 1962.
The Zags don’t have that pedigree – yet – but Standiford noted that the Bulldogs have sold out every game since they opened McCarthey, which is the kind of clout that allows school officials to ask supporters to continually dig a little deeper.
“Basketball is a very important economic driver for us,” he said. “It’s the centerpiece of our revenue. It’s the generosity that drives the model.”
The “model” came from several places, but Gonzaga mostly based its ticket selection system on the bluest blood of them all: the Duke Blue Devils.
“From the very beginning, we tried to determine the best practices in our industry. We visited Duke. If you go back to the 2000, 2001, 2002, they are who we aspired to be,” Standiford said. “We found out we had several common problems.”
The legendary Cameron Indoor Stadium seats 9,314. Gonzaga officials discussed with their counterparts at Duke how they maximize donations; reward loyalty and parse out tickets to games when students are away from campus or for matchups that don’t have the draw of a North Carolina.
“We are basically an open book with the fund raising development,” said Jack Winters, an assistant director of athletics at Duke. “If they can take pieces of what we are doing and incorporate it into what they are doing, great.”
Just like Gonzaga, Duke doesn’t have much turnover each year on season tickets. But it has something Gonzaga doesn’t: a drop-dead number.
“If you donate $7,000 you will have the opportunity to purchase two season tickets in Cameron,” Winters said. “We haven’t missed that projection in our history.”
But in Spokane, Gonzaga officials don’t keep any seats in reserve.
“We can’t fix a number because we don’t have the seats to deliver on it,” Standiford said. “But we can make those seats that do come available based on the point system and the wait list.”
Giving tickets away
Both Winters and Standiford started for their respective schools about the same time, more than 23 years ago. At the time, both schools struggled to fill their arenas. Back then, Gonzaga played inside the Martin Centre. It had a listed capacity of about 4,000 but in reality it was about 3,200, Standiford said.
“We used to have table tents at the (Center of Gonzaga dining hall) and encouraged our students to come to games,” Standiford said. “It was a different time for college basketball. Its evolution has been quite remarkable.”
Two decades later, students brave winter storms in tents for more than a day to have a chance at the 1,250 tickets set aside for the games.
Superior Court Judge Sam Cozza, who splits season tickets with a friend, pointed out that students aren’t the only ones who have to wait in the cold. Cozza’s wife is an adjunct professor at Gonzaga.
“She can get faculty tickets for games that we don’t have,” said Cozza, who splits season tickets with a friend. “The holders themselves (no substitutes) start lining up at about 4 a.m. on Monday of each week before the home games and are let in the building at about 6 a.m. That is quite a thing to observe on cold, dark winter mornings.”
Standiford confirmed the arrangement, but said school officials have a good reason for making faculty brave the elements for access.
“We don’t want to create a situation where they are missing work while standing in line to get basketball tickets,” Standiford said. “There is a set amount of tickets to distribute. Some people choose to come down and stand in line for two or three hours to ensure they get those tickets.”
Bigger not better
With the demand currently outstripping supply, some have questioned why Gonzaga didn’t build a bigger basketball venue.
Standiford took part in those planning discussions and the university used focus groups to determine how big to build the McCarthey Athletic Center.
“You could have made the argument that we should have built 8,000 seats instead of 6,000. We already had to raise $25 million. To ask for another $10-or-$12 million for 2,000 lesser seats just wasn’t practical at the time,” Standiford said.
“All you would be doing is driving up the overall ticket price.”
Winters said similar discussions were had at Duke. But long-time athletic director Tom Butters decided in the 1980s to renovate, rather than replace, Cameron Indoor.
“Bigger may not necessarily be better,” Winters said.
“We have a small arena and a great team that people want to watch and be a part of. We’ve turned Cameron into … a bucket list situation.”
Standiford said one of the cornerstone goals for McCarthey was to keep the charged atmosphere that can change the momentum for the home team.
“We were able to replicate the experience they had in the old Martin Centre,” Standiford said. “Six thousand seats is an unbelievable basketball environment.”
The university is now seeing the same season-ticket revolution take place with the women’s team, which has eight straight West Coast Conference championships and has made it to the NCAA Tournament in five of the last six years, Standiford said.
The school already has sold about 4,400 season tickets and plans to cap it at 4,600.
In fact, the school sent letters to current season ticket holders informing current women’s season-ticket holders that they can retain their seats without a donation to the Bulldog Club. “However, accounts located within the priority seating areas that elect NOT to make a gift are at risk of having their seats relocated,” the letter states.
Standiford said the new arrangement for women’s tickets is simply an example of the never-ending needs of a program trying to compete.
“We have a relatively distinct, but incredibly passionate fan base,” Standiford said. “We are doing everything we can to retain them and at the same time continue to grow the program. That puts us in a position to further do great things on a national level.”
Reaping the rewards
As a result of the new stadium, Gonzaga officials asked season ticket holders to contribute to a building fund to help pay off the $25 million construction cost. That bill has already been paid off, Standiford said.
Copying how Notre Dame University charges prices for its football tickets, Gonzaga officials years ago stopped charging a flat rate for tickets and instead based the prices based on proximity to the court.
“There is no such thing as being ahead of the game,” Standiford said. “You are constantly striving to make that next step forward because everybody else is at a dead sprint.”
The stadium currently has five levels, from the handful of exclusive “platinum” seats to the upper reaches of the “Zag” section, which is near the top. The platinum seats require a minimum $3,100 contribution and the season ticket costs $750. The “Zag” section requires a minimum $250 Bulldog Club donation and $275 ticket cost.
Zag supporter Jeff Colliton, 72, and his wife, Susan, have been season ticket holders since 1988.
They contributed $20,000 over the first five years after the McCarthey Athletic Center opened. They currently pay $1,800 to the Bulldog Club and $1,800 for four season tickets in an area known as “silver” seats.”
“It’s been super,” said Colliton, a 1962 Gonzaga grad. “We don’t go south for the winter. This becomes our winter activity and the things we like to do. It’s been great for us.”
The Collitons also bought 13 season tickets to the women’s games. They mostly use their tickets to give to family or friends or donate the extra tickets for Gonzaga fund raisers, he said.
“We are satisfied,” he said. “It takes about 15 seconds to get from my seat to the bathroom. During timeouts I can make it quickly.”
Standiford said the Bulldog Club brought in about $2.4 million last year and raised another $1.7 million in ticket revenue from all sports.
“For us to compete, there’s an exhaustive laundry list of things we must pay for. Recruiting is a huge line item, travel is a huge line item,” Standiford said. “And we have to fund our own scholarships, which are just north of $46,000 per student athlete.”
As a result, the university continually approaches season ticket holders to see if they can give just a little more. Until recently, former player David Pendergraft would personally escort supporters to premium seats and provide the dollar figure for it would take to get them.
“If that is where their passion is at, we expose them to the needs of the program,” Standiford said. “Hopefully, they have the inclination to support our student athletes.”
Gonzaga officials then do everything they can to use those donations to fuel continued success of the team that has to recruit players from warmer climates and bigger cities and universities.
“We don’t have a Phil Knight in our back pocket. We don’t depend on one person,” Standiford said.
“We depend on a large number of people who support us. That’s the secret to our success.”