SEATTLE – There are 70,138 seats inside Husky Stadium.
And nearly as many evolving obstacles for filling them all.
“The fact that people can buy tickets in so many different ways, in so many different places, anywhere they are, at any time they want, and can watch an outstanding production on an amazing TV from a comfortable home … the only thing they can’t get (at home) is the goose bumps,” UW chief revenue officer Heath Bennett told The Seattle Times last week. “They have to come here for the goose bumps.”
Three decades ago, they did.
On Sept. 19, 1992, No. 2 Washington defeated No. 12 Nebraska 29-14 in front of 73,333 – an unsurprising sellout in an expanded Husky Stadium. ESPN’s “Realistic Sound Level Meter” topped out at 133.6 decibels, the highest number recorded at a college football game.
From 1990-92, when Washington went to three consecutive Rose Bowls, fans averaged a near sellout of Husky Stadium. UW lost just once in Seattle along the way, in November 1990 to UCLA.
The Mariners went 224-262 (.461) in the same span – finishing 12th, 10th and 12th (out of 14 teams) in the American League in average attendance. The Sonics ranked 23rd and 19th (out of 27 teams) in NBA attendance in 1990 and 1991, and the Seahawks finished 18-30 during UW’s Rose Bowl streak.
At the time it was a Washington football town.
“It started on the drive over from Bellevue, coming over 520 with the state-trooper escort and everybody going to the side of the bridge as we come barreling through and get off on Montlake, and people are already there waiting for us. They’re cheering, yelling,” said former linebacker James Clifford, who led UW with 13 tackles and two tackles for loss in the Nebraska game.
“Some of the best times of my life were there, for sure. And it was twofold, with how it galvanized the city. The other sports teams weren’t very good at the time. We were up a bit, and the city rallied around us. We felt wherever we went, we were at home.”
But how about now?
Last season Husky Stadium’s average announced attendance was 61,615 – its lowest number since 2012 (58,617). And in home wins over Kent State and Portland State this month, UW averaged 56,815 fans … with significantly fewer actually in the stadium.
Granted, the opponent played a part in that. Bennett said.
“We know every one of these games count, but a lot of our season-ticket holders almost look at the Kent State game in the same light they look at a Seahawks preseason game. A lot of them view our season as starting (against Michigan State) on the 17th.”
Other obstacles include logistical issues associated with dreaded 7:30 p.m. starts (dictated by the Pac-12’s television partners), concerns surrounding COVID or wildfire smoke … and the convenience of watching the game from your couch.
To counter those conveniences, UW offers its own. Alcohol sales inside Husky Stadium were introduced last season, and UW is implementing a phased approach to “improve the ordering experience” at concessions for fans. Logistically, all ticket scanners are being replaced over the next few years, to streamline the entry/exit process.
UW also hopes to emphasize the game day experience, which should commence hours before kickoff.
“That’s a big thing for the team, the arrival,” Bennett said of the decision to move the “Dawg Walk” to Husky Stadium’s front door. “By moving it to the front of the stadium, putting it closer to the light rail, putting it closer to campus, putting it closer to where people can access it from tailgating, starting off each game day with a bang and really creating something that’s an epic experience, the Dawg Walk is one thing (fans can’t get at home).”
Season tickets are also a concern, especially considering the ease of access to secondary markets. Why pay more for a season ticket when you can snag a cheaper seat from StubHub on the walk from your car?
The answer also involves access – offering incentives that outweigh the price of a purple plastic seat.
“That person who can buy on a dozen different platforms any time they want, they put pressure on us to add value to the membership and add value to the season-ticket experience, so that someone isn’t just buying seven games,” Bennett said. “If they make the decision to not renew, they’re not just giving up seven tickets. They feel as though they’re losing a part of something or losing access or losing a membership feel.
“So we’ll do special access for season-ticket holders to our (preseason) scrimmage. We’ll do away-game viewing parties. You can come take your holiday photo down on the field with Dubs. We have the camp out, our biggest event every year. We have about a thousand kids out over the summer, camped out, watching a movie on the video board on the field. Those are all things only season-ticket holders can do.”
As for prices in a post-pandemic economy, UW’s season-ticket rates have remained flat for several years. A single-game, second-row seat against Kent State went for $24 on Ticketmaster ($30 with fees). Two tickets to Saturday’s nonconference game against No. 11 Michigan State were as cheap as $45 apiece on StubHub as of Wednesday afternoon.
Fans can get lower-level tickets for the Pac-12 opener Sept. 24 against Stanford for $27.
And though the financial aspect is an ongoing concern, UW has implemented more flexible ticket plans to cater to a wider array of fans.
“Going back to 1992, you would buy a single-game ticket, or you would buy a season ticket,” Bennett said. “Over the years, partial plans became a thing, and then flex plans. You’ve got this package now that we call ‘Husky Pass.’ Most schools are doing it, but you get a different seat every game. It’s delivered to you the week of the game. So you know you have a season-ticket commitment, but you don’t know where you’re going to be sitting. That’s more of a value option.”
UW expects to have more than 40,000 season-ticket commitments in 2022 – though the numbers won’t solidify until students return. The Huskies had an 86% season-ticket renewal rate in their most recent cycle, after consistently renewing 87-91% during the height of Chris Petersen’s stint as coach.
“If you were to take our attendance numbers and drop them into any other stadium around the conference that’s not the Coliseum or the Rose Bowl, we’re going to sell out every game,” Bennett noted. “So we’re still in a position of power, and I don’t think we want to lose sight of that.”
Still, there’s obviously ample room to improve. For his part, new coach Kalen DeBoer “has been so welcoming and so wide open,” Bennett added. “I mean, he spent an hour with our ticket-sales team. Most of my experience is in the NBA and NHL, but that’s just unheard of. We got (associate head coach JaMarcus Shephard) texting leadership podcasts back and forth with people on our retention team. It’s just a different feel top to bottom, department wide.”
Seattle is also a different sports city. On Saturday, when Washington trounced Portland State before an announced attendance of 57,518, the surging Mariners drew 44,965 against the World Series champion Atlanta Braves. The Sounders – who average 33,741 per match, third in MLS – downed Austin FC 3-0 next door.
The Seahawks are a staple. The Storm are a staple. The Kraken are a staple.
And in a city transformed by tech companies, and Seattle transplants, fewer residents grew up watching Washington football.
“Seattle’s a great sports town,” former UW All-American offensive tackle Lincoln Kennedy (1988-92) said, “and we became accustomed to being the cat’s meow, if you will, when it came to sports.”
UW’s primary challenge, Bennett said, is “recapturing the attention of the market.”
Or, in other words: regaining the goose bumps.
The best way to do that, of course, is to win.
“I don’t know exactly what the recipe is (for building excitement) and what the ingredients are, but I know you have to have passion,” former UW linebacker Dave Hoffmann said. “You have to have guys who give it all they have year-round. You don’t go out there expecting anything. You go out there, and you lay it on the line, and the fans appreciate you and what you’re doing.
“That in turn gets their lungs to break decibel levels
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