Latest Team Rankings
Free Text Alerts
|ShopMobileRadio RSSRivals.com Yahoo! Sports|
|College Teams||High Schools|
July 17, 2012
To Jason Heggemeyer, Tim Beckman has been like a free, additional member to his staff.
Heggemeyer, the Illinois assistant athletic director of ticketing, delights in phone calls from season-ticket holders who witness the ever-energized first-year Illini football coach speak at an area event or just stop by a local business to say hello and drop off posters and schedules.
Beckman is in the selling business. He sold himself to athletic director Mike Thomas. He has successfully sold himself to 15 high-school prospects from the 2013 recruiting class. Now, he's attempting to sell himself to the Illini fandom - and Heggemeyer couldn't be happier with the extra hand.
"Any time you have a coach who's willing to go out and sell his program, it helps you," Heggemeyer said. "He's been very available to the public. You want the public to like the coach. Then when the team does well, it just steamrolls from there in terms of the enthusiasm around the city."
As of last week, about 90 percent of 2011 season-ticket holders had renewed for the 2012 season. That rate is an improvement from last year's renewal rate of about 82 percent. But most Illini fans are taking a wait-and-see approach to Beckman's new era of Illinois football.
Single-game tickets went on sale to iFund members last week and to the public on Tuesday morning. Heggemeyer said students usually don't start buying single tickets until they reach campus in late August, but the single-game market likely will determine if Illinois watches football attendance figures dip for the fourth straight season.
"This is a big couple weeks for us, and we're going to get a good idea of people's demand because frankly right now, this is the first time they've been able to order single-game tickets all summer," Heggemeyer said.
The delayed enthusiasm for Illini football mirrors last season.
Illinois averaged a paid attendance of 49, 548 during the 2011 season (eighth in the Big Ten ahead of Minnesota, Purdue, Indiana and Northwestern), down from 54,188 in 2010. Despite a 6-0 start to the season - the school's first 6-0 start since 1951 - Memorial Stadium hosted just one sellout of 60,670, a 31-14 loss to Michigan on Nov. 12. The final home game against then-No. 15 Wisconsin drew 45,519 as the Illini lost their fifth of a six-game losing streak to end the regular season.
Head coach Ron Zook was fired, in part, because of the lagging attendance and fan unrest. Season-ticket renewal rates likely would have been lower if Zook had been retained. The majority of fans were vocally (catcalls at the coach during the losing streak) and symbolically (empty seats) ready for change by the end of last season's losing streak.
But back-to-back bowl wins (first in school history) and a new visor-wearing profile on the posters and pocket schedules won't enthuse the fan base nearly as much as a few early wins.
"What we're hoping for is that Coach Beckman comes out with a bang against Western Michigan (in the season opener on Sept. 1)," Heggemeyer said. "You saw it a little bit last year. We steamrolled a little bit through the nonconference schedule and we picked up some fans we didn't think we were going to get for certain games just because we were playing well. I hope we get off to a good start. If we could knock off Arizona State on the road (on Sept. 8), that would really help as well."
The schedule doesn't sell itself either. The Illini host seven games at Memorial Stadium, down from eight last year, but there are few marquee names on the schedule. By far, the most anticipated game (outside the season opener) will be the Sept. 29 Big Ten opener against the embattled Penn State Nittany Lions. The other Big Ten visitors: Indiana on Oct. 27, Minnesota on Nov. 10 and Purdue on Nov. 17. Those three teams combined for six conference wins last year.
Heggemeyer hopes annual draws like Homecoming (Oct. 27) and Dad's Day (Nov. 10) keep demand high for the less-than-stellar matchups.
"There are a lot of good opponents that come through Memorial Stadium but you can't play all of them every game," Heggemeyer said. "We try to get people behind the fact that you want to come out and see Illinois play no matter who they're playing. That being said, there's still some good games on the schedule.
"You're right, we don't have Ohio State, Michigan on the schedule. But we still have some big days that people are going to be excited to get out to Memorial Stadium."
The ticket office is trying to do its part to help increase the demand. The visiting ticket allotment was moved from section 109 to the East Balcony in section 209, adding 1,600 more tickets to the horseshoe section, priced at $99 for season tickets.
Rates for some sidelines season tickets dropped from $40 per game to less than $33 per game. Single-game tickets for non-conference games were cut in half from $50 last year to $25 for the first three games on the 2012 schedule: Western Michigan (Sept. 1), Charleston Southern (Sept. 15) and Louisiana Tech (Sept. 22). Illinois also wants to host special stadium events like last year's Stripe the Stadium, though the program isn't prepared to make any announcements about any possible events yet.
Heggemeyer said he can't predict whether the UI will have to drop prices again next year to meet demand. Again, it depends on the team's success on the field.
"I was here during the Rose Bowl year (in 2007)," Heggemeyer said. "We had no problem with demand," as Illinois average attendance was 54,872 in 2007 and 61,707 the following season.
So the success rate of Heggemeyer and the Illinois ticket office lies in the hands of their new salesman, Tim Beckman. He'll make his first on-field pitch to the Illini public in about six weeks.
"I try to explain it to people, 'It's really not only about price. It's about the product,'" Heggemeyer said. "We have a lot of confidence in Coach Beckman. If he gets this program rolling where we think it can be, then people won't be worried about the price."
Jeremy Werner is the co-host and Illinois reporter for the "Tay and J Show," which airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on 93.5, 95.3 ConnectFM in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at www.myconnectfm.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @WernerConnectFM