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Football Decision: To Go or Not To Go
High gas prices give fans, especially those with gas-guzzling vehicles, a dilemma.
Last fall, Reginald Bowens had plenty happening. Between an impending marriage and the good fortunes of the football team of his and his fiancee’s alma mater, Jackson State, there were plenty of reasons to make the 200-mile drive from his Memphis home to Jackson.
“This year, it’ll probably be two road trips,” Bowens said. “Just because of not really gas prices, but everything else around gas has went up, with food going up and that type of stuff.”
Therein lies a question athletic department administrators around the state are asking themselves: Will the recent economic downturn and spike in gas prices affect just how wide fans open their wallets to support their favorite schools, especially when football season starts late next month?
Belt-tightening in homes across the state could leave schools hurting in two areas: decreased or flattened giving to the schools’ athletic foundations, a life-blood of private support to programs; and fewer trips to see their favorite teams play, which could hamper season ticket sales.
The price of a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline in the Jackson market has gone up $1.18 per gallon from this time a year ago, according to the American Automobile Association. At a current average price of $3.918 per gallon, that represents a 43 percent increase.
For a car that gets a generous 30 miles per gallon, that would bump up the 346-mile round trip from Jackson to an Ole Miss football game in Oxford by about $14.
Drive a 15-mile per gallon SUV? Double that cost.
Drive one of those recreational vehicles, the ones that spring up and make mini-communities at many schools for game weekends?
Get out a calculator. And take a deep breath.
“For the first time, I’m researching places to leave my RV in Starkville rather than driving it back and forth during football season,” Duff Sudduth of Madison, who regularly takes his RV to Starkville for MSU games, wrote in an e-mail. Factor in the gas he’ll burn to run his generator through the weekend, and he’s looking at some $200 in fuel expense alone.
Sudduth said he gets about eight miles a gallon in his RV, or six if he tows his Jeep behind it. But for the fun of the football weekend with longtime friends, he doesn’t plan on stopping.
Ole Miss recently offered three different three-game ticket mini-packages, two of them costing $60 and another costing $50. The school didn’t mince words as to why it was making such an offer, citing “gas prices and a struggling economy” in the first sentence of a news release.
Sans Russell, UM’s assistant athletic director for ticket operations, said recently a few hundred have been sold.
“I really do think it’s having an effect on us as well as everybody else in the SEC,” Russell said. “I think people are just in a ‘wait and see’ approach and trying not to drive if they don’t have to do it.”
Russell said Ole Miss has sold some 39,000 season tickets, almost identical to where the school was last year even with renewed excitement around the program after the hiring of new coach Houston Nutt.
Mississippi State couldn’t provide similar numbers.
Greg Byrne, who just recently became the school’s new athletic director, said his background in college athletics fund-raising largely shows that people usually continue to make the private donations that have become the lifeblood of the programs.
“I don’t think it’s recession-proof; I think you see an impact on your giving on how the economy is doing,” he said. “However, people enjoy coming back to campus and being part of the game day atmosphere and overall have been very supportive through good times and bad.”
Southern Miss associate AD Diane Stark said season ticket sales there were on pace with last year, when the school sold just over 10,000. Excitement over new coach Larry Fedora is a factor, she said.
“I think the thing is going to be more of the walk-up crowd than the season ticket holders,” she said, pointing out that most of USM’s fans live relatively close to Hattiesburg.
But Stark pointed out perhaps a more pressing concern is travel for the team. Rising fuel prices have not only ballooned the cost of transportation but ancillary items like hotels and meals.
“Everything’s affected,” she said.
The effect of the gas crunch won’t be noticed until at least Aug. 30, when two of the state’s Big Three, Ole Miss and Southern Miss, open at home. Some of the most noticeable absences could come in Starkville on Sept. 6, when MSU plays host to Championship Subdivision (I-AA) team Southeastern Louisiana, or in Oxford on Sept. 13, when Samford visits.
Logically, the latter affects fans like Bowens, the Jackson State fan who has to drive farther. Some fans don’t think money concerns. Others are playing wait-and-see.
Eric Vliestra, a Mississippi State fan from Chattanooga, says he’s ending a nine-year run of buying football season tickets specifically because of rising gas prices.
“It’s just not worth it,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I could afford it, but I would rather spend my money on other things.”
MSU fan Shane Crowe of Brandon said the economic crunch isn’t affecting how he’ll buy tickets, though.
“I am giving up other things like restaurants before I give up MSU,” he wrote.
And if any of the state teams are in championship contention? Well, many fans would go regardless of the cost. Take Bowens, who said he’s cutting back on trips to Jackson.
But what if the Tigers make a repeat trip to the SWAC Championship Game?
“Yeah,” he said, “I’m going to try to go to that one.”
Football decision: To go or not to go
By Kyle Veazey, The Claroin Ledger