|« Delaware Charts Athletic Course, but Road will be Rocky||Waddell Promises Energy, Vision for SEMO »|
In Downturn, Ticket Sales Concern for Marist
Professional sports — from the National Football League to NASCAR — are starting to feel the pinch from the loss of sponsorship dollars.
Mid-Hudson sports operations know their business partners face the same economic pressure as the big boys, but some, like Army and the Hudson Valley Renegades, are flush with sponsors because of pre-existing contracts or proven track records.
Sponsorship in the Marist football and basketball programs has taken a small hit, athletic director Tim Murray said. Most of the long-term sponsors have stayed with the Red Foxes and radio sponsorship of games has been good.
When financial times get tough, people cut out extras, and sports can find themselves on the chopping block. Our three-part series takes a look at how the local sports world is reacting to the current economy.
Thursday: Are travel teams and schools feeling the pinch of tighter household budgets and fiscal restraint?
Friday: How will sports venues and retailers attract customers who are limiting expenditures?
Saturday: Are sports that rely on sponsorships finding tough times as companies react to the recession?
“It’s a tougher sell,” Murray said. “People are looking at their marketing dollars, and if they are looking to cut their own expenses, many businesses look at their marketing first, or at least in the top three.”
Ticket sales for Marist men’s basketball are down 10-15 percent, while football was on par with past seasons, Murray said. Some losses have been offset with the success of the Marist women’s basketball team and increased ticket sales.
One thing is for sure: the higher the price of the ticket, the harder the sell.
“It takes time for an $8 ticket price to be a decision maker on whether a family goes to a game,” Murray said. “A $25 ticket, a $28 ticket … now it’s, ‘Woo, do we really need to go to a game tonight?’ Unfortunately, just reading the newspapers, we might get there soon.”
Army has plenty of arena signage, broadcast radio commercials for four squads (one football, one hockey and two basketball teams) and program ads in a marketing deal with Learfield Sports, although associate athletic director Bob Beretta had no financial figures. He said military defense contractors — one industry not affected too much during a time of war — have been reliable sponsors through the years.
One major dropoff at West Point, however, has been ticket sales. Resplendant fall afternoons are usually a “slam dunk” for 30,000-35,000 fans crowding into Michie Stadium for football games but the turnstiles barely ticked more than 27,000 for non-rival games. That had administrators at the Academy scrambling to come up with creative ticket pricing on a week-to-week basis.
“We understood the economy is very difficult for everybody,'’ Beretta said. He came up with a new ticket plan for basketball and ice hockey that provides a ticket plus an all-you-can-eat-and-drink hospitality area.
The downturn in football sales could have a devastating effect on an Army athletics department that relies on ticket revenue to fund programs that do not generate much revenue.
“When those numbers suffer, the department suffers,” Beretta said.
Scott Benenke, general manager and coach of the expansion Hudson Valley Bears minor-league hockey team, said a month ago he was working hard to line up sponsors for the inaugural season, but it was a tough sell with the economy and the team having no track record. Attendance for the Bears’ games at Ice Time Arena in Newburgh and Mid-Hudson Civic Center in Poughkeepsie — with adult tickets going for $12 — trails the other three teams in the Eastern Professional Hockey League.
One business that hasn’t taken a hit has been the Hudson Valley Renegades minor-league baseball team. The Renegades have consistently played to better than 95 percent capacity at Dutchess Stadium since the team’s inception in 1994.
“What I’ve been told is typically when you go through a recession, minor-league baseball has tended to do pretty well,” said Renegades general manager Eben Yager.
That’s because baseball fans may forego the big-ticket prices of the Yankees and Mets and turn to the more affordable minor-leagues instead, he said. Playing to near capacity makes the Renegades a hit with sponsors, who are buying billboard signs and renting the luxury boxes at Dutchess Stadium.
“Everything (this season) was at least as good as it was the year before, if not better,” Yager said. It’s a bit early for ticket renewals, he said, so the organization is “cautiously optimistic” about sales for 2009.
Orange County Fair Speedway hosts the annual Eastern States championships in October. General manager Kenny Sands said sales of program advertisements and lap sponsorships met goals. He said it’s too early to comment on 2009 season sponsors because the proposals haven’t gone out yet while World Racing Group and Fairgrounds owner Michael Gurda continue to negotiate a lease deal.
Ticket sales have dwindled over the years at OCFS and crowds struggled to reach 1,000 on most Saturday nights. With adult general-admission tickets going for $15-17, families that came out to watch 10 races a season visited the Speedway maybe half as often.
Sponsorships in auto racing are harder to gauge because there are hundreds of local race teams — big ticket and small dollar. Drivers Jerry Higbie Jr. and Brett Hearn said their car-fabrication businesses are thriving, likely due to drivers deciding to refresh old cars and engines rather than purchase new ones for the 2009 season.
“I slowed down throughout the year with the small repairs,” Higbie said, “and now people are really, really having to totally revamp their cars.”
“Honestly, there hasn’t been a lot of technological gains that would make somebody have to get a new car,” Hearn said, “but there are a lot of guys buying used stuff. I think everyone is trying to do it inexpensively.”
One thing Higbie and Hearn could not speculate on was the availability of sponsorship dollars. Most local drivers have small sponsor deals with friends and business associates, ranging from $50 to four-figures — it’s likely some of those dollars will dry up as small businesses tighten belts, but local drivers have not heard stories of their peers parking their cars in 2009.
The economic impact on college athletics budgets is becoming more evident. There is more scrutiny on traveling to non-league contests far from campus, especially if there is no payment guarantee or recruiting advantage to be gained. New purchases are vetted for needs vs. wants.
“We don’t want to shortchange our student-athletes and the support they receive from us,” said SUNY New Paltz athletic director Stu Robinson. “Every campus is looking at how we are going to address the issue and approach the matter.”
Murray said one colleague was told to make budget plans for flat growth, plus five- and 10-percent budget reductions. Murray insists recruiting dollars will not be cut because it’s “truly your life blood.”
Murray is about a month away from submitting the Marist athletic budget for 2009-10, but not before the school receives word on student tuition for the spring semester.
“If there are 200 students whose mom and dad say we won’t have money to send you back to school, it will be significant,” Murray said. “I don’t think people have seen the impact or what’s going to happen in the spring semester. How many of those people, the moms and dads who lost their jobs, will be able to continue to pay for their children’s tuition? People are on the edge of their seat.”
Sponsors taking a second look
By Ken Mcmillan, The Hudson Valley Times Herald-Record