WVU football: Attendance may not be there, but price is right for Mountaineers
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Not since 2009 has West Virginia played a football game for a crowd of fewer than 40,000 people, but that might be the reception that's waiting for the Mountaineers on Saturday.
No. 9 WVU and FCS No. 5 James Madison play a 4:30 p.m. game at FedEx Field, home of the NFL's Washington Redskins in Landover, Md., and a fair estimate for the crowd seems to be around 35,000 people.
WVU lost 24-21 at then-No. 5 Cincinnati in front of 35,105 in November 2009.
"There might only be 40,000 folks in there, but as a former player I can tell you that the college student-athlete really enjoys playing in NFL stadiums," Athletic Director Oliver Luck said.
WVU still stands to make a lot of money and spend much less than what it might normally spend to play a FCS team at Mountaineer Field. The size of the crowd will keep WVU from making even more money, though.
As part of the game contract, the Mountaineers negotiated a sales incentive that could have delivered an additional $200,000 - or $7.50 for every ticket sold beyond 45,000 in the stadium that seats 79,000.
Luck said that goal won't be reached, which means JMU won't see a similar incentive worth up to an additional $150,000.
"There were certain bonuses, but we didn't really plan on that," Luck said. "You don't budget money like that. The straight guarantee is what we've planned on, which is a higher net than if we played the game in Morgantown."
The Mountaineers are nevertheless guaranteed $2.3 million for the game and were also able to retain the television rights, which went to Root Sports. WVU usually makes around $2 million for a capacity home game, but that is a net figure that includes two large costs the Mountaineers don't have to worry about this week.
WVU has no stadium operation costs and doesn't have to pay the opponent. A team like JMU might cost WVU around $350,000, but the game's promoter, Russ Potts Promotions, is covering JMU's guarantee.
The Mountaineers are instead in charge of busing the team to a hotel in Bethesda, Md., the night before the game and busing back to campus afterward.
They're also not stuck with expensive unsold tickets in an arrangement similar to a bowl game. Even with the ticket sales incentive, WVU wasn't allocated any tickets. The school suspended ticket sales last week after selling about 9,650. Another 900 will go toward internal use for the marching band, player families and recruits.
WVU assistant athletic director for marketing and sales Matt Wells said WVU expects to have around 20,000 of its fans at the game because of its sales and sales from the secondary market. JMU sold around 7,000 tickets.
The Mountaineers beat the Dukes 45-10 at home in 2004, the year JMU won its national championship. WVU is 12-0 all-time against FCS teams, but has never played away from home against one. Luck said WVU could have played the game at home, but it was difficult to ignore both the reward for playing at FedEx Field as well as the burden of scheduling another home game.
"We've got seven home games this year and we were reluctant to have an eighth because we'd have to add that eighth ticket to the season ticket price," Luck said. "That pushes that package up pretty significantly, even if it is a lower-priced game. We have three different tiers for our home games. Eight home games is highly unusual and we thought it was unfair to ask our season ticket holders to pay that kind of price."
Neutral-site games aren't going away, though. FedEx Field is able to make money off its stadium on a weekend when the Redskins play on the road. Other NFL stadiums have similar schemes in place, and WVU beat the University of Cincinnati at Paul Brown Stadium, home of the Cincinnati Bengals, last season. The attendance was 13,000 larger than it was on campus at Nippert Stadium two years before.
WVU will also open the 2014 season against Alabama in Atlanta's Georgia Dome in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game and play BYU at FedEx Field with the same promoter and arrangement in 2016.
"I think that these games are becoming more popular," Luck said. "Historically, what's happened is 20 years ago, places like RFK and Three Rivers were all owned by local or government entities. These NFL teams are so much more entrepreneurial because they want to fill up the stadium as often as they can.
"It's kind of like a restaurant. More games - even if there are only 30,000, 40,000 people - and the more events, the better off you're going to be. NFL teams are much more aggressive with neutral-site games."
Luck likened some of the games to "bowl games at the beginning of the year" and highlighted how they can create matchups that might not otherwise happen. Scheduling has become so tricky, yet so critical, that schools need to find games and also names to play. Some schools are more likely to schedule a game, or play a team, one time at a neutral-site and with a big payday.
"In my discussions with (Athletic Director) Jim Weaver, our only opportunity to play a Virginia Tech might be this kind of game because they are not really interested in a home-and-home," Luck said. "It's less of a commitment."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.