No easy answers for big game seating

June 24, 2013

Much has changed during the forty-plus years I've been involved with collegiate athletics. Huge Jumbotrons have eliminated simple scoreboards, strength coaches and academic counselors are now necessities and not extras, artificial turf has largely replaced grass, ball games are played every day and night of the week and most are televised. We could go on and on with how things have evolved.

But one thing that has not changed is the delicate art of assigning seats, especially to the big games. Although this process appears simple and obvious to the public, when the rubber actually meets the road it can often be a thankless task with multiple tentacles to consider. In every crowd, someone is disappointed because all seats are not at midcourt or on the 50-yard line.

I got involved with athletics as an undergraduate and my alma mater built a tremendous basketball arena my senior year. My parents never had the chance to attend college themselves but they were caught up in my newfound career path and bought season tickets, despite living 90 miles from campus.

They loved the game experience and valued the friends they made sitting in the same seats for 25 years. They drove to all the games, sometimes in snow or cold Midwestern weather even if the opponent was a patsy. They cheered the team, wore the colors, stood for the fight song.

And then one day they got a letter from the school saying that if they didn't donate more money (they were already annual donors to the scholarship program) they would be relocated. With reluctance, they gave up "their" seats and never again bought tickets.

I tell that personal story as a way of saying that I "get it" when fans explain why they are attached to "their" seats. And not only do I get it, so do my good colleagues who spend much of their job life striving to do the right thing for Vanderbilt fans - the gang in the ticket office, our outstanding National Commodore Club team and our senior athletic managers.

Recently we hosted the NCAA Baseball Regional and Super Regional tournaments. We were thrilled that our team had earned the opportunity to play host. Despite feeling like these were our home games, they - like all other NCAA tournament games - were not. Host institutions must follow NCAA guidelines.

That meant we had to offer each visiting school a block of tickets with a specified location between home plate and first/third base. For the Super Regional Louisville received and used 600 tickets, about 30% of our bowl capacity. The Vanderbilt team received 250, less than the 600 because our fans would essentially use the rest of the stadium.

Right off the bat, no pun intended, one can use simple math and realize some seat shuffling was needed since we had sold out the bowl on a regular season basis. And right about here, it might be the place to make a point about the unusual design of Hawkins Field. Unlike many parks, where the seats along the foul lines gradually blend into the outfield bleachers, space limitations dictate we have a clear demarcation between the infield bowl and outfield bleachers. And therein lies the rub.

Who should sit in those remaining infield seats? Do you seat that loyal fan that hasn't missed a game or the fan with a higher ranking in the NCC who may or may not have had season tickets? In some ways, this is akin to asking if we "like" our left arm better than our right one because in an ideal world we like both equally.

I have been at Vanderbilt since August, 1983 and there has never been a time when our department didn't stress the importance of growing the National Commodore Club in both membership and total giving. Like every one of our competitors, our ability to fund a quality Southeastern Conference program is critical. Like our competitors, we have a post-season ticket priority system that leans toward scholarship contributors but certainly factors in season ticket holders in the process. As our year-round communications emphasize, we strive for "a systematic and fair process"; being an acquaintance with an insider won't change one's location if the numbers don't add up.

We have listened to feedback from those who liked how things were handled and those who didn't. We continue to weigh the ying and the yang as we are always looking for better ways in everything we do. It is fair to say that no system will ever please everyone, much as we wish that was possible.

The priority system we used for Hawkins Field baseball was the same one we used for years with SEC and NCAA basketball tournament tickets, bowl games in Memphis and Nashville and the Super Regional we hosted two years ago. (Two years ago, Oregon State did not use their full allocation for some added perspective.) The difference is that with baseball, our cozy stadium wasn't able to meet the high demand.

We've read heartfelt notes and taken calls from some super season ticket holders, fans who bleed black and gold that said their esteem took a nose dive when they saw their assigned Super Regional seats and concluded we didn't value them. It is difficult finding the words for those fantastic fans because we do value everyone.

To have a championship program - capable of winning the SEC and attracting a big fan base - you need great coaches, gifted student-athletes on scholarship, fine facilities and an ample operations budget. Every one of those pieces requires - unfortunately - money. It's a fact of life in today's athletics. Our grandparents could attend a professional game for a dollar and sit behind home plate. Those days are gone with the wind.

What will never be out of style is that faithful fan whose cheers fills the arena and excites the team. They will always have value and will always be appreciated. And decades from now the next generations will be trying to solve the age-old riddle of who should be sitting on the 50-yard line.



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