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January 10, 2003

The Sport of Business

Ronald W. Wolf

The city of Atlanta is turning out to be very kind to University of Maryland sports teams. Last spring brought an NCAA championship in basketball, and on New Year's Eve, a Peach Bowl victory. But the Peach Bowl did not start out very friendly. At the start of the game, there were 50,000 people wearing orange shirts and only about 15,000 wearing red shirts. How did that happen?

It's easy to see why there were so many orange shirts. Tennessee has a good football program and its team regularly goes to bowls (their stadium, which they fill for home games, seats 100,000 people). Chattanooga is barely more than an hour from Atlanta, and Knoxville, where the University of Tennessee is located, maybe three. For many people in Tennessee, a trip to the Peach Bowl didn't require an overnight stay. The farthest point in Tennessee away from Atlanta is closer than the any point in Maryland. Because it's so close, many students could go to the game.

How many current students at Maryland went to the Peach Bowl? Maryland has geography working against when it comes to taking a crowd to any bowl game, and Atlanta is one of the closer cities that hosts bowl games. People may not be able to afford it because of distance or cost, and as distance and cost increase, the number of people who might go, even among alumni, goes down.

The culture of football is different at Tennessee (and many other universities) than at Maryland. It's more than watching a game and a tailgate party; it's a social event and a tradition on a scale unimagined in College Park. It's big business. At Maryland, the privilege of buying season tickets begins at $125, then goes up; at Tennessee, it starts at $1,000. Tennessee sold more tickets to the Peach Bowl than Maryland routinely sells to a home game. Tennessee sells more season tickets than Byrd Stadium holds.

The challenge for Athletic Director Debbie Yow and the University of Maryland is to change the culture of the state. Football simply isn't as important as it is in other states, and whether that's right or wrong is irrelevant to the sport of business. One key is to increase interest among alumni (or other sports fans in Maryland). AD Yow has a goal of raising season ticket sales from the current 13,000 to 22,000 this year and 30,000 next year. That's a tall order that may eventually require big changes. One of those changes is to increase the seating capacity of Byrd. Will Governor Robert Erhlich support funding to increase the size of Byrd? (Erhlich, by the way, made it to the Peach Bowl.) Increasing the seating at Byrd may require private funds. After the Peach Bowl victory, Maryland players and coaches talked about taking it to the "next level." That means contending for a national championship, and the current team has most of its starters returning. The prospects are very good for next year's team. Last season, Maryland went to the Orange Bowl and brought 23,000 happy-just-to-be here fans. How many fans would follow the team if the national championship game is in Phoenix or Los Angeles? (Nebraska took 60,000 fans with them a year ago to the Rose Bowl.) Maryland might be better off setting its sights every year on a game held east of the Appalachians. Maryland has had good football teams in the past. From 1973 to 1985 the team went to 11 bowl games and was the dominant team in the ACC, twice winning the conference championship four consecutive years. They can be that dominant again, particularly if the Fridge stops overeating. The real reason why bowl games are held is obvious. Seventy thousand people from outside of Atlanta came to spend money on hotels, restaurants, souvenirs, and to sample the watermelon soda (it's marketed in China) at the World of Coca-Cola. (By the way, the subway in Atlanta ran 24 hours per day on New Years Eve and Day, something officials for the Washington, D. C., Metro should take note of. If Atlanta can keep the subway running 24 hours per day, so can Washington.) Since universities make about $10 profit on the sale of each ticket, there's money to be made for the athletic departments beyond the revenue from the television networks. But compare Tennessee's take on ticket sales (50,000 tickets times $10 of profit per ticket) to Maryland's (15,000 times $10). You do the math. It's the sport of business.

Even though Maryland players are talking about a national championship, the sport of business at Maryland has to catch up with the players. That means more season ticket sales, a larger stadium, lobbying for better roads in College Park to get to the stadium, and more pressure on fundraisers.

Maryland may not excel yet at the sport of business. At the end of the Peach Bowl, though, there were 15,000 red shirts in the stadium, standing and cheering, and 200 silent orange shirts, all of which were worn by unhappy members of the Tennessee band.

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