Pulling Back the Curtain : Part 3

Austin Lewis, Staff Writer
Go Middle
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The Rutherford Source

Frustrated Middle Tennessee fans have long asked for more transparency out of the Blue Raider athletic department.

For years, Middle Tennessee has operated as a wizard of oz, operating behind a curtain. Season ticket sales have been more closely guarded than nuclear codes. Rumors of new facility ideas came from the mouths of recruits and quietly appeared on the campus master plan with no explanation.

Well, the wait is over. Through our FOIA request, GoMiddle.com obtained season ticket records for all major Blue Raider sports in addition to BRAA donations. These records stretch over a decade, going back to 2007.

The results served as a humble reminder of the unique challenges G-5 schools face. The first challenge is budgetary. Without the deep pockets of the Crimson Tide or the Texas oil money, a significant portion of the Middle Tennessee athletic budget comes from student fees. The drop in student enrollment from 26,000 students to 23,000 students resulted in a $1.5 million decrease in revenue for the the athletic budget. Without the ability to push for a student fee increase, athletic director Chris Massaro has opted to schedule more pay-for-play games.

Still in need of additional revenue, Massaro was also forced to increase season ticket prices. As you can imagine, this hasn’t yielded an increase in total sales. In fact, season ticket sales have decreased over 1,600 since 2010, a year that happens to coincide with the departure of marketing wizard Brad Smith.

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It’s a disturbing trend that goes all the way back to the budget crisis that accompanied the downturn in the economy between 2008-2010. In an effort to cut costs, the university stopped purchasing season tickets for retired faculty members. The departure of Smith in 2010 only made the problem worse. Smith’s creative touch and excellent staff had a lot to do with the era of increased attention, season ticket sales, overall attendance, and revenue from 2007 to 2010.

The decline in season ticket sales trouble Massaro, who believes a more strategic approach can reverse the trend. He revealed Murfreesboro’s 37128 zip code buys significantly less tickets than its counterparts in the 37127, 37129 and 37130 zip codes. He hopes to target the 37128 zip code this year in an effort to increase Blue Raider ticket sales.

While season ticket sales may have decreased, season ticket revenue has increased as the years have gone by, and Massaro sees no reason to cut the price to increase sales, as conference mate Western Kentucky has done.

“Attendance is the same,” Massaro said. “Why cut the price?"

Massaro also emphasized the need to increase single game ticket sales, but not at the risk of undermining season ticket holders. Though he has yet to finalize single game promotions for the upcoming season, he did mention several intriguing promotions for the Vanderbilt game and beyond.

After reaching several years of continual growth, the Blue Raider Athletic Association has also struggled in recent years. Donations to the BRAA peaked in 2013 but have since decreased by almost $200,000.

Combine these recent declines with dropped revenue from the aforementioned student fees and compound it with a lackluster conference television package, and you can now see why the administration has amplified the upcoming schedule of pay-for-play games. It’s a trend that may continue for some time with Middle Tennessee scheduled to play games against ACC, SEC, and Big 10 opponents in the next four seasons.

Massaro believes Middle Tennessee needs the guaranteed revenue to remain financially viable. The financial struggles have prevented Massaro from building new athletic facilities the keep up with peer institutions on the recruiting trail. The new Middle Tennessee Board of Trustees should provide some assistance, but more must be done. The Board of Trustees must work alongside the president and athletic director to advance Middle Tennessee. Approving a student fee increase for the first time since the 2010-2011 would be a major start, but the athletic department needs more.

The Board of Trustees needs to lead the fundraising charge. They, the leaders of the university, need to set the tempo. They need to create lasting partnerships with area businesses that will advance Blue Raider athletics. They also need to lead the charge when it comes to capital fundraising.

It’s high time the Middle Tennessee athletic department started receiving the support they need from a governing board. Massaro was certainly optimistic that better days are ahead for MT. It will be interesting to see how things play out in the years to come.

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