Ohio State to introduce preferred seat contributions for football tickets in 2022

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra
Drone view of Ohio Stadium on the Ohio State University campus photographed March 25, 2020.    (Doral Chenoweth/Columbus Dispatch)

Ohio State plans to require annual seat contributions for a majority of its football season-ticket holders as soon as 2022.

The donations are to be made by fans for the right to purchase season tickets in prime locations at Ohio Stadium, ranging from $100 a seat to $1,500 for a spot at midfield.

“In its simplest form, what it’s doing is shifting from an annual donation model to qualify for tickets to a per-seat donation model,” said Brett Scarbrough, an associate athletic director for ticketing and premium seating.

The new system was approved by the university’s Board of Trustees during its meeting on Thursday.

For subscribers:Ohio State athletic department reports record revenue in 2019-20 fiscal year

Athletic department officials believe the shift will allow them to raise additional revenue for the Buckeye Club, which funds scholarships for OSU athletes and is to receive the income from seat donations.

The support group brings in nearly $14 million per year, but athletic director Gene Smith said their hope is to see the figure rise to more than $25 million in annual revenue over this decade.

Ohio State’s athletic department is one of the largest in the country. It sponsors 36 varsity sports teams, more than any other school in a Power Five conference, and spends $29 million each year on scholarship aid.

Although the coronavirus pandemic has put financial stress on all college athletic departments over the past year and is expected to leave Ohio State with an eight-figure budget deficit in the 2021 fiscal year, OSU has not cut any sports programs.

University officials described the pending change in revenue generation as a “culture shift.” Not all football season-ticket holders had been required to donate to the Buckeye Club in past seasons.

In 2019, a total of 10,270 season tickets were purchased by President’s Club members who give to academics rather than to the athletic department, while 5,793 season tickets were bought by individuals who kept grandfathered plans not requiring qualifying donations originating more than three decades ago.

The rest of the 34,749 season tickets purchased by the general public during that season were by Buckeye Club members.

Jordan Birkemeier, an associate athletic director for annual giving, expects a mixed reaction — at least initially — from season-ticket holders as the new seat donation method is implemented.

“There’s going to be a lot of people that are going to be very happy with the changes,” Birkemeier said, “and then there's going to be people that are going to kind of be potentially upset with the changes. It’s a complete culture shift to what they’re used to. They’re used to making an annual donation and then qualifying for a number of tickets, and now that goes away.

“So I think it’s going to take some time for people to get used to, but I think long-term when people understand the program, it will definitely be a positive impact for them.”

Athletics officials also said more than 14,000 seats in upper-level C Deck and B Deck south end zone will be set aside as season-ticket locations that do not require donations.

The other five season-ticket locations require varying contributions per seat: $1,500, $1,000, $500, $250 or $100. Club seats, loges and suites are not affected, nor are student seats.

The prices of the season-tickets in 2022 range from $710 up to $1,287.

Top donors will maintain first dibs on premium seats and parking spots based upon their lifetime and annual contributions to the athletic department, incentivizing additional donations to the Buckeye Club on top of the seat fees.

While attendance capacity for the 2021 season is uncertain due to the ongoing pandemic and the department is delaying season-ticket renewals until later this spring, this system begins in 2022, when the Buckeyes are scheduled to play eight home games for the first time since 2012.

The slate also features high-profile matchups with nonconference opponent Notre Dame and archrival Michigan.

It will be the first time The Game is held in Columbus since 2018 after an outbreak of COVID-19 cases prevented the Wolverines from visiting Ohio Stadium last December.

Smith said the department has searched for ways to maximize fundraising contributions as they have exhausted other revenue streams in recent years.

Previously struck sponsorship agreements with Learfield IMG College and Nike run into the next decade, leaving the Buckeyes with fixed payouts.

A few more years still remain on the Big Ten’s television contract with ESPN and Fox, leaving a gap before a new deal takes effect and is likely to bring in a larger pool of money for member schools.

“All those deals you have read about over the years, they’re done,” Smith said. “They’re at the top of the pyramid. There’s no more growth opportunities.”

Smith said the department has looked at reducing expenditures, including cutting some travel costs. Coaches also took 5% voluntary pay cuts during this fiscal year.

But expenses have been high.

Ohio State had the highest-spending athletic department in the country in the 2019 fiscal year, according to the most recent database of financial reports compiled by USA TODAY Sports in partnership with Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.

A database for the 2020 fiscal year is not yet available, though the Buckeyes did decrease their year-over-year expenses from about $220.6 million to $210.5 million.

If additional money is raised for the Buckeye Club, going toward scholarships, more income will be able to be reallocated to cover other areas.

Not only have coaching salaries risen throughout college sports, but Smith anticipates potential new costs arising from the hiring of staff members to assist players with relaxed rules coming regarding name, image and likeness (NIL).

The athletic department also will be required to make annual payments for an interest-bearing loan it plans to obtain one from the university to cover its budget deficit in this fiscal year.

Smith has estimated the deficit will be more than $60 million due to the pandemic.