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Star-Ledger: RU Gave Away "Fistfuls" of Free Football Tickets As Sales Dropped

Rutgers Football Ticket Sales Down 27%, Season Tickets Down 32%
High Point Solutions Stadium
Rutgers Bd. of Governors approved a costly expansion to the football stadium in 2008. Years later, thousands of seats go empty. Charlie Kratovil

PISCATAWAY, NJ - The latest media outlet to conduct an analysis of Rutgers Athletic Department has found the same thing everyone here already knew: the University overestimated future attendance at football games to justify the $102M expansion of Rutgers Stadium.

The Newark Star-Ledger found that football ticket sales only brought in $7.75M this year, a 27% decrease from 2010's total, $10.63M.  Conversely, the football team's on-field performance improved dramatically this season after a dismal 2010.

The smoking gun indicating a miscalculation is the fact the University has been giving out free tickets to make the stadium look full.  This year, less than six in ten fans had paid admission:

One of the more surprising findings shows that an increasingly smaller percentage of fans at home games now pay for tickets, because to offset declining attendance, the university hands out fistfuls of complimentary passes to fill seats. While the stadium may look more filled, there is still less revenue for the cash-strapped program.

This year, roughly 59 percent of the fans bought a ticket, down from 76 percent in 2009. And despite a liberal use of complimentary tickets, the team still played in front of thousands of empty seats this year, even though it went into its final home game with a chance to win its first Big East title.

All told, the University's Athletics Department spent $26.8M more than it took in last year.  And this year's 27% drop in ticket sales to the department's biggest cash cow can't be good for business.  Both Bloomberg and USA Today had previously released exposes on the University's hemorraging athletics budget this summer.

Clearly, the expansion of the football stadium, which was hurriedly approved by the University's Board of Governors, during winter break and before a hearing could be held to solicit input from the public.  The decision came in response to a promise from then-Gov. Jon Corzine, who pledged to raise $30M from the private sector for the cause.

He raised $1.09M, including $1M of his own money, before someone told him it was totally shady and probably illegal to do that.  The Board of Governors had to move some money around, lower the quality of education at the school, and make ends meet without the Corzine money.

The current student representative on the Board of Governors, Kristen Clarke, who was not on the Board at the time, said most students see the stadium as wasteful spending in light of the low attendance:

"You would be hard-pressed to find someone today who is in favor of the stadium expansion instead of investing in new technology, such as digital classrooms," said Kristen Clarke, a 21-year-old senior who serves as the student representative on the Board of Governors. "I love football, and go to all the football games, but I don’t think any have been sold-out. It just has not worked out that way."

Oddly enough, the University's administration is now arguing that the football stadium expansion is for more than just the football program, and plans to use some creative accounting to make the program appear more profitable in the future:

That figure includes the $6.2 million the university paid on debt for the stadium expansion, records show. However, Pernetti said future financial reports will no longer include the debt payments in the program’s operating expenses, a deletion that will make the program appear much more financially stable."

"When the expansion is paid off, the university will own it, not the football program, so it just makes sense," said Pernetti, adding that the football program turned a modest profit last year if the debt payment is not counted.

Thus far, the stadium has been used exclusively for football since the expansion project began, with the exception of a very rainy commencement ceremony in May 2011.