Notre Dame football season tickets attainable, but costly

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

No, the person on the other end of the phone call is not lying. Yes, Notre Dame football season tickets are available.

The doubting reactions from Irish fans became so common, the Notre Dame Ticket Office had to establish a protocol.

As Rob Kelly — Notre Dame’s associate athletic director of ticketing, premium and technology — tells it, nearly once a month a fan questions whether the opportunity being presented to them is real.

“We now have a formal process for how that person can validate the phone call,” Kelly said.  “They give them my e-mail address, and the person e-mails me directly and then I send a reply e-mail with my signature to confirm that this is not a scam. You are not being duped. This is the real deal."

Kelly recounted that a few years ago, a woman even offered up her credit card information before she could verify that the offer was legitimate.

“We actually had a lady who said to our sales rep, ‘I think you are scamming me, but I can’t take the risk that you’re telling me the truth. So I’m going to give you my credit card number, but I want your manager’s number, so I can call him back immediately,’ ” Kelly said. “She was actually willing to risk credit card fraud in order to get access to football season tickets.”

The phone calls aren’t giving away tickets. They’re only offering fans the chance to buy them — at a significant cost.

“We get people that can’t believe they’re even available,” Kelly said. “That’s half the battle we face in selling season tickets.”

The thought of Notre Dame football season tickets as an unattainable commodity may be more myth than legend.

“In the last couple years, we engaged with a sales team that goes out and calls out into the community,” Kelly said. “We have a request list now. We market. We’ve sent e-mails out saying, 'If you’re interested, sign up for the request list, and we’ll give you a call back and see if we have a location or something that’s of interest to you.' ”

The annual search to find new season ticket holders is an effort to counterbalance the attrition that comes with the process. For long-standing season ticket holders, Kelly said, somewhere between 95 and 97 percent typically renew their tickets. The attrition rate is higher for new season ticket holders, which give the Irish a renewal rate of roughly 90 percent, Kelly said.

If those ticket holders aren’t replaced every year, the number of open seats can add up quickly. When Kelly took over his current position in 2013, he made it a goal to raise the season ticket holder base to the level Notre Dame reached in 2007.

For the 2007 season, Notre Dame added 5,000 seat locations to its season ticket allotment. That move coincided with the renewal of the building fund program, which charges season ticket holders an annual rights fee per ticket in order to pay for stadium maintenance.

Previous season ticket holders were charged a rights fee of $500 for end zone seats, $750 for corner seats and $1,000 for sideline seats. New season ticket holders had to pay $1,200, $1,500 or $2,000 for their seats. Those fees, which came in addition to the ticket cost of $62 per game in 2007, were treated as donations to the university and were 80 percent tax deductible.

The current building fund, which expires at the end of the 2016 season, was created to cover a 10-year span. To avoid annual increases, ticket holders were given the opportunity to pay ahead for the next decade at their quoted price.

Ten seasons later, those rights fees for new season ticket holders have increased to $1,375 for end zone seats, $1,650 for corner seats and $2,200 for sideline seats. The tickets themselves cost $600 for 2016, an average of $100 per home game this fall.

That price didn’t stop Douglas McAnally, a 42-year-old fan from Kitchener, Ontario, from buying Notre Dame football season tickets for the first time this year. The Canadian said he had been trying to get season tickets for 15 years. The sticker shock of the building fund wasn’t going to stop him from giving himself a birthday present.

“The price of the ticket wasn’t an issue. It was the other part — the donation to the school — that caught me a little off guard,” McAnally said. “But I had been wanting tickets for so long that it wasn’t really an issue.”

He committed to two sideline tickets for $5,600, and six trips from Canada to South Bend this fall.

McAnally has been willing to shell out money for special Notre Dame events in the past. He saw Notre Dame play Navy at East Rutherford, N.J., and Army at Yankee Stadium, both in 2010. He even traveled to Dublin for the Navy game in 2012.

McAnally’s family has been season ticket holders for the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs for decades, so he’s familiar with that annual increase that will likely come with his Notre Dame tickets. He’s not ready to put a ceiling on what he’d be willing to pay.

“I understand them trying to see what the market is and seeing what they can get for them, but if it gets too outrageous— I’m only talking six games,” McAnally said. “I’m not sure what I’m willing to do. But since I had been waiting for so long to have these, I did it.”

Dave Hancock, a 30-year-old from South Bend, wasn’t willing to make the same kind of investment when he was approached this year to purchase season tickets. The required contribution to the building fund was significantly more than he expected.

“Even with 80 percent of the donation/gift being tax deductible, it just doesn’t make financial sense for me to become a season ticket holder," Hancock said, "when I can secure all of those tickets for face value or less.”

Hancock said he regularly attends two or three games every season and rarely pays more than face value. Living locally, he usually keeps an eye out for tickets that are made available to the public during the season. Last season, he attended home games against Texas, Navy and Wake Forest.

The excitement that came with a phone call offer to buy season tickets was wiped away by the reality of the cost.

“I think they’re taking advantage of fans who think they might not otherwise have access,” Hancock said. “I understand the rationale behind it. I understand there’s big money to be made with Notre Dame football.

“My allegiance aside, it’s the brand in American sports, probably with the New York Yankees and the Dallas Cowboys. It seems rather unnecessary and sort of cloak-and-dagger to describe the ability to gain access to these tickets as if it’s an exclusive club.”

The extent of the exclusivity of that club remains an unknown to the public. Kelly said the university has avoided releasing how many season tickets the athletic department sells every year.

“One thing we don’t do is we’ve never really publicized the numbers,” Kelly said. “I don’t foresee us doing that in the future, because we have such a different model and people misinterpret it.”

Because Notre Dame uses a single-game ticket lottery to give access to donating alumni and special contributors, the number of true season ticket holders at Notre Dame might not be easily compared to other schools. Kelly said the lottery usually accounts for 25,000 to 35,000 tickets per game.

Notre Dame students, faculty and staff also have access to season tickets, but those groups do not have to pay the building fund fees. Faculty and staff were offered season tickets for $600. Students get a discounted rate of $245. The majority of Notre Dame Stadium’s 80,795 seats are filled through season tickets and the lottery.

The ticket office has employed two recent strategies to reward season ticket holders, including a small discount. For the first time, the season ticket price was not tied to face value sum of every home game in 2016. The season ticket price of $600 is $70 less than the face value price of all six games combined.

This allowed Notre Dame to raise season ticket prices in its preferred annual increase range of 3 to 5 percent, despite increasing the high end of single-game tickets by 20 percent (from $125 to $150).

As another reward to season ticket holders, Notre Dame started delivering the tickets in special packaging in 2014. That year, the tickets came in a box that resembled the benches in Notre Dame Stadium. Last season, the box mimicked a cigar box, in a tribute to Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, the former university president who died in February of 2015.

Jack Cunniff, a 61-year-old fan from Park City, Utah, has been a season ticket holder since 2010. The cost of his two tickets, including the building fund, has risen more than $500 since that first season. He still keeps coming back, even if his wife may be having second thoughts.

“Every year when I get the bill, my wife looks at it and goes, ‘How much longer?’ ” Cunniff said. “I go, ‘Well, they’re playing this team this year.’ If it gets between $5,000 and $5,500, by the time I put in all my airfare to get there, we’re talking close to $7,000 or $8,000.”

At that point, Cunniff may choose to let his season tickets go. Then Kelly’s staff will have to send out more e-mails and make more phone calls trying to replace Cunniff’s tickets.

Season ticket renewals were due earlier this month, but Kelly said season tickets are still available to new purchasers for the upcoming season. The ticket office will sell season tickets into the summer. Fans who would like to join the request list can do so at UND.com/footballtickets.

As for Kelly, he’s already renewed his season tickets. The 2003 Notre Dame graduate was billed $1,200 for a pair of tickets as a staff member.

“Even the ticket guy,” he said, “has to pay for his tickets at Notre Dame.”

Notre Dame Stadium construction looms over fans during the Blue-Gold Game on April 16 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)

Prior to this season, Notre Dame's season ticket price mirrored the face value sum of every home game. The 2016 season ticket price is lower than the $670 total.

2011: $450

2012: $458

2013: $490

2014: $515

2015: $570*

2016: $600

*The large increase from 2014 to 2015 was impacted by Notre Dame allowing credit card purchases and waiving ticket processing fees.

Season ticket holders, excluding faculty and staff, are required to pay an annual rights fee to Notre Dame's building fund, which pays for maintenance of Notre Dame Stadium. The required contribution, which is 80 percent tax deductible, for new season ticket holders in 2016 is as follows:

End zone seats: $1,375

Corner seats: $1,650

Sideline seats: $2,200

This is the second in a two-part series on Notre Dame football tickets. The first story, which covered single game ticket prices, can be found here: http://goo.gl/Q2uurA