Notre Dame weighing options after another 'Sea of Red'
The red inside Notre Dame Stadium was impossible to miss Saturday.
An estimated 30,000 Georgia fans flooded the seats and provided an abnormal backdrop for an Irish home football game. After a 20-19 loss to Georgia, many Notre Dame fans expressed disappointment in the overwhelming turnout.
Fans have taken to social media, message boards and Tribune editorial pages to point fingers and share their frustrations. Contributing to the issue is that the majority of the tickets purchased by Georgia fans didn’t come from Notre Dame directly.
As part of the agreement between Georgia and Notre Dame to play a two-game series in 2017 and 2019, the two schools allocated 8,000 tickets for the opposing team plus 413 tickets for the respective bands, cheerleaders and mascot. Those numbers were discovered by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an unsigned copy of the agreement in 2014.
The rest of the Georgia fans in Notre Dame Stadium acquired their tickets through someone else. Those had to be via Irish season ticket holders or members of the Irish ticket lottery, which includes donating alumni and special contributors. Because so many people in those categories purchased tickets, no tickets to the game were made available for public sale through Notre Dame.
Public shaming will be the only consequence for those who sold their Notre Dame tickets to Georgia fans. The university no longer has a policy that prohibits the reselling of tickets. In fact, the Irish have implemented an online system that allows fans to resell their tickets on the Notre Dame Ticket Exchange Powered by Vivid Seats.
"In general, we wished our fans wouldn't sell their tickets,” said Rob Kelly, formerly Notre Dame’s associate athletic director of ticketing, premium and technology. “But we understand why.”
The old policy formally went away with the partnership with Vivid Seats, but Kelly said active enforcement of the policy ended before he started leading the ticket office in 2013.
Kelly transitioned earlier this year to a role as senior associate athletics director with a focus in media and brand. Jim Fraleigh, Notre Dame’s deputy athletic director, is currently overseeing ticketing with no one yet filling Kelly’s former position. Kelly still has a finger on the pulse of the ticket office.
“It was not a surprise,” Kelly said of the number of Georgia fans in Notre Dame Stadium. “We were prepared for the visual experience that everybody had in the stadium on game day. That's not to say that it makes us happy, but it wasn't a shocker.
“I think that when you consider the combined influence of a team with a passionate following of a high-profile nature that hadn't been to Notre Dame Stadium and hadn't been in this region of the country since 1965, it creates a dynamic where their fans, given this opportunity, are going to make every attempt to try to come to an iconic venue that has a brand new experience to unveil and is a bucket-list experience.”
The invasion of red has drawn comparisons to Notre Dame’s 2000 game against Nebraska, when an estimated 25,000-30,000 Nebraska fans found their way inside Notre Dame Stadium despite the school being allotted only 4,000 tickets.
The fallout of what was termed the “Sea of Red” included Notre Dame implementing a strict ticket resale policy.
“For athletic events at the University of Notre Dame, you were prohibited from reselling your ticket above face value,” Kelly said. “There was a concerted effort early on to attempt to enforce that policy. It included a committee that reviewed potential violators and some work by interns searching the early websites at the time to identify seat locations.”
In 2006, the Tribune reported the Notre Dame ticket office had identified the original owners of 1,700 tickets being sold above face value a month into that football season. As a result, the future ticket privileges for those original owners were revoked.
Continuing to monitor and enforce that policy became harder for Notre Dame over the years. Secondary market ticket websites became more prevalent and developed into convenient ways to sell tickets. Those sites work to protect the identity of their sellers by not disclosing the seat location online, often including only the section and the row.
“And public sentiment changed about ticket resale,” Kelly said. “It became an expected right, if you will, to be able to disposition my tickets the way that I want to disposition them including selling them above face value. These are quote, unquote my tickets.
“Eventually because of resource constraints and an inability to actually confirm the identity of the owner of a set of resold tickets, we just stopped. We stopped enforcement of the policy, and we fell into the practice of only calling up the policy when it came to our attention and we had to do something.”
Secondary market purchases come with an inherent risk. Notre Dame was routinely dealing with fans on game day being told they had purchased fake tickets or were stuck in a situation without tickets they were promised by someone else. As a result, Notre Dame formed a relationship with Vivid Seats, one of the emerging secondary market websites. The university announced the Notre Dame Ticket Exchange Powered by Vivid Seats last November.
Fans can sell their Notre Dame tickets on the website and the university and Vivid Seats together guarantee a valid purchase.
“We're responding to what people already expect. We're responding to what behavior we knew our fans were already engaged in,” Kelly said. “We were trying to give them a safe and guaranteed place to engage in that activity.
“There are still so many people that are selling their tickets through like Craigslist. That's just dangerous. That's not safe. There are no guarantees behind that. You're going to get defrauded.”
The new relationship with Vivid Seats has come with accusations, Kelly said. He wanted to make clear that the university does not push its unsold tickets to Vivid Seats and present them as already purchased. Notre Dame won’t sell its tickets for higher or lower prices through Vivid Seats to take advantage of demand or try to empty its supply.
One accusation that is accurate is that Notre Dame does retain a fee for tickets resold through Vivid Seats. Kelly declined to disclose the amount, but he said Vivid Seats pays Notre Dame less than $10 per transaction in their shared marketplace.
”We don't get paid as a percent of the ticket price. There's no incentive for Notre Dame to see the prices go up,” Kelly said. “What we're being compensated for is to offset the expense that we incur from providing the guarantee on our side of that service arrangement.”
The prices on Vivid Seats did hit high marks. According to the site, the prices of tickets sold for the Notre Dame-Georgia game on its marketplace ranged from $100 per ticket to $1,900 per ticket with an average price of $609. More than 50 percent of those purchases, according to Vivid Seats, were made by people from Georgia. Face value prices ranged from $95 to $300.
But the opportunity to resell tickets through Vivid Seats can’t be the only reason to blame for 30,000 fans entering the stadium. Fans were already selling tickets on other secondary market sites. Kelly said the secondary market includes thousands of Notre Dame football tickets each season and carries a value between $5-10 million.
One reason to sell could be the price changes implemented before the season. For the first time, different sections of Notre Dame Stadium came with different ticket prices. That resulted in ticket prices lowering to $45 in certain sections for games against Temple, Miami of Ohio and Wake Forest and raising to as high as $300 in the preferred section (blue box seats near midfield) for games against Georgia and USC.
Season ticket prices were also affected. The cheapest season tickets in 2017 could be attained for $1,150, which included a $750 gift to the university. The cheapest season tickets in 2016 cost $1,975 ($600 tickets with a $1,375 gift). Season tickets on the highest range increased from $2,800 to $3,500, including the required gift.
"I don't believe we can point to rising ticket prices as an impetus for this,” Kelly said. “My answer for that is half the ticket prices dropped. So it would be circumstantial. It would be a case-by-case basis. I'm sure everybody has a different reason for why they would want to engage in that decision."
What Kelly didn’t say, but can’t be ignored, is Notre Dame coming off a 4-8 season. There’s certainly apathy with some, and disgruntled fans could have taken the opportunity to make money off their tickets and not care about the consequences.
So what can be done to prevent similar invasions by opposing fans? Notre Dame will have to weigh its options. Kelly cited a system the Cleveland Cavaliers have in place that closely monitors the redistribution of season tickets with credit cards used to identify the buyer and seller. But a system like that could slow the flow of fans into a stadium and Notre Dame Stadium holds 77,622 in contrast to the 20,562 at Quicken Loans Arena.
"The experience on Saturday has absolutely caused us to reflect on the circumstances that led to the environment we saw there,” Kelly said. “We're going to take some time to really think about how we can more positively influence the audience that shows up on game day so that we're providing the best experience for our student athletes.
“It may be one of the most disappointing things about what happened Saturday. The student-athletes that we have deserve a friendly atmosphere. We feel a responsibility to positively influence that."
Just don’t expect a stadium-wide ban on reselling tickets to be the result.
“We're not inclined to return to a policy where we would prohibit people from selling their tickets,” Kelly said. “When you have an experience like this, I think the inclination is to move dramatically in the other direction. We want to be thoughtful and measured in our response."