Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Loyalty at Penn State is Very Clear Cut: Money Talks

If you read the Centre Daily Times online and follow Penn State football religiously, you know that there has been a rather heated discussion about the Beaver Stadium Seat Transfer and Equity Plan. This plan, scheduled to be implemented in 2011, essentially will re-assign seats based on the seats’ “worth”. That is, chair-back seats on the 50-yard line will require an annual donation of $2000 per seat (there are very few of these). Seats between the 25-yard lines will require $600 per seat. Seats between the 10-25 yard lines will require $400 per seat. All other seats – other than the student section, the visitor section, and the club seats – will require a $100 donation per seat. That's just for the right to buy tickets.

Part of the plan also is the relocation of the student section. Right now the student section starts in the middle of the end zone and extends to the 40-yard line in the East stands. Students work their way up – freshmen sit in the end zone, sophomores in the corner of the end zone, juniors between the 0-20 yard lines, and seniors have the best seats. In the new configuration, students will be in the entire bottom level of the south end zone, and have some sections between the goal line and the 10-yard line in both the east and west stands. 

The visitors will be moved from the northeast end zone corner of the stadium to the very last rows in the Lion’s Den in the end zone – up in the “nose bleed” section. People sitting in those last rows will have to be relocated.

Okay, that’s hard to visualize, so look at the picture to the left. It’s a bit small, but it’s the best I can do. The blue seats are $100 seats. The red seats are $400 seats. Black are $600 seats. Green are $2000 seats. White are student section, and pink are visitors. The purple first tier in the south end zone are club seats, under separate contract, so not subject to this plan.

Does this plan make sense? According to most of the comments posted on the Centre Daily Times website, Penn State is being accused of all sorts of greed and other nasty intentions. People are claiming that they are not being recognized for their years of loyalty.


 Basically, people are saying they cannot afford the new “donation” requirement. I put donation in quotes because in my mind, donations are voluntary, but there’s nothing voluntary about this plan. If you want to keep your current season tickets, you have to ante up the per seat donation costs. In the pros, this would be called a seat-licensing plan (although it’s not exactly the same as a license). However, remember that there is a value to calling it a donation. It is 80% tax-deductible, because Penn State Athletics is a non-profit entity supporting 29 collegiate sports. And some people get matching donations from their employers, which helps support their donation levels and accumulation of Nittany Lion Club points. Others scalp their tickets to help pay for their donations. That’s another story worth discussing at another time.

I understand the furor. A lot of folks who are paying $200-399 to the Nittany Lion Club and who are lucky enough to have two seats on the sidelines between the 10-and 25-yard lines will have their donation costs increase to $800 for the right to purchase two tickets. If they were really lucky for all these years, and had seats on the sidelines between the 25-yard lines, their donation costs will increase to $1200-$4000 for those two tickets, depending on location.

If season ticket holders were donating enough currently to have four seats between the 25-yard lines ($400 -$799) their costs for four tickets will now increase to $2400-$8000 depending on the location of the seats.

That’s a very steep increase for those individuals. If they wish to minimize their costs, it means that they will have to apply for new seats – which will probably be in the end zone, or the corner of the end zone on the sidelines in the East stands. Long-term relationships in the stands will be disrupted. And they will have to get in line to get new seats based on the total number of donation points they have accumulated. If they have not been making significant donations to Penn State over the years, I wish them luck. I can feel their pain and understand their anger.

In addition, before any voluntary movement occurs, the first group of season ticket holders that will be addressed will be those who are being forced to relocate because they are currently sitting in the newly defined student section, the new visitor section, or areas that will be created to comply with disabilities requirements. 

So what does loyalty mean at Penn State? Well, to me it’s been very clear cut for a while. Loyalty means how much an individual donates each year to the Nittany Lion Club. Period. It’s as simple as that.

Loyalty does not mean how many years you’ve been a season ticket holder. You get two points per year for renewing, the equivalent of a $100 donation. In the 40 years we’ve been season ticket holders, that’s worth 80 points of our 469 points – not a whole lot! If that kind of loyalty meant anything, we would get more points each year for renewing our tickets. Penn State has chosen not to do that.

Loyalty does not mean how many games you’ve attended. Even with our incredible attendance streaks, we can’t purchase Alabama away game tickets from Penn State! We don’t have enough donation points. Neither do some other very loyal fans I know. I suppose I could call Tim Curley, plead about our attendance streak, but what’s the point? Several people I know with higher points than us but not quite enough are already doing that, and I would just have to get in line. It’s easier to book a tour with tickets. Also it’s cheaper (in the long run) than making the required donation just to get more points.

Loyalty doesn’t mean how badly you bleed blue and white. You can cheer for Penn State all you want, follow the team religiously. You can have a blue-white room in your house.  You can host the grandest tailgates, put up with long distance travel to get to Beaver Stadium. I know multitudes of folks who do that from all over the Northeast. We did that for a long time ourselves.  You can pay highly inflated prices for hotel rooms in State College to go to all those games all those years but it means nothing to Penn State. You might have sat in the stands for that awful string of losing seasons, when the term “bleeding blue and white” became more true than any of us desired. That doesn’t matter either.

The only loyalty that matters is how much you donate. How many points you’ve accumulated. Period. That will be the basis for all decisions in the future. One thing that's good about this: it's clear cut. It takes personal issues and individual circumstances out of the equation.  

And what about the students who are being relocated? Frankly, from my vantage point at Beaver Stadium, the most loyal students – the ones who are in their seats religiously at the beginning of every game – are the freshmen and sophomores in the end zone. It’s embarrassing, week after week, to take pictures of the empty student section because students are reluctant to leave their tailgating parties on time to get to kickoff. At a twelve-noon game, students rarely fill up the stands above the mezzanine level before half time. Even at a 3:30 Big Ten game, it might take 20 minutes before the stands are more or less full, and even then there are big gaps. Only at the “big” games is the student section full at kickoff – an Ohio State or Michigan. Their loyalty seems to be to the partying, not to the game. And since students stand the entire game, there are 50-yard line seats in the East stands with blocked views of the end zone. The movement will allow the students to stand without blocking anyone's view, to bounce all they want without destroying the stands. It will be an adjustment, but frankly the view from their new seats is NOT bad. They will still have some sections on the sidelines. If they really want to watch the game, the best seats are high in WA or EA, and those are the last to fill up. Most students want to be in the first rows. The view is pretty lousy there now.

People talk about Penn State Athletics running a surplus right now, and ask how much profit is enough. I wish the Athletics Department would be more forthcoming about future renovations to the stadium or other athletic facilities improvements that will cost millions. The arms race in college football and other sports is creating great pressure to keep facilities top-notch. All that takes money. Is it worth it to field competitive teams in all these sports? Who cares that the men’s fencing team won the national championship this year? Other than the students involved and their parents? Is it worth it? That is a huge topic of debate. Penn State could cut back on some of the minor sports, save money here and there. Maybe the current softball field is adequate rather than the new one that is planned. Maybe we can find a cheaper way to shore up the East stands, weakened by students bouncing to “Zombie Nation”. Maybe we could cut back on student scholarships. Maybe we can cut out some sports. Maybe club sports, now supported by donations to the Nittany Lion Club and available to all students at Penn State, can be taken care of by student fees rather than donations. A lot of schools do that. Maybe we can find a kind and competent coach to replace Joe Paterno who loves Penn State so much that he would be willing to coach here for less than $5 million per year, which seems to be the going rate these days. We can dream, can’t we? But even if cost savings are found, none of that will get rid of the inequities in the current stadium seating plan.

There are also plenty of people around who do donate quite a bit to Penn State, in the thousands per year. Some of those donors don’t have the opportunity to sit between the 25-yard lines, because those seats are tied up with season ticket holders who donate less. These newer donors have been donating patiently for many years, waiting their turn to be able to upgrade, being turned down because someone with higher points than them is first in line for the few seats that open up each season. Maybe with STEP they will get better seats more worthy of their donation levels.

There is also a very large number of season ticket holders who have not donated a penny to Penn State Athletics. They were “grandfathered” as season ticket holders by making a one-time donation decades ago for a lifetime membership to the Penn State Alumni Association. Many of them sit in my section. They will have to donate to the Nittany Lion Club in the future under this new STEP plan. Does that make sense? When I found out I was sitting in the same section with people who donate NOTHING for their tickets I was furious. That’s the equity part of this plan. Correcting mistakes of the past.

Now, my question is, what would make sense from Penn State’s point of view? Is there anything wrong with letting donations be the first priority for seating decisions? If you had an $87 million athletic program to run to support 29 sports, with about $27 million coming from Nittany Lion Club donations and the rest from ticket revenues, concessions, TV contracts and Big Ten revenue sharing, mostly through football and some through men’s basketball, the only two profitable sports, why wouldn’t you try to maximize football related revenues?

And why wouldn’t you try to have a sensible seating plan where the “best” locations in the house go to people who donate the most? The problem is there was no plan in the past. And some mistakes were made. So there is a lot of pain right now in this transition. But with all the re-locations, including the re-location of visitors and the student section, some decent $100 seats should open up that are affordable. At least I hope so, for the sake of those who can’t afford premium seats but still want to retain season tickets.

As for us, we have 4 tickets in Section WBU - $100 seats. If you look at the photo above, or in my blog with pictures if you're reading this in the CDT, you will see we have a great view of the field. We also have 4 tickets in WAU, what will be the new student section. We will be forced to relocate those 4 tickets, and we are a bit apprehensive about how that process will occur – what seats will be available.

Theoretically, at our donation level, we should be able to UPGRADE to 4 better seats between the 10- and 25-yard lines and also keep our 4 $100 seats, which we are very happy with. When I tried to get seats like that in the past, I was told there were none available, that I would need at least three times as many points to get in there. With first priority on seat selection due to forced re-location, we might actually be able to do that now. At least that’s the promise of STEP. Will it happen? I don’t know. I’m a bit fearful about how the process will be implemented. As much as the Nittany Lion Club staff tries to reassure us, I'm skeptical. What seats will be available after the dust settles is a huge unknown. Nobody can answer that question yet.

I would encourage everyone who has questions to contact the Nittany Lion Club at 1-800-Nittany and have a personal conversation about how it affects them. You can also review the information and Q&A on the STEP plan at www.gopsusports.com.

Just don’t be na├»ve. When it comes to loyalty, the only loyalty that matters to Penn State is the amount of your donations. For years, it has been the basis for all the decisions on seat upgrades and away game tickets, and in the future, your donations will also matter in terms of where you sit in the stadium. There will be winners and losers in this new scenario. For us and for several others we know, it’s actually mostly a break-even scenario. For others, it’s a huge shock, causing people to question whether or not to continue.

There’s also another aspect of loyalty that nobody’s talking about: the personal entertainment value of being a part of the Penn State fan base and attending all those games. So I say to all those folks who have been attending games for decades, what was the value of doing so? Did you get anything out of it?

The point here is that each season – each game – has its own value to each of us, and we can't forget that. It’s memories. It’s fun. It’s excitement. It’s pride. It's the feeling of being a part of something much bigger than yourself. For those who donate to Penn State Athletics, it's a feeling of pride that Penn State has such outstanding student-athletes performing in whatever their sport is. Students who attend classes, who are being developed into outstanding leaders, who represent Penn State well. I sensed that personally when I had students in my classes on the fencing team this spring. That was special. I knew how important that national championship was for them personally in their development as individuals.  I knew how important those scholarships were to their ability to succeed as college students.

Each of us has to decide how much that's all worth to us.  And for some fans who have enjoyed the luxury of great seats for many years at a very reasonable cost but are now faced with a huge increase to retain them, that’s a very tough decision.

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