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Rentschler Field: Empty seats at a sold-out stadium

In the game notes distributed to media before football games each week, the University of Connecticut devotes a half page to attendance at the 40,000-plus seat Rentschler Field in East Hartford.

Two segments titled "A Hot Ticket" and "Sellouts The Norm" boast of burgeoning season ticket sales and sellouts. The Huskies have sold out 25 of their first 41 games at Rentschler, according to the media notes.

The university stresses the following in bold and italicized letters: "UConn has played to 96-percent of capacity all-time in East Hartford, drawing 1,581,291 fans, or an average of 38,568 per game."

Yet figures at the state budget office tell a different story.

According to records at the state Office of Policy and Management, the university has never sold 40,000 tickets to a game. Of those 25 announced sellouts, the number of tickets sold has instead ranged from 32,800 to 35,362.

And the actual attendance, or the number of people who show up, has been much lower: During the 2005 football season, at which all six home games were announced as 40,000-seat sellouts, the highest turnstile/luxury count hit 32,021 and none of the other five games exceeded 30,000 people in the stands.

The announced-vs.-actual attendance is a well-worn public relations technique, in which universities and pro teams inflate attendance numbers, declaring sellouts even amid empty seats. Usually, as UConn does, they say that all the tickets were sold or distributed but some people didn't show up. Still, gaps include:

• Sept. 13, 2003: an announced sellout against Boston College, with ticket sales of 32,970 (turnstile 31,736).

• Nov. 8, 2003: an announced sellout against Rutgers, with 32,800 tickets sold (turnstile 29,538).

• Nov. 11, 2006: an announced sellout against Pittsburgh, with 33,022 tickets sold (26,374 turnstile).

While UConn's athletic communications office wants to focus publicly on tickets distributed, the number of fans who follow up and actually attend games at Rentschler Field is an important one.

UConn's lease with the state says the university must have a minimum of 186,000 people show up to games each season or else pay an "attendance surcharge" on the difference. Complimentary tickets, or "comps," are not included in that equation for the six or seven home games at Rentschler each season.

The university has never met that minimum, according to the state budget office, but the state Office of Policy and Management has waived the fee.

According to Michael Mehigan, senior policy advisor, the state takes in revenue during UConn's football scrimmage in the spring, and the state has used a 15-percent surcharge on tickets as a credit that has more than offset the penalty.

The one year the university fell too low for the credit to cover the penalty, in the 2005 season, Rentschler hosted a Rolling Stones concert that boosted the reserves in an enterprise fund set up to handle the field's operational costs.

The state decided to forego the attendance fee because those reserves were healthy. Today, the reserves are approximately $296,000; Mehigan said the state tries to maintain at least $250,000 in the reserve account in case it needs to replace the field "in a hurry."

NCAA has two standards

Mike Enright, the university's sports information director, said UConn follows guidelines set by the National Collegiate Athletic Association for its methods of taking attendance. That essentially includes counting anyone in the stadium, Enright said, including band members, the media, the teams, concession workers, police, and the like: "anyone in the footprint of the stadium," Enright said.

According to Enright, on top of tickets sold, the university distributes another 3,000 to 3,500 tickets a game to fulfill corporate sponsorship contracts and hands out a variety of complimentary tickets. An additional 1,000 to 1,500 people are among the "non-ticketed personnel," or people working a game.

Even adding 5,000 people to the number of tickets sold results in a handful of sellouts. Moreover, UConn's contract with the state only allows for 2,000 complimentary tickets per game.

"Some of those comps are tickets we actually buy, like for our corporate partners and what-not," Enright said, adding that "those really aren't comps" so the university remains below the 2,000 figure.

Enright likened game-day attendance figures to a newspaper's circulation, which he said was difficult to calculate on any one day.

In an Aug. 14, 2006 story in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, several sports information directors - mainly at smaller schools - conceded that announced attendance figures are commonly fabricated. The assistant commissioner of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference said one of their conference's sports information director's "takes dollar bills out of his wallet and uses the most convenient four-number sequence from the (serial number)."

Another sports information director said to take note of how often the last three digits is a jumble of the date, and the story included other examples where numbers in attendance figures matched scores or honored the number of an athlete.

Enright bristled at the idea.

"That's their business," he said. "That's not how we operate here at UConn."

The NCAA has two standards for schools: the attendance figures they must report to the NCAA, and the figures they are allowed to announce to the public.

Teams in UConn's division, referred to as the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), must average 15,000 in actual or paid attendance for home games once every two years.

The bylaws describe the following as non-counted students: "Student-athletes and cheerleaders scheduled by the institution to be at the game and students performing services at the stadium (e.g., concessionaires, ticket takers, parking-lot attendants, ushers, groundskeepers) shall not be counted toward meeting the attendance requirements."

In other words, schools cannot count those people as being in attendance when they report attendance figures to the NCAA. But they can count them when announcing attendance to the public.

"From a stats point of view, schools may include bands, media, virtually anyone who attends the contest when citing 'announced' attendance; that number is non-scientific and a completely separate set of numbers than anything reported by the institution for membership/divisional requirements," Christopher Radford, Assistant Director of Public and Media Relations for the NCAA, wrote in an e-mail.

Rentschler Field is one facet of Hartford's Adriaen's Landing project. Paid for with $91.2 million in general obligation bonds, the stadium is legislatively set up to be self-supporting, except for debt service and payments in lieu of taxes, or PILOT payments, to East Hartford.

The bonds will be repaid in 2020 and total $128.8 million.

Thus far, the stadium has fulfilled its obligation to be self-supporting, according to Michael Mehigan, senior policy advisor at the budget office. It ran in the negative in fiscal year 2007 when utilities unexpectedly skyrocketed, but it has maintained a net revenue every other fiscal year, according to figures Mehigan provided, including a high of $363,222 for fiscal year 2009; that figure includes all events held at Rentschler.

A separate enterprise fund handles expenses and revenues. The stadium hosts different events throughout the year, although the largest crowds by far are for UConn football games.

UConn rents the stadium from the state for $170,000 per game plus a surcharge of $3 per ticket. Tickets to games range from $35 to $60. An admissions tax totaling 10 percent of the ticket price and a sales tax on food, beverage, parking and merchandise goes into the state's General Fund.

The stadium also generates passive revenue by leasing five cell tower sites that bring in $130,704 annually.

k.crompton@theday.com

 

ANNOUNCED CROWD VS. TIX SOLD

Game Announced Tix Sold

2003

B.C., Sept. 13 40,000 32,970

Rutgers, Nov. 8 40,000 32,800

2004

Duke, Sept. 11 40,000 34,708

Army, Sept. 25 40,000 34,144

Pittsburgh, Sept. 30 40,000 34,350

W. Virginia, Oct. 13 40,000 34,442

Temple, Oct. 23 40,000 34,160

Buffalo, Nov. 20 40,000 34,671

2005

Buffalo, Sept. 1 40,000 34,179

Liberty, Sept. 10 40,000 33,710

Syracuse, Oct. 7 40,000 34,226

Rutgers, Oct. 22 40,000 34,842

South Florida, Nov. 26 40,000 34,164

Louisville, Dec. 3 40,000 33,263

2006

Wake Forest, Sept. 16 40,000 33,584

Navy, Sept. 30 40,000 34,478

West Virginia, Oct. 20 40,000 35,121

Pittsburgh, Nov. 11 40,000 33,022

2007

Louisville, Oct. 19 40,000 35,001

South Florida, Oct. 27 40,000 33,669

Rutgers, Nov. 3 40,000 35,005

Syracuse, Nov. 17 40,000 35,362

2008

Virginia, Sept. 13 40,000 33,252

Cincinnati, Oct. 25 40,000 33,195

West Virginia, Nov. 1 40,000 33,509

F.Y.I.: SEATING AT RENTSCHLER FIELD

About 36,300 seats, not 40,000, are located in the area commonly referred to as "the bowl," or the outdoor seats. And most of that is bench seating rather than individual chairs - virtually eliminating the appearance of empty seats.

The remainder of the seating includes indoor club seats, suites, the press room and standing-room only spots located in the plaza area by the scoreboard.

In total, the stadium capacity is 40,642, according to the Adriaen's Landing & Rentschler Field annual report.

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