Jan. 26, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - "You get what you pay for" is a major tenet of the marketplace more than ever as consumers strive for the most value in exchange for their hard-earned dollars.
Over the past five years, Spartan fans have occasionally had issues with the quality of opponents in home games, seat-reassignment in the Breslin Center and whether academic-day traffic will interfere with tailgate parking before night games at Spartan Stadium.
What they haven't been able to complain too much about, if they want to be taken seriously, is the return on their ticket dollar.
Coming off its second-straight 11-win season, fifth-consecutive bowl trip and first postseason victory in 11 seasons, a Big Ten divisional title, an appearance in the inaugural conference championship game one year after winning its first league title since 1990, a fourth-straight victory over Michigan and the first Top-10 national ranking in 13 years, Mark Dantonio's football program is operating at a level unseen since "Bubba" Smith and George Webster compelled the national spotlight to be directed on East Lansing.
Tom Izzo's men's basketball program is just one season removed from its second consecutive Big Ten championship and the sixth under his watch. The Spartans are in contention for their third title in four years and a 15th consecutive NCAA Tournament bid - the third-longest active streak in the nation and the second-longest in Big Ten history. Spartan basketball is to the point where a once-acceptable 19-win season is somehow a letdown.
Michigan State hockey is in a transition phase under new head coach Tom Anastos, who is implementing program innovations geared for long-term success. And, it's not like the program hasn't won a National Championship in the last five years.
In 2010-11, conference coach of the year Suzy Merchant's program broke through with MSU's first undisputed women's basketball Big Ten Championship. The Spartans are gunning for an 11th-consecutive postseason bid and a 10th-straight 10-win Big Ten season, which only Ohio State can match.
Meanwhile, the successful non-revenue sports, such as baseball, men's soccer and volleyball, have represented Michigan State at the highest conference and NCAA levels in recent seasons.
When MSU Athletics Director Mark Hollis talks to fans and boosters, he often hears about how pleased and proud they are to have winning programs.
The sobering reality, which fans would rather ignore in these difficult economic times, is that each of those wins, and all of that success, has a bottom line.
"As we look at the past, we say we've had four tremendous years," Hollis said. "But as an AD, anytime you've had something happen positive, it comes at a cost, and that cost is to continue to provide top-quality facilities and be able to enhance the fan experience."
After voluntarily adhering to a campus-wide salary freeze and holding the line despite escalating costs for scholarship athletes' tuition, room and board; coaches' compensation; travel expenditures; and operations, while trying to keep facilities competitive with its conference, regional and national rivals, Hollis on Thursday informed the MSU Board of Trustees of his plan to restructure football ticket pricing, beginning with the 2012 season.
Although season ticket prices will be held at last year's rate of $308 each for every non-student seat in Spartan Stadium - including end zone seats which were previously sold at a discount - Hollis is asking every season-ticket buyer to become members of the Spartan Fund with a Scholarship Seating gift of $25 to $600, based on location, in addition to what they pay for tickets.
Season-ticket buyers also will have the option of avoiding paying the premium if they are willing to relocate to the upper east stands.
"It's not a re-seating plan," Hollis said. "It's taking what we believe is the market value for each seat and associating a contribution as part of that."
The 200 season ticket-holders who have purchased tickets for a total of 400 seats for at least 50 years will be grandfathered under the old plan and not required to pay a premium for up to two seats.
Tim Day, Spartan Fund assistant director, said based on an extensive study, MSU's plan is consistent with those adopted by the athletic departments of other Big Ten and national Top 25 programs.
The plan represents the first ticket hike since 2008, but designed to place Michigan State in the middle of the Big Ten ticket-pricing pack. It also the first time the Scholarship Seating program has been adjusted since it was implemented.
Under this plan, someone who paid $308 for a season ticket in the lower bowl between the 40-yard lines, along with a Scholarship Seating gift of $500, will now pay $308 and $600. A ticket between the 5-yard lines in the west upper deck who paid $308 and no premium last season will pay $308 and $50 this season. And, end zone seats that went for $231 and no premium, will now sell for $308 and $25.
Meantime, those sitting in the club seats will see their donation increase from $1,500 to $1,750 while their season tickets remain at $308.
"It will have a financial impact on fans," Hollis said. "We're trying to keep it modest. We've taken our economy and we've taken our state (into consideration), but we've also taken the demands of what we've heard from our alumni and fans of what we want our program to be."
Hollis said the required contributions are projected to generate somewhere between $1.5 million to $3.5 million annually. The new funding source is targeted for much-needed upgrades to Spartan Stadium, beginning with new video boards in 2012, along with athletic scholarships, which are not supported by the university's general fund or taxpayer dollars.
The new revenue stream will also help MSU stay competitive in terms of paying coaches, especially highly sought-after assistants such as football defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who elected to remain on Dantonio's staff despite substantial offers from other universities.
"It's important to remain of value to the institution," Hollis said of the athletic department. "We don't bleed the university's general fund. We don't use tax dollars in any way in our budget to fund scholarships, room and board, or to play coaches' salaries.
"It's easy to find coordinators being paid $1 million and up. Those are the needs. We want to compete at the highest level. We want to be in the middle of the Big Ten conference (in terms of cost), we want to have broad-based programs, and we want to be competitive, albeit not at the top, in compensating coaches."
Hollis didn't try to pretend that the timing of the increase didn't coincide with an outstanding 2012 home schedule that includes Boise State, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Iowa, Nebraska and Northwestern next season, or capitalizing on the athletic department's recent success.
But in what Hollis is calling a necessary partnership with the fan base, it's a business decision that has to be made because the quality of the Spartan product has rarely been higher, and demand has kept pace.
Don't be misled by the empty seats seen in the corners of the upper decks of some games. Most of those tickets were sold, but unused, due to a changing dynamic regarding student interest and participation nationwide, Hollis said. Many of those empty seats also were committed to the visiting teams' allotment, and while turned back, are typically not scooped up by the walk-up market on game day. Solutions to both issues are being studied, Hollis said.
"We aspire to be at the highest level of competition," Hollis said. "We reached a point where we look at ourselves and what we are, we look at the Big Ten Conference, and we look nationally, and focus on where we want to be. We have identified our needs and we have placed this according to meeting those needs.
"Now it's in the hands of the people who buy the tickets and make the contributions to determine if we're going to be successful or not, because it takes those resources. It's more than buying a ticket now, it's investing. It's very common at Alabama, and programs like LSU and Texas or Ohio State.
"We need to develop that culture if we want to create the opportunities that we all strive for at Michigan State. We want to have an opportunity to compete for championships, Final Fours and Rose Bowls. This gives us a chance to do that."
In many respects, especially compared to what fans at other BCS universities have been paying for similar, or even less, success on the field and court, Spartan backers have gotten a lot of bang for their bucks in recent years. If they are willing to pay a fair price for what they're getting, there's every indication that success will continue.
If they aren't, they can always go back to the way things were because every reasonable consumer understands, to get what you want, you have to be willing to pay for it.