Game day means millions to SEC schools, states

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Fans heading to Southeastern Conference football games are hitting the ATM on the way and bringing their credit cards too.

Game day in the SEC is big business and the price tag for the experience can be steep.

Devoted fans are anteing up, shelling out millions on hotels, parking, clothing, food and drink to watch SEC football — an obsession in nine states and one that is nearly unrivaled in five of those where there’s no major professional competition.

On a given Saturday, crazed SEC fans spend up to $41 million in ticket sales alone.

Twenty years ago, Brian Harrison paid $45,000 to tailgate in one of about two dozen converted railroad cars called “Cockabooses” less than a hail mary pass from Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, S.C. Now 43, he’s lucky he bought early — two suites for sale currently go for more than $200,000.

“There’s really no way to put a price on these things,” Harrison said, sweeping his hand across his view of the stadium and his two televisions showing games before his Gamecocks beat then-No. 1 Alabama last weekend.

“How could you find a more perfect tailgate experience? I have heat and air conditioning, a bathroom. And if it rains, I have a roof,” he said.

Tennessee fan Ryan McBee says fans are not being duped and that the SEC is worth the money. He shares five season tickets for Vols games and a parking pass with relatives.

“For me, this is my primary form of entertainment,” said the 28-year-old McBee. “A lot of people go to concerts or go to movies. I work all year to save up for football season. I grew up going to the games. … I think about the other things I could be doing with money, and it does get a little ridiculous. I guess I just try not to think about.”

The money can be dizzying.

The SEC just distributed $209 million — $17.3 million for each of its 12 members in the fiscal year that ended Aug. 31. About $150 million of that money came from football through television contracts, bowls and the league’s championship game.

Toss in ticket sales, concessions, souvenirs and parking with 10 SEC schools filling stadiums at least 95 percent, and it really adds up.

At LSU, the Tigers take in more than $4 million on Saturday nights in Death Valley — averaging $3.6 million in ticket sales, $550,000 in concessions, $125,000 off souvenirs and $300,000 in parking.

Some deals can be had for non-conference games.

The cheapest ticket to an SEC game is at Vanderbilt with $25 to watch the Commodores play Wake Forest in November. Mississippi State charged $30 against Alcorn, while $40 is the tab when Tennessee played UAB or when LSU hosts McNeese State on Saturday.

But marquee games are going to cost top dollar.

Alabama charges $65 per ticket for Penn State, Florida and Auburn. For Tennessee’s home game with Alabama on Oct. 23 fans had to buy season tickets for $360, plus a donation — minimum of $100.

Those donations is where the NFL got the idea for personal seat licenses. The right to buy season tickets for college football comes with an annual donation to that school’s booster group. Two season tickets to South Carolina requires $55 for a Gamecock Club Membership, then $320 per seat and a $50 donation per seat for a grand total of $795.

Florida started charging opponents more for tickets this year than its own fans and boosters pay, saying the change came from being charged more by others. Georgia is one SEC school using that approach.

“We charge the visiting schools the same amount that UGA is charged at their venue,” Georgia associate sports information director Frank Crumley wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

It all adds up.

South Carolina projects to bring in $16.5 million in ticket sales this year; Florida racked in $16.8 million in 2009. Georgia averages between $1.8 million to $2.9 million per game in ticket sales. Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium is the largest in the SEC with a 102,455-seating capacity and the Vols looked to take in about $27 million in 2009 ticket sales.

Vanderbilt is at the other end of the spectrum with the SEC’s smallest stadium (39,773-seat capacity), but the Commodores still bring in just under $1 million on a good game day — including everything from ticket sales to parking.

“We probably have to work at it a little harder than others,” said David Williams, a vice chancellor who is in charge of Vandy’s athletics.

RV parking is another source of revenue on game day, which can be more than an all-day affair and hotel rooms are often scarce.

A season pass at Mississippi State costs $750, it’s $895 at South Carolina while Florida packages RV parking in with a season ticket. It almost makes the $15,000 paid in five installments for one of 50 spots in the RV lot Tennessee built in 2006 next to a treatment plant seem cheap. The yearly maintenance fee is just $250.

But Alabama is revenue champion of SEC game day.

The Crimson Tide completed a $65 million stadium expansion this summer — the second in four years — pushing capacity to 101,821 and making Bryant-Denny the nation’s fifth-largest facility. Ticketholders pay $500 to hang out and eat before, during and after games in “The Zone.”

Alabama sold out the 1,000 tickets for that party zone in two weeks.

Two professors with the University of Alabama’s Center for Business and Economic Research found that a Crimson Tide football game has a $21.8 million economic impact on the state. Seven home games in 2008 generated a total of $152.8 million.

In Tuscaloosa, one game generates about $14.5 million.

Ahmad Ijaz, co-author of that study, said the numbers have gone up “significantly” since coach Nick Saban was hired.

“This year I think it will be substantially higher since that was pre-championship numbers,” Ijaz said.

Records show Florida’s football revenues jumped $7.2 million to $61.3 million after the Gators’ title in 2008.

The money stream seems to make Saban’s $4.7 million annual salary a bargain. U.S. Department of Education records show Tide football made $38.2 million in a 12-month stretch that ended June 30, 2009 — nearly enough to easily cover Saban’s pay.

Cha-ching indeed.

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Associated Press Writer Jeffrey Collins in Columbia, S.C., and AP Sports Writers Beth Rucker in Knoxville, Tenn.; Pete Iacobelli in Columbia; Mark Long in Gainesville, Fla.; Charles Odum in Athens, Ga.; John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Ala.; Brett Martel in Baton Rouge, La.; and David Brandt in Oxford, Miss. contributed to this report.

Teresa M. Walker/The Associated Press