In almost two months, Nevada football hopes to open its season with a home game against UC Davis. That game won't feature a full crowd, and it doesn't have anything to do with Mackay Stadium's struggles to draw in recent seasons or the opponent being an FCS foe. It has to do with a self-imposed limit on stadium capacity (by at least 50 percent) due to COVID-19. Those limitations obviously won't be limited to Nevada among Mountain West teams. Every team in the conference should have limited seating options as mass gatherings are outlawed during the pandemic.
If ticket sales are curtailed this season, it's worth asking which MW schools would be in line to lose the most money?
First, let's take a look at ticket sales nationally. Ticket revenue has mostly been stable over the last decade and has become an increasingly smaller portion of college athletic budgets, although it remains a decent chunk. In 2009, ticket revenue was 28.6 percent of Power 5 budgets and 14.7 percent of Group of 5 budgets. In 2018, the latest available numbers, those percentages sat at 19.5 percent of Power 5 budgets and 7.9 percent of Group of 5 budgets. That's down 9.1 percent in the Power 5 and down 6.8 percent in the Group of 5.
Why? Again, ticket revenue hasn't grown over the last decade. It's remained stable across the FBS as other revenue sources, largely media rights deals, have skyrocketed, shrinking the percentage of the pie ticket revenue takes up. Among Group of 5 schools, ticket revenue has actually shrunk. Group of 5 schools made $275.5 million in ticket revenue in 2009 and $207.3 million in ticket revenue in 2018. The MW just set its lowest levels for attendance in football and men's basketball.
All of these financial numbers come directly from the NCAA's website, and I'll be the first to admit there's funky math when it comes to athletic department budgets. It does seem odd Group of 5 schools have seen ticket revenue drop by nearly $70 million over the last decade. Perhaps that's because some of those ticket prices are now termed "donations" due to seat premiums. Donations are up at Group of 5 schools from $255.6 million in 2009 to $325.2 million in 2018, an increase of $70 million. Maybe some of that ticket revenue money has been shifted into "donations," but at least it seems like ticket revenue in the Group of 5 is down.
This is a long way of saying ticket money, while important, is probably less important than ever before in college athletics. The reason colleges are trying to play a season in a pandemic is to satisfy its television rights holders and get that media money. But ticket revenue is still 15 percent of your average Group of 5 school's budget. And if that budget is around $40 million, which is roughly the Mountain West average, that's still $6 million, and $6 million is a sizable chunk of cash. So which MW school stands to lose the most ticket revenue in 2020-21 if capacities are capped as they almost certainly will be?
Here are each MW schools' ticket revenue totals for fiscal year 2019, per USA Today.
1. Boise State, $7,016,928
2. San Diego State, $6,596,027
3. Fresno State, $6,429,309
4. Nevada, $6,327,210
5. Colorado State, $5,784,735
6, New Mexico, $5,042,302
7. UNLV, $4,726,304
8. Wyoming, $3,971,849
9. Air Force, $3,579,247
10. Utah State, $2,023,744
11. San Jose State, $623,166
After you stop laughing about that San Jose State figure, I will note Nevada's number is an estimation because of how the Wolf Pack was required to change how it calculates ticket sales between fiscal year 2018 and 2019, so I took the average of those two figures, which might inflate the 2019 figures because the Wolf Pack drew so well in basketball in 2018-19.
But the biggest ticket-revenue losers in the conference would be Boise State, San Diego State, Fresno State and Nevada while Air Force, Utah State and San Jose State would be the least impacted. This is all assuming, of course, that there is a college athletics season in 2020-21, which honestly seems unlikely, if not simply dumb, given the rise of COVID-19 cases.
Columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.