Written by: Jeff Lockridge, The Tennessean
Vanderbilt is unlikely to sell as many football season tickets as last year, and coach James Franklin said he is tired of hearing excuses as to why fans aren't buying up every available ticket.
The Commodores are coming off back-to-back bowl games for the first time.
Last year, about 18,500 season tickets were sold, and Vanderbilt celebrated a nine-win season for the first time since 1915.
Vanderbilt went over 16,200 season tickets this past week, Director of Sales and Marketing Steve Walsh said. The season opener is Aug. 29 against Ole Miss.
Vanderbilt raised season-ticket prices and added Sections B and F (near the 20-yard line) to the seating areas that also require donations to the National Commodore Club. The school's prices remain the cheapest in the SEC for comparable seat locations.
"It's going to get up to where it was last year," Franklin said. "I would have thought we would have been sold out by now. We've still got some time to do it.
"I really don't want to hear about the excuses about we're in a city and we have other things to compete with. I don't want to hear about nationally how the trend is that people are struggling to get people to go to games, because that's not the fact in the SEC, and we're in the SEC. So I think the excuses are over and it's time for us to get out and support our team."
Selling out of season tickets would involve reaching the mid-20,000s.
Vanderbilt last sold out of season tickets in 1996, when Notre Dame was on the schedule and Irish fans were forced to buy seats to every game to see their team in Nashville. Vanderbilt's high-water mark in recent years was 19,000-plus in 2008.
"We are very conscious and judicious when it comes to our ticket pricing," Walsh said. "We want to continue to be the best value in Nashville and the SEC while also being able to provide top-notch services for our student-athletes, coaches and fans.
"Coming off the best season in Commodore football history, we made modest increases in pricing while still having ticket options available at every price point to meet every fan's needs."
The home schedule also isn't as attractive in odd-numbered years when the Tennessee, Florida and South Carolina games are on the road. The home schedule this season features Ole Miss, Missouri, Georgia and Kentucky along with nonconference opponents Austin Peay, UAB and Wake Forest.
When asked about the non-conference schedule, Franklin said:
"I think people like to leave the game with a win and have a great experience. So whether that's a year where we maybe have some games where people don't look at as big-time games, I'm not really concerned about that.
"To me, football is about the whole experience. It's about tailgating, it's about hanging out with your friends and family, it's about going into the stadium and watch your hometown team compete, and leaving feeling good about it. We can sit there and make excuses. We've been making them for 80 years. It's time to get it done."
Then there are the rape charges that led to the dismissal of four players. Then on Friday, starting receiver Chris Boyd was suspended after being charged with being an accessory after the fact by giving advice to another defendant.
Season-ticket sales are well ahead of the 2011 pace when 12,489 were sold in Franklin's first year. Vanderbilt has since rewritten Franklin's contract twice, given raises to his staff members, increased the recruiting budget, added stadium features such as a new video board and berm seating, and begun a $31 million recreation center expansion that includes an indoor practice field.
Fans acknowledge these things require higher ticket prices, and most have been willing to renew season tickets in exchange for a winning product.
"I graduated from VU in 1971 and didn't buy season tickets until last year," John Cannon Jr. said. "I finally saw a commitment by the chancellor and (Board of Trust) to have a competitive athletics program. ... I not only have the cost of the tickets, but travel from Memphis, which adds gas and hotel. I guess I drank the Kool-Aid."
Brentwood's Chris Pastina, 51, a longtime season-ticket holder, paid $2,460 for four seats ($315 per seat, $300 per NCC donation) in Section C (near midfield), a total increase of $440 over last year.
"The quality of the product has vastly improved in the last two seasons," Pastina said. "It is impossible to ask Vandy to compete in the 'arms race' that is SEC football without some money behind it."
Pastor Dee Jay Shoulders of First Apostolic Church in Nashville said it is "unheard of" - in a good way - that he could purchase a family pack (two adults, two children) for $455 to watch seven games. But if everyone agreed, Franklin wouldn't be pleading with fans to call the ticket office.
Bill Ball, 58, of Spring Hill, has been a season-ticket holder for 20 years and attended games regularly for the past 40 years. Ball chose not to renew his tickets when he learned they would cost him "about $350 more total" and was discouraged when he got the impression "they weren't too concerned they priced me out of season tickets. Their attitude was, 'Oh well, someone will buy 'em.' "
Ball said he will attend some games by purchasing tickets off the street.
Franklin, in the meantime, will continue to wear of the hats of coach and salesman, although he doesn't want to do the latter forever. He eventually wants to concentrate all his efforts on recruiting, developing and supporting his players "like a lot of these other coaches."
"We have to get to a point where we stop rationalizing that we don't have this or we don't have that and we rationalize it and make excuses why that's OK. It's not," Franklin said. "We've got to sell out every single game, and there is no reason why we shouldn't.
"I don't want to hear about the Titans. I know the population in this area within three hours of this campus there is plenty of people to sell out this stadium every single game and sell out all our season tickets. No doubt about it."