It may only be the middle of July, but Pitt is already close to setting season-ticket sales records. The Panthers have renewed 93 percent of existing season-ticket holders and have sold over 10,000 new season tickets.
Additionally, the team’s three-game mini plans have been a hot seller at the box office.
“There’s another piece to this that’s pretty exciting. We introduce the mini-plan, which is a three-game plan. Our goal was 2,500 tickets and we are currently at 4,000.”
They started with retention, and bringing back season-ticket holders at an extremely high level.
“(Coach Pat Narduzzi) and all the pieces around the program have had such a positive vibe from the recruiting class to the players we have coming back, to the preseason accolades to the schedule with Penn State,” Barnes said. “Those are things that have contributed mightily to meeting that really aggressive renewal goal. Certainly the same things led to us surpassing our new season-ticket goal.”
“We have done a much better job listening to our fans and responding,” he said. “What we’ve learned is that we needed to be better listeners. We’ve done that. We’ve also been more aggressive in our out-and-out sales effort.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PENN STATE
Looming large on Pitt’s schedule is Sept. 10 is the renewal of the rivalry with the Panthers’ cross-state rivals, Penn State. Barnes admitted that the presence of the Nittany Lions on the schedule has provided a boost to ticket sales. In fact, he believes that scheduling marquee opponents is an essential part of what he wants to do at Pitt from both a football and a fan engagement standpoint.
“It’s really important,” Barnes said. “As you build your brand and you build your fanbase, maybe it becomes a little bit less important over time. What has been damaged in all of the conference realignment in the collegians landscape is a lot of the regional rivals and in-state rivals have dissipated.”
While Barnes was quick to credit the quality of opponents in the ACC, he feels that scheduling schools like Penn State are an important addition.
“We would play Penn State every year,” he said. “That hasn’t been in the cards. We have a four-game series. We’re talking about the mid-2020’s to renew that. We are willing to play Penn State in perpetuity.
“Because we weren’t able to renew that rivalry, we did take West Virginia. We did that because we do believe that those regional and in-state rivalries are important to the fans and they’re healthy for football in this region. Obviously, Penn State is a priority.”
BEER AND MORE
Possibly biggest change that Pitt fans will notice at Heinz Field in 2016 will be the presence of beer vendors. This seems to be another case where the school has overlapped giving the fans what they want with doing what’s best for business.
“Quite frankly, we were the only program that shares an NFL facility that didn’t sell it,” Barnes said. “It’s one of a series of things that we need to do to not only attract, but retain fans.”
Barnes said the impetus for the expanded beer sales and other fan-experience initiatives that are being enacted this season has come from the fan experience committee. Also in that category are improved food choices, a pregame tailgate, enhanced in-game entertainment and an increased level of Pitt branding throughout the stadium.
“We’re working hard to make the venue ours on Saturday in terms of branding.” he said. “We’ll continue to evaluate that and do more.”
FLIPPING THE SCRIPT
As part of the school’s athletics rebrand, they have unveiled all new gear adorned with the new/old script logo. While the primary reason for making the change was the high level of fan support for the logo, Barnes also expected there to be an uptick in merchandise sales to go along with the change.
The early results seem to have borne that out.
“It really has been phenomenal,” Barnes said. “From the time we launched, to two weeks ago, we increased our royalty revenues by 50 percent.”
KEEPING THE KIDS
One of Barnes’ success stories from 2015 was his long drive to get the students to stay to the end of games. Even though the 10,000-ticket allotment for students has sold out five years running, the Panther Pitt was often nearly empty early in the fourth quarter.
Barnes got together with student leadership and instituted some changes during the season last year that he thinks will have an even greater affect in 2016.
“We found that we had a lack of communication,” he said. “We bolstered the number of busses that are picking up and students. We added a food component. … We saw that start to gain traction. We did gain in that area and we’ll continue to work on that.”
Barnes also said that for certain games that do not sell out, they will sell more than 10,000 student tickets in overflow sections.