LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — It’s the one day in college football when everyone’s a winner: The day high school seniors sign their letters of intent, rejuvenating hope that the recruits will help a school achieve gridiron glory.
Passionate fans follow every development as their schools assemble their recruits. They argue on social media when a heralded prospect chooses one school over another. And 18-year-olds hold news conferences where the adults breathlessly wait to see if the kid will don the cap of their favorite teams.
Schools, ever hungry for revenue to fuel their programs, see a new chance to capitalize on the signing-day hubbub by putting on events to celebrate the new blood coming into their programs.
At Nebraska, a few hours after the ink dried on those letters of intent, nearly 1,000 fans paying as much as $60 apiece gathered at the Devaney Sports Center to hear new coach Mike Riley talk about and show video of the Cornhuskers’ recruits.
Before Riley went on stage, fans clapped along as the pep band played, “There Is No Place Like Nebraska” and cheerleaders led a “Go Big Red” chant.
Similar scenes played out all around the country.
The events themselves typically don’t make much, if any, money. Schools say the purpose is to keep fans engaged and give boosters an opportunity to rub shoulders with the coaches.
The payoff comes later, the schools hope, in the form of season ticket renewals, the cultivation of new season ticket buyers or donations to the program.
“The schools got savvy and know that for the real passionate fan, there’s lots of excitement over these 18 year olds who sign,” said Paul Swangard, managing director of the University of Oregon’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. “The idea is that this day is kind of a way to rekindle the excitement for the team, whether it’s for those that just had a great season or for those that are trying to rebuild.
“It’s become one of the ways a college football team can extend its relevance to its fan base into February at an important time with renewals.”
Fan engagement is critical, be it through social media or through special events like recruiting celebrations, as programs try to counter a general decline in ticket sales.
The average crowd at an FBS game was down 1,300 in 2013 from a high of 46, 971 in 2008. Figures weren’t available for 2014.
While Riley spoke, he stood on a stage that rose above a long message board flashing two messages: “Join The Nebraska Football Season Ticket Request List” and “Get Your 2015 Spring Game Tickets Today.”
Even Nebraska, which has sold out an NCAA-record 340 consecutive home games since 1962, doesn’t take for granted that its stadium will always be full.
Before he went on stage Riley mingled with donors, including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, an ardent Huskers fan whose wife is from Omaha.
As fans wearing the scarlet and cream enjoyed hors d’oeuvres and cocktails and milled on the arena floor as they waited for Riley, Gerald and Linda Bontrager of Ithaca, Nebraska, were in the first balcony scanning a sheet with the recruits’ biographies.
“I have orders to bring this to work tomorrow to some friends who want to know about the class,” Linda said, laughing.
Richard Tyrrell of Waverly, Nebraska, received tickets to the event as a birthday gift and attended with his grandson, Brice Tyrrell of Lincoln. They said they were interested to see Riley in person for the first time.
“Seems to be a very personable guy, laid back,” Richard said. “I remember him at Oregon State. We’ll see how he does.”
Arizona State had a soiree at a Phoenix hotel where fans paid a minimum of $60. Fans ponying up $600 got a table for eight, and for an extra $150 a member of the ASU coaching staff would sit with you.
Florida State expected to sell out a room of 750 at $40 per ticket. Jimbo Fisher and his assistants discussed the recruits in an event streamed live on ESPN3, and a number of “watch parties” were held throughout the state and across the country.
Some schools host multiple events. Tennessee held a dinner in Knoxville on Wednesday night, with a breakfast in Memphis and a lunch in Nashville on Thursday. Arkansas had an event in Fayetteville on Wednesday night and will have another in Little Rock on Thursday.
About 400 showed up at Nebraska last year — and the event lost $423, according to a spokesman — but excitement about the Huskers’ new coaching staff more than doubled attendance this year.
Riley received a standing ovation, and then he started talking about each recruit as video of the player was shown.
“This event is designed to bring our fans together with our coaches to celebrate Signing Day,” the athletic department said in a statement. “Those that have attended have enjoyed hearing the coaches’ insight and some of the personal stories about the newest Huskers. The focus is on Signing Day, the coaches and student-athletes and not generating revenue.”
Linda Bontrager said she appreciated the February football fix. She nodded when asked if she noticed the sales pitches for spring game tickets and season tickets. She pointed out there were no merchandise sales.
“That,” she said, “would be the next step.”
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