March 31, 2011

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Tucked away inside a nondescript office on the lower level of University Hall, CavForce is working the phones. You may be getting a call soon, if you haven’t already.

CavForce is a sales team that comprises 43 UVa students and their two supervisors. The group’s immediate goal is simple: to help fill the empty seats at Scott Stadium, where attendance for UVa football games has dipped in recent years.

Each student is assigned to a team (Cavaliers, V-Sabres, Hoos or UVa), works four to eight hours a week and receives a commission for season tickets sold.

Overseeing this operation are Zee French and Bobby Mengler. French, a 1998 graduate of UVa, began work at his alma mater in November as associate athletics director of strategic ticketing. About two weeks ago, Mengler came on board as strategic ticketing manager.

On this spring afternoon, five students are calling prospective buyers. Their efforts are rewarded. By the end of their shift, all five have made sales.

Under the direction of Corbin Hunt, UVa’s associate athletics director of ticket sales and operations, the athletics ticket office is focused on getting renewals from fans who bought season tickets in 2010.

French’s group is targeting fans who, for whatever reason, did not purchase season tickets last year. He’s working from a list of about 25,000 people, all of whom have shown interest in UVa athletics in recent years.

Some are former season-ticket holders. Some have purchased mini-packs or family packages or single-game tickets at Scott Stadium. Some have supported other sports at UVa.

So CavForce isn’t really cold-calling prospects. “They have a close connection with UVa in some way,” said French, formerly senior director of ticket services with the NBA’s Houston Rockets.

Scott Stadium’s official capacity is 61,500. For four straight years, starting in 2004, UVa sold at least 39,500 season tickets. But the total dropped to 35,538 in 2008, in part because the University adopted a reseating policy that alienated some longtime fans. Sales fell again in 2009, to 30,507, and to 27,585 in 2010.

“Initially, we’re just trying to get a lot of those fans back that we lost,” French said. “Scott Stadium was sold out three years ago, so if we just brought back those fans, we’d be back to sold out again. So that’s where we’re going to focus our energy first.”

The football team’s struggles, of course, have contributed heavily to the drop in attendance. Only once in the past five seasons — in 2007 — have the Wahoos finished with a winning record. The ‘Hoos went 5-7 in 2006, 5-7 in ’08, 3-9 in ’09 and 4-8 in ’10, Mike London’s first season as head coach.

Most of Virgina’s 2010 starters are back this year, including such all-ACC candidates as Chase Minnifield, Cam Johnson and Kris Burd, and London signed a highly regarded recruiting class in February. It’s too early to predict how many season tickets UVa will sell this year, but the response has been positive so far.

The Cavaliers will play seven home games this season, and season tickets went on sale March 21. Nine business days into the sales period last spring, about 300 new season tickets had been sold. The total for the same period this year was about 650, with more than 400 of those sold directly by CavForce.

Moreover, the renewal rate for season tickets as of March 31 was 16.2 percent, French said. At the same point last year, it was 6.6 percent.

Several new ticket options are helping drive sales this year. These include a $99 season ticket for young UVa alumni, a $125 season ticket and a $145 season ticket. There’s also a $175 option.

Season tickets in the lower-level sections and the upper-level sideline sections are $270 apiece, as they were in 2010.

In some sections of the stadium, season tickets require donations to the Virginia Athletics Foundation, but that may cost less than many people realize, French said.

The CavForce sales pitch is straightforward — “It’s never been easier to be a season-ticket holder” — and has been “connecting with a lot of people,” French said.

For now, French said, CavForce is “primarily focused on getting Scott Stadium full again. In the spring we’re doing that with full season tickets. In the summer we’ll do that with mini-packs and group buys.”

Eventually, French said, “we will take some of the same strategies to every sport. I know that over the summer we’ll begin to move into men’s basketball and women’s basketball.”

As an undergraduate at UVa, French was a manager for the men’s hoops team, then coached by Jeff Jones. French’s degree is in economics, but he wanted a career in sports, and so after graduation he served internships — first with D.C. United and then with the Virginia State Golf Association in Richmond.

A full-time position with the VSGA followed, and then French joined the Rockets’ ticket operation as a season sales executive. He hopes members of CavForce who want to pursue careers in athletics won’t have to follow the same path he did.

“It took me two years to get my first full-time job in sports — with a degree from UVa,” French said. “I think they’re going to be getting experience that’s going to make them ready to be full-time seasoned reps.

“It took me two weeks to make my first sale at the Rockets. That’s 80 hours. Some of these students are at 20, 30, 50 season tickets, and they’ve been doing this 12 hours. I know we have good [ticket options for fans], and I know we’re contacting the right people.”

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