AMHERST - Officials at the University of Massachusetts say they're not concerned about a softening men's basketball market, even after launching an advertising campaign to sell season tickets for a season that opens in less than three weeks.
Assistant athletic director Dennis Toney, who supervises ticket sales, declined to give figures regarding how many tickets remain available. Toney said the ad campaign was designed partly to overcome the public's assumption that season tickets were sold out.
"It's hard to predict, but we're anticipating that we'll sell all of them by opening night (Nov. 16 against Niagara)," Toney said. "The numbers are kind of hard to pin down right now, but we've sold quite a few in the past few days."
Toney said approximately 5,200 seats in the 9,493-seat Mullins Center are being earmarked for season tickets, which cost $325 for a package of 14 regular-season and two preseason games. Most of the rest go to students, he said.
UMass recently placed ads in The Springfield Newspapers to attract season-ticket sales. That seemed to take many fans by surprise since UMass tickets had been considered a hot item throughout the 1990s, especially during the 1996 Final Four season.
Athletic director Bob Marcum could not be reached for comment, but associate athletic director John Nitardy disputed the notion that UMass basketball was faltering at the box office as the post-John Calipari era enters its third year.
"As far as I'm concerned, things are going well," Nitardy said. "We'd just never pushed season tickets before. A lot of people had the myth they weren't available."
But they're available, even with the expanded home schedule Nitardy said people requested - and even with Kansas and Connecticut coming to the Mullins Center. Nitardy conceded that sales and promotion have to be treated more aggressively and creatively in a changing market.
"I think the biggest issue is that people want more home games, but they don't always want to pay the higher price that comes with charging for more games," he said. UMass raised its price for single-game tickets from $18 to $20 this year, which pushed the overall season price above $300.
Originally, the UConn game was not planned as part of the season-ticket package, since the schools are splitting the gate. But the game was added earlier this year, and single tickets were slashed from $75 last year in Hartford - to $35 this year in Amherst.
UMass reported 45 consecutive home-game sellouts until the streak ended last year. The Minutemen averaged 8,499 fans per game, nearly 1,000 under capacity - raising questions of whether a team that once owned the Pioneer Valley is losing its grip on the market, despite 40 wins and two NCAA tournament appearances in two years under coach Bruiser Flint, who also plans a more entertaining, up-tempo style this year.
Citing donations to UMass athletics, Nitardy denies the basketball team's popularity may be slipping. It's a critical issue, since men's basketball remains the cornerstone of the athletic department's profile.