Jason Heggemeyer is in his 16th year overseeing ticketing in Illinois and he’s not sure he’s seen anything like this.
The circumstances are extraordinary. For starters, the Illini are a No. 1 seed in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and Big Ten tournament champions and have won seven straight games. They are the second closest team in the vicinity of Indianapolis, the lynchpin of this year’s bubble-style tournament. However, because they are opening their tournament run at the smallest of the six venues the NCAA is using and due to COVID-19 capacity reductions, they have almost no tickets for fans.
“We’ve had a lot to say no,” says Heggemeyer.
Some in Champaign wonder how a No. 1 seed with a campus 125 miles away attracted a smaller playing venue than, say, No. 3 seed Texas or No. 5 seed Creighton, both playing at Lucas Oil. Stadium.
But again, this is a crazy year and everyone is learning to deal with it, even the Illini.
“It’s difficult and it makes us wonder how they determined which team plays where,” says Heggemeyer. “On the other side of the argument, the fact that we can have anyone on the inside is progress and a blessing. The difficult thing now is that we cannot have enough. “
Welcome to 2021 March Madness, where venue capacity and local COVID-19 ordinances have turned some first-round games into unviewable events (at least not in person) and caused ticket prices to vary. enormously.
In keeping with the theme of this 2020-21 college sports season, nothing is equal, fair, or balanced. In fact, the NCAA is keeping a secret exactly how many fans will be allowed at each of the six venues, only announcing that the capacity of an arena, which includes teams and game workers, cannot exceed 25%.
While the four Indianapolis venues are expected to be close to that 25% number, their original capacities vary widely: from the 70,000-seat Lucas Oil Stadium to the 6,500-seat Farmers Coliseum, where the Illini meet Drexel in a first round game on Friday.
The other two locations, Mackey Arena in West Lafayette and Assembly Hall in Bloomington, are operating under even more stringent COVID-19 restrictions. For example, at the 14,800-seat Mackey, only 12%, or 1,450 people, will be admitted, says Tom Moreland, Purdue associate athletic director. About half of that is for teams and staff members, leaving around 700 seats for fans.
In the 17,000-seat Assembly Hall, an even lower percentage is expected. Few, if any, general admission tickets are available for purchase. Each team that played in Bloomington, in fact, was allocated only 204 tickets, while all other venues handed out 350 to the teams.
LSU, the No. 8 seed who plays in Bloomington on Saturday, will use the majority of its 204-ticket allotment on the players’ families and staff members. A handful of season ticket holders, as few as 50, could get tickets.
“It’s a weird year,” says Brian Broussard, LSU’s associate athletic director who oversees ticketing. “There will be some people we would like to help, but we can’t.”
Say that to Heggemeyer, whose Illinois fan base is eager to see the best school team in more than a decade dance across the border. Of the six stadiums, Farmers Coliseum is the smallest venue at 3,000 seats, behind Hinkle Fieldhouse (9,100), Mackey, Assembly Hall, Bankers Life Fieldhouse (20,000) and Lucas Oil Stadium.
Under the 25% mandate, some 1,500 people will be allowed in, 700 assigned to teams. That leaves roughly 700 general admission seats available, and Heggemeyer believes the actual number is lower, as the NCAA does not base the 25% limit on the total capacity of 6,500. To allow for social distancing, the seats closest to the court are prohibited.
So how many general tickets are available? Nobody really knows. But there are very few in the secondary market and those that are outrageously priced. For example, as of Wednesday afternoon, the cheapest ticket on StubHub for Illinois’ opening game against Drexel was $ 505 each with a minimum of four tickets. There were 10 tickets available in total. Ticketmaster had even fewer, with six total tickets available for $ 686 each, the cheapest.
The demand is out of the ordinary, and not only because of the proximity or the high seed of the team. Due to state regulations, Illinois fans were unable to enter home games this year, and that includes the players’ families.
Almost all of the 350 tickets allocated to Illinois will go to player families and staff members and university staff.
“We have people with names in the buildings (on campus) that we can’t help,” says Heggemeyer. “They are so hungry to travel. Missing two hours. If you’re a fan of Illinois, if you can’t get them in school, you have to find them on the secondary market, but the reality is, there aren’t any there. You try to be transparent and explain it to your biggest followers. “
For the sake of fairness, game locations may change after the first round, but that’s no guarantee, an NCAA spokesperson said. What is guaranteed is that the ticket allocation per team will increase with each round. This year’s Final Four allocations are 750. Usually around 3,500.
This year’s tournament is a perfect storm: demand is high and supply, due to capacity reductions and the size of the venue, is low. Eight teams are within 270 miles of Indianapolis, including two No. 1 seeds Illinois (126 miles) and Michigan (266), No. 4 seed Purdue (65) and No. 2 seed Ohio. State (175). Basketball powerhouse Michigan State is 25 miles away and the fan favorite Loyola Chicago is 306 miles away.
On top of that, the pandemic is finally showing signs of abating. Vaccines have many sports fans eager to get back to live events, says Mike Lorenc, who runs ticketing and live events for Google. The latest survey data shows that 18% of people are ready to attend a live event now, the highest level since the pandemic began last March and six points higher than just three weeks ago.
“This year’s tournament is unique in several factors,” says Patrick Ryan, co-founder of Eventellect, a ticketing strategy company. “A lot of people haven’t been to a college sporting event in 18 months. The smaller venues had no normal sales at all, so there are few entries in the secondary market. There is a good interest in traveling. Indiana is pretty centrally located and it’s a Big Ten tournament. “
Moreland thinks of the Big Dance as the country’s “first step” toward returning to major live sporting events. People are willing to travel, at least by the numbers. Tickets for the first two four at Mackey Arena were sold out in 15 minutes and tickets for the first round were sold out in an hour, even before the teams were announced.
“This is the state of Indiana and basketball,” he says. “This is what we do.”
The average ticket price this year has been $ 125, which is a 3% increase over 2019, according to Vivid Seats, a ticket market. For at least the first two weekends, fans will travel 39% further to attend games this year than in 2019, likely as a result of one tournament site rather than various regional locations across the country. Purdue, Ohio State and Michigan fan bases are expected to have the strongest crowds in Indianapolis, according to an algorithm that Vivid Seats uses based on ticket sales.
One notable team missing from that list: Illinois, of course.
Seating or no seats, Heggemeyer expects a strong Illinois presence in Indianapolis over the weekend. The trip is short and the equipment is so good that many Illini faithful will make the trip just to be in town.
There may not be a sea of orange in the stands, but there will certainly be one at the city’s excellent steakhouses and watering holes.
“You see if you can find your way and if you can’t, you find a place to see it,” says Heggemeyer. “That’s the bottom line: you go to the bar.”
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.