Last New Year’s Day, the Rose Bowl celebrated its 100th anniversary with a traditional clash of Big Ten champion Michigan State and Pac-12 champion Stanford. An estimated 60,000 Spartans fans descended on Pasadena for their first Rose Bowl appearance in 26 years, driving the average ticket price to a staggering $678.01.
This year brings a new milestone for the Granddaddy of them All. Its Jan. 1 clash between No. 2 Oregon and No. 3 Florida State will be the first-ever College Football Playoff semifinal game. Yet just over a week from kickoff, seats are readily available through Ticketmaster and other outlets. The average price on the secondary market is less than half that of a year ago.
Many have wondered how the addition of an extra round to the postseason would affect attendance at the bowls hosting the semifinal games. Would fans of the teams still travel en masse to a New Year’s game or hold off for a possible trip to the new national championship game in Arlington, Texas 11 days later?
In Year 1, the answers are, yes and yes.
The other semifinal site, the Sugar Bowl, hit the jackpot when selection committee members placed No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Ohio State in New Orleans. With two of the largest, most rabid fan bases in the country — one of which, Alabama, is within reasonable driving distance — demand for the sold-out game is its highest in years. According to online reseller TiqIQ.com, the current average price is $389.58. The get-in price is $210, up from $94 for last year’s Oklahoma-Alabama game.
The Rose Bowl did catch one break when the committee ranked a West Coast team, Oregon, No. 2. The Ducks’ opponent, on the other hand, is a ticket broker’s worst nightmare. Not only is Florida State clear across the other side of the country, but the Seminoles were just in Pasadena last year for the BCS championship game against Auburn. Not to mention the defending champs have had their sights set on a bigger prize all year.
As of Monday, visitors to Florida State’s own ticketing site could still purchase a pair of $175 tickets in the school’s seating block. And that’s despite the fact both FSU and Oregon were allotted far fewer tickets — 12,500 each — than past Rose Bowl participants, as required by the CFP. Oregon sold out its initial batch and received an additional 4,000, enough to satisfy every season-ticket holder and donor request, said a school official.
“In a regular Rose Bowl we’re a contractual sellout,” said Kevin Ash, the bowl’s chief administrative officer. “It’s the first time we’ve ever had to create a public sale, to go out and market tickets and sell tickets in the public sector … whereas the typical Rose Bowl, our partners took up two-thirds of the stadium.”
In the past the Rose Bowl’s unique arrangement with the Big Ten and Pac-12 — not to mention the customary high demand — allowed it to distribute tickets far differently than the other BCS bowls. Whereas the Fiesta, Sugar and Orange uniformly allotted the mandated 17,500 per team, the Rose Bowl reserved a combined 64,500 seats for its partner conferences. The participating teams began with 24,000 each, and more could be moved around to accommodate demand.
Two years ago, for example, Stanford sold nearly 40,000 seats for its first Rose Bowl appearance in 13 years thanks in part to unused tickets from Wisconsin, then making its third straight trip.
Under the new system, the Rose can do whatever it wants with its tickets two out of every three years but must adhere to the CFP’s regulations when it hosts the semifinal. Due to complaints about schools losing money from unsold tickets, that number dropped from 17,500 to 12,500 per school for this year’s Rose, Sugar, Fiesta, Cotton and Peach bowls. (The Orange Bowl falls under its own contract this year and allotted 15,000 each to Georgia Tech and Mississippi State.)
Subtract that combined 25,000-seat allotment from 64,500, and the Rose Bowl is left trying to sell nearly 40,000 tickets on its own in a market, Los Angeles, where college football is not at the front of the public’s brain. As of Monday, the get-in price on TiqIQ.com was just $113, well below face value. The average price was $284.39, down 33 percent since the Dec. 7 matchup announcement.
“I think we’re going to be fine,” said Dave Wallenstein, the Rose Bowl game’s longtime ticket manager. “As the media starts writing about the game, people are going to get more interested. … I am confident we can fill the place before we’re done.”
The Rose Bowl stadium’s current official capacity is 92,542, though it often goes above that for the New Year’s game. Michigan State-Stanford drew 95,173 last year. Prior to a 1998 renovation the stadium accommodated more than 100,000.
The only Rose Bowl game since 1956 to draw fewer than 90,000 was the 2003 Oklahoma-Washington State matchup (86,848). This despite the fact it’s the largest of any of the New Year’s Six bowl venues (AT&T Stadium seats 80,000 for the Cotton Bowl), and its West Coast location assures a long flight for at least one team.
“The Rose Bowl is the Rose Bowl,” said CFP executive director Bill Hancock. “The tradition and mystique will always carry it, along with the drama of the playoff.”
But the Rose Bowl’s challenges may pale in comparison to that of one of next year’s playoff hosts, the Orange Bowl, if it happens to draw one or more faraway teams. The Miami game already struggles most years to fill the stands for its ACC-partner bowl. Tickets for this year’s game are currently available online for as low as $4.95.
“We’ll always need to keep an eye on the fan travel matter,” said Hancock, “but I’m really encouraged by the way fans have responded this year.”
It appears he’ll have no such concerns for the Jan. 12 national championship game in Arlington. Without yet even knowing which teams will advance, tickets are going for an average $1,658.88. It costs $659 to get in the door. According to Tallahassee.com, Florida State’s booster club received well more requests for that game than the number of Rose Bowl tickets it sold.
Wallenstein said he does not know exactly how many Rose Bowl tickets remain available due to so many different partners (Ticketmaster, PrimeSports, etc.) currently selling them. He remains confident that a late push will assure that television cameras pan a packed house as always.
“This [new system] has been a tough thing for people to understand,” he said. “I think on New Year’s Day, things will be great. I’m not concerned.”
Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, "The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the College Football Playoff," is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.