By all accounts from the athletic department, the “90Ksu: Everyone Counts” marketing campaign was successful for the 2010 football season.
Without the campaign, the Flashes would have been in violation of the NCAA rules mandating an average of 15,000 in paid (tickets purchased) or actual (people in the stadium) attendance once every two years.
But records and sources confirm Kent State reached a paid attendance of just over 90,000 in the six home games in 2010 by using more than $113,000 of its own money. The funds were used to “buy” nearly 23,000 illusory tickets after the season was over to make up for falling short of the NCAA-mandated minimum.
The Flashes then reported to the NCAA they were in compliance with the rule, only after adding those tickets to its attendance database and distributing the newly purchased tickets among the already played games. According to a university-conducted audit, fewer than 45,000 people actually showed up to games in 2010.
The NCAA measures compliance with the minimum attendance rule based on that certified audit of the figures the school sends after the season. The audits are conducted by the Internal Audit Office in late December and January, and report the paid attendance (how many tickets were bought), actual attendance (how many people actually showed up) and revenue from ticket sales as reported from the ticket office database to the NCAA. The 15,000 average must be met in either paid or actual attendance once every two years.
Sources with direct knowledge — including athletic department fiscal manager Colin Miller and then-ticket manager Joe Carr — confirm athletic department money was used to purchase the tickets following the season and the figures were changed to reflect that late internal transaction.
The money came from the check the department received in late November 2010, based on its then-four-year-old marketing-rights contract with IMG College — formerly known as ISP.
“The institution chose to put that money into ticket revenue to assist with purchasing tickets to get to that ‘90Ksu’ number,” said Athletic Director Joel Nielsen, mentioning the money IMG pays on the contract is “discretionary,” meaning the department can use it for any purpose.
Once the campaign met that goal, Nielsen thanked “the university administration, our students and the community” for reaching an average home attendance of more than 15,000 per game for his first season on the job.
He said the $113,000 was university money, but contends those 23,000 tickets purchased actually existed and were distributed prior to the games.
But Carr, the ticket manager at the time, said the tickets were “bought” by Nielsen and Tom Kleinlein, associate athletic director, in December after the season ended. Miller said the count “was adjusted by game” after the post-season contract payment was received.
According to Nielsen, the tickets were given to IMG before the season based on the amount the company would pay on its contract months later. Then, “they gave them to us so we could hand them out as free tickets” to charities, he said.
When asked if the tickets were provided to IMG for free (before receiving them back), which would not be congruent with the NCAA’s definition of paid attendance, Nielsen said, “I wouldn’t see it that way.”
He could not explain why those figures were added to the records only after the season was over (after falling 21,000 tickets short of the minimum) or why, if the tickets existed for those games, they weren’t already counted like the nearly 70,000 tickets.
But before that season, the NCAA notified the athletic department it was in non-compliance with the minimum attendance rule after the 2009 season. Not reaching it again could have meant a 10-year probationary period and possibly dropping out of the Football Bowl Subdivision. The FBS, formerly known as Division 1-A, consists of the top 120 college football teams.
Because Kent State only averaged a paid attendance of 5,689 during the 2011 season, the Flashes will need to again reach the 15,000 ticket threshold this fall. Nielsen said the tactic used to reach the minimum in 2010 will be applied if attendance again falls short in 2012.
“It will be part of our plan going into the year,” he said, “just like it was two years ago.”
NCAA spokesman Chris Radford said the NCAA would neither confirm nor deny if that tactic is within the rules.
Season completed, tickets added
The Flashes football team capped a 5-7 season in 2010 with a Nov. 26 win in Dix Stadium.
“With a post-Thanksgiving Day crowd of 8,340 for the contest against Ohio, Kent State has officially topped the 90,000 mark for its football season attendance,” reported the university in a Dec. 6, 2010 release.
It wasn’t the crowd at the Ohio game (which documents later revealed was actually 2,241 people) that pushed the Flashes above the threshold. It was the $113,610 check from the IMG contract funneled through the ticket office in December.
Records show that money arrived on November 23, 2010. Carr said the ticket office received it in December directly from Kleinlein to “buy the tickets.” That money allowed the department to distribute an extra 22,722 tickets (at $5 apiece) to the already counted attendance figures to surpass the 90,000 threshold of “paid” attendance.
According to the contract, IMG pays 30 percent of the contract before Dec. 30 and 70 percent before June 30 each year. The entirety of what IMG owed before Dec. 30, 2010, was paid to the ticket office, according to Nielsen and Miller. Kent State entered into the contract with IMG before the 2007 season; Miller said only after the 2010 season did any payment go toward football tickets.
Miller also confirmed the entire check from IMG was directed to the ticket office to increase the season’s football attendance after the season was over.
“Look at it this way,” Nielsen said, “the corporate money that we are using for this instance to get to 90,000 is no different than the other categories we use to get to that number. Whether it’s the students, or season ticket holders, or group ticket people, or alums, they are all part of that 90,000. This is just another mechanism we put in place to get to the 90,000.”
That check satisfied its contractual obligations with Kent State and — by handing the check to the ticket office before the Internal Audit office conducted the audit it sends to the NCAA — disguised the source of ticket sale revenue as coming from an outside buyer.
“Nothing binds us to do anything particular with it,” Miller said about using the IMG payment to purchase tickets. “There is no specific use for it.”
“The audit is money in, tickets purchased,” Nielsen said, “and they go by the NCAA bylaw.”
Because the additional tickets were added to the database in the time between the last game in November and when the audit was completed in January, the auditors — and subsequently the NCAA — could not have known that 22,722 tickets were “purchased” after the season with their own money.
“All I do is follow the bylaw,” Nielsen said. “They ask for an audited number with purchased tickets, and that’s what we provide. I didn’t have a chance to debate the bylaw, and I didn’t have a chance to vote on the bylaw.”
Nielsen’s $10,000 ticket sale bonus
Included in the $29,000 in supplemental pay Nielsen received (in addition to his $225,000 base salary) in fiscal year 2011 was $10,000 for increasing paid football attendance by 20 percent from the 2009 season. Records show Kleinlein also received a $2,500 bonus for that increase.
Although the tickets purchased with the IMG money counted in the attendance audit Kent State sent to the NCAA, those tickets were not reflected in Nielsen’s bonus, Miller said.
“It was backed out of the sales before his bonus was calculated,” he said. “If you take the hundred thousand (from IMG) out, you still doubled sales.”
Nielsen also said that members of the National Athletic Development Council — Kent State’s athletic boosters — purchased 15,000 tickets worth $75,000 in the summer before the 2010 season.
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“It’s a private group of donors, and they give money each year, and they determine what the money goes to,” he said. “This last year they gave it to four or five different programs.”
“Other schools do the same thing”
The NCAA-mandated minimum attendance leaves schools like Kent State looking for ways to put 15,000 people in the stands or sell 15,000 tickets for one of every two years.
“I always felt that we could make it if we had a nine-win season,” said Laing Kennedy, former Kent State athletic director, who retired in the spring of 2010, “but then you look at teams that have that kind of season, and they still struggle in our kind of conferences. It really puts pressure on conferences like ours and the Sun Belt to really make that.”
According to official attendance audits going back to the 2005 season — the first year the NCAA rule was in place — the Flashes previously only reached the 15,000 plateau during the 2006 season, the season before the IMG contract was signed. An average of 15,031 showed up to the games, while the average paid attendance was 13,814.
According to Kennedy, that was reached both because “we had a pretty good team” and through sponsors like the United Way purchasing tickets before the season for people to use.
“Where we would have a corporate sponsorship,” Kennedy said, “in their contract we would have a clause that said you agree to buy so many tickets.”
Teddy Cahill, Ball State Daily News reporter, recently reported that Eastern Michigan has a provision in their “distribution contract with Pepsi requiring the company to buy $150,000 worth of tickets every year,” which the school counts as 45,000 sold tickets.
It is common for companies to purchase large blocks of tickets before the season starts.
“I don’t have a problem with it if it’s part of the agreement,” Kennedy said, adding he had not heard of schools purchasing tickets after the season.
Nielsen, Miller and Carr all said what Kent State did to reach the minimum in 2010 is not uncommon.
“Other schools do the same thing,” Miller said, “some do it every year, all year. Some other schools with IMG do the same thing, from what I understand.”
According to IMG’s website, the company also has contracts with several other FBS schools that struggle to reach the attendance minimum: fellow-Mid American Conference schools Akron, Central Michigan, Miami, Northern Illinois and Ohio, and Sun Belt Conference schools Troy and Western Kentucky.
“That’s the way a number of schools operate,” Nielsen said, comparing the way Kent State bought tickets with the IMG money to Eastern Michigan’s contract with Pepsi. “If not 10, it’s 11 of the MAC schools that have similar contracts.”
Joe Carr agrees: “Akron meets their attendance requirement, but I can tell you they don’t sell more than a few thousand per game.”
Contact Doug Brown at [email protected]