CHRISTIAN CAPLE

Caple: Why are Apple Cup tickets so expensive? Let’s examine

May 25, 2024, 10:44 AM

UW Huskies vs. WSU Cougars in Apple Cup...

Jaden Hicks of the WSU Cougars intercepts a pass during the 2024 Apple Cup. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

A subscriber messaged me last week. He’s a 2000 Washington graduate, and a Huskies season-ticket holder since 2005. Two years ago, he and his wife upgraded to seats in Club Husky, and they renewed for 2024. They’re regular away-game travelers, too. He made it to Michigan State and all three postseason games last season, and has plans to see Iowa and maybe even Rutgers this year. Yet when he received a presale email from UW last week for Apple Cup tickets, he told me, “my jaw dropped.”

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He wasn’t alone. When Washington State began its ticket sales for the Sept. 14 neutral-site game at Lumen Field earlier this month, sticker shock resonated across social media. The two fan bases aren’t aligned on much these days, but I saw similar reaction when UW reached out last week to its top 1,000 season-ticket accounts with an exclusive presale offer.

I reached out to officials at both schools to better understand the numbers.

The primary takeaway: working together with First & Goal Inc. and Lumen Field, officials from UW and WSU agreed that the game should be priced as similarly to last season’s Apple Cup as possible, though differences between the stadiums made it tricky.

“There was a feeling that it should be priced at the level of a premium game,” said Scott Tester, an assistant AD for revenue generation at UW. “That’s sort of what it boiled down to.”

It’s true that this year’s get-in price of $94 (fees included) is cheaper than the get-in price of $107 for last year’s game. But those $94 tickets at Lumen are in the 300-level corners. If you want to sit between the goal lines, the cheapest ticket is a 300-level seat for $141. The cheapest seats below the 300 level are the $183 tickets located in the south end zone and in the northeast and northwest corners.

Of course, much of the 200 level at Lumen Field are club seats; those are priced from $361 to $424 apiece, which, depending on location, is actually cheaper than some club seats at Husky Stadium. Lumen has about three times as many suites and club seats as Husky Stadium, said Heath Bennett, UW’s chief revenue officer. Both schools also will have student sections and bands. “It’s just a little bit different canvas,” Bennett said.

The stadium also has a slightly smaller capacity, and nearly every seat has a chair back, which isn’t true of Husky Stadium.

Tester used an example of a ticket-holder with seats about halfway up the lower bowl on the 40-yard line. That’s a “Husky Heritage” seat in UW’s season-ticket package, which costs $242.50 per ticket per game for the 2024 season, including the mandatory seat-related Tyee gift (granted, the games aren’t weighted evenly when determining season-ticket prices).

At Lumen, Tester said, a seat with a similar vantage point might be in the club level.

“Every single area was not a perfect one-to-one,” he said, “but we tried to mirror, for the most part, off of last year’s Apple Cup, and taking into account the chairback piece, and the fact we’re playing in the Seahawks’ stadium, as well.”

Single-game prices for last season’s Apple Cup also trended higher than the average per-game price for season-ticket holders. Tester believes the single-game aspect might explain some of the sticker shock for folks who aren’t used to seeing their ticket prices broken out on a per-game basis. The department mentioned in a few different communications that the Apple Cup would not be included in season-ticket packages, Tester said, but “we could have probably done a better job of making sure people know this is a one-and-done type of thing,” with the series returning to the schools’ respective campuses beginning in 2025.

One other factor I see: while the cost of a 2024 season-ticket package decreased ever-so-slightly to correspond with there being only six home games this year instead of the typical seven, those six-game prices are still generally in the ballpark of what a seven-game package cost last year. So you can see how some UW ticket holders might already feel like they’re investing on a seven-game level, only to be asked to shell out a couple-hundred more for a ticket to a neutral-site game across town.

Even if that ticket costs roughly the same as what they’d pay on a per-game basis as part of their season-ticket package, you can see how it might seem exorbitant.

The difference is even more stark for WSU ticket holders. Pricing varies, of course, but there are many season-ticket packages that put you between the goal lines at Martin Stadium and cost less, on a per-game basis, than an end-zone or nosebleed seat for the Apple Cup.

The calculation might be different for WSU ticket-holders living on the west side of the state, because they’ll save on travel and lodging costs with the game being played at Lumen. Seattle is also a larger market. Everything is more expensive here. But remember: even though this is a neutral-site game, the Apple Cup was originally supposed to be played in Pullman this year. So not only must east-side WSU ticket holders trek across the state for a game that was supposed to be held at Martin Stadium — they’re also going to have to pay a premium to see it.

It’s worth mentioning here that the schools will split ticket revenue down the middle for this game. It’s also a simple fact that both schools need every dollar they can get. WSU faces a dire financial situation as it navigates an uncertain future, and UW continues to face budgetary challenges as it joins the Big Ten at a half-share of media-rights money.

Mitch Straub, a deputy athletic director at WSU who oversees external relations, estimated recently that Apple Cup ticket sales could generate about $4 million per school.

He told me on Friday that on a net basis, that figure would be “close to double” the revenue generated from a game in Pullman, and could have WSU thinking about playing neutral-site games “on a semi-frequent basis,” Straub said (though not necessarily against UW).

“I want to make it abundantly clear — we care deeply about the Pullman community,” Straub said. “We’re not going to get in the habit of stealing home games from this area and our season-ticket holders. But it’s certainly worth exploring in the future.”

For UW, even a sellout wouldn’t fully offset the revenue lost from not playing a seventh home game, Bennett said, “but it will offset what would have happened if we had to buy a game against an FCS school.”

Considering what he refers to as “three massive audiences” with interest in the game — ticket-holders and fans for both UW and WSU, plus Seahawks fans and stakeholders — Straub said he’s “fully confident we’re going to be playing in front of a packed house when we kick off.”

Similarly, Bennett isn’t worried about UW selling its allotment, and said sales thus far among UW’s top-ranked ticket-holders have been about what he would expect. “We’ll really get a feel for the pace and trajectory once we get into the general season base,” Bennett said.

Remaining Tyee ticket-holders can purchase Apple Cup tickets via live presale next week, Tester said, with all remaining season-ticket holders to follow. Tickets go on sale to the general public, via the Seahawks, on June 18.

Unless he changes his mind, our aforementioned Club Husky subscriber will watch on television. He and his wife thought about taking their kids and sitting in the end zone, but did the math and figured that might come with a four-figure price tag. He remembers spending a mere $160 apiece for lower-bowl tickets to the Pac-12 championship game last season.

That’s a completely understandable perspective, and I don’t fault any fans who take one look at that seat map and instead make reservations for their living room. I also understand why the schools wanted to price it like a marquee game. But I do wonder how many of their fans will see it that way, even those who ultimately fork over the hundreds of dollars required to make a day of it. Is the value really similar between a neutral-site rivalry game in September at an NFL venue and one played at a sold-out college stadium on Thanksgiving weekend?

Mostly, I’m just glad this is only happening once. The disintegration of the Pac-12 has done enough to change this rivalry for the worse, no matter the cost of nosebleed seats.

This column from UW Huskies football insider Christian Caple is exclusive to Seattle Sports. Subscribe to OnMontlake.com for full access to Caple’s in-depth Husky coverage.

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Caple: Why are Apple Cup tickets so expensive? Let’s examine