Sold out 

Ticket shortage forces UM to reinvent Homecoming

When the University of Montana Alumni Association (UMAA) fielded a phone call this spring from Joan Monaghan, class of ’64, they broke some sad news: No tickets remained for the Sept. 20 Homecoming football game against UC-Davis. Monaghan asked to be put on the waiting list, and UMAA countered there was no such list.

“This whole thing hit like a runaway train,” Monaghan said. “There was no warning.”

It’s not the first hard-luck tale involving Homecoming football in Missoula, but there’s a twist.

The number of Homecoming game tickets allocated to UMAA for sale to reunion groups and nostalgic alumni dwindled from 1,350 to 550 this year. Before, tickets sold in a matter of hours to excited alums the country over. Now, there aren’t even enough to fulfill a fraction of the demand.

“We were just kind of dealt that hand,” says Kelsey Crawford, UMAA’s Homecoming coordinator.

The shortage, caused in part by increased season ticket sales in 2008, effectively shuts many UM alumni out of Washington-Grizzly Stadium on the very weekend intended to celebrate their legacy. And this will most likely be the story for years to come.

“The athletic administration and the university administration know our situation, but they have their own goals and obligations as well,” says Bill Johnson, director of the UMAA.

One of those goals, as UM Intercollegiate Athletics Director Jim O’Day sees it, is to remain self-sustaining. O’Day says season ticket sales account for at least one-third, or roughly $4 million, of the department’s annual revenue. That money goes a long way in reducing the need for institutional funding from UM.

“We understand the concerns… and we appreciate the increasing interest in UM athletics,” O’Day says. “But we also understand how important it is to pay our bills.”

O’Day, a 1980 graduate of the UM School of Journalism, sympathizes with disappointed alumni like Monaghan. He says he even has friends struggling to get tickets. But he stresses that Griz football isn’t all Homecoming week has to offer.

“The football game is just a single piece of it,” he says.

The recent stadium expansion has emerged as a point of confusion for some amidst news of a ticket shortage. With the addition of 2,000 seats on the east side, Washington-Grizzly Stadium grew to a capacity of roughly 25,000.

However, O’Day points out that the Athletics Department expanded student seating by 700, and the displaced general admissions from the south end zone were relocated to the expansion. In short, it wasn’t hard to fill the stadium for a regular game, let alone Homecoming.

“This is our own mini Super Bowl,” O’Day says. “I understand the frustrations of some, but there are only so many things we can do.”

The situation could have unforeseen consequences for UM. Monaghan has been a staunch supporter of her alma mater. An elementary educator, she’s donated money to the UM Foundation, the School of Law and the School of Education. But being cut out of something as integral to Griz culture as Homecoming football made her feel isolated, a “lonely little grizzly.”

“I don’t know if I’ll be as enthusiastic about donating as I used to be,” Monaghan says.

When the single game ticket shortage first came to light last January, UMAA rallied to discuss potential alternatives to stadium seating. A restructuring of the pre-existing alumni tailgate party seemed the most peaceful solution, Crawford says. The event was moved to the Adams Center’s east auxiliary gym, with plans to air the football game on a giant screen.

“We’re doing the best we can considering the situation we’ve been put in,” Crawford says.

Though Monaghan’s reaction was one of pain and frustration, Johnston says there are plenty of out-of-town alumni still excited about Homecoming week, which begins Sept. 17. Some view the new Saturday afternoon tailgate party not as short shrift, but as an opportunity to sit next to and reconnect with old friends.

“There are some people that come to Homecoming not just for the game,” Johnston says.

Beyond the tailgate party, there are no alternatives in sight. The waiting list for Griz season tickets is years long, and a new digital ticketing system for students has rendered it impossible to enter the student section without a student ID.

“We hope [the tailgate party] becomes a nice alternative to the stadium seat,” says Susan Cuff, UMAA’s associate director.

If the single game ticket shortage persists in years to come, a likely scenario according to officials, Cuff says UM could be looking at rewriting Homecoming tradition. The tailgate party may become as large a fixture of Homecoming week as stadium seats have been in the past.

But for Monaghan, watching the game on the big screen doesn’t justify the drive from Kalispell or the money spent on hotels and restaurants in Missoula. She may prefer to just watch it in the comfort of her own home. “The atmosphere of the game is going to be missing,” she says.

And it’s an atmosphere she’s accustomed to. Monaghan first cheered on the Griz at age 9. She attended football games religiously in college and only broke from fan-hood when she moved to eastern Montana to raise a family. Since moving to Kalispell, she’s rarely missed a Homecoming game—games that help her reconnect with her past.

“Every time I’ve gone,” Monaghan says, “someone I know has ended up sitting quite close to me.”
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