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Florida State coach Willie Taggart talks about FSU’s class on National Signing Day.
Wayne McGahee III, Tallahassee Democrat

Bolstering a home football schedule with Notre Dame and other non-conference opponents “that will be attractive to Seminole fans” is an important component of Florida State interim Athletics Director David Coburn’s plan to address lagging season-ticket sales and operating budget issues.

Six months into the job, the former chief of staff anticipates additional cutbacks as he searches for new revenue streams to help balance an athletics budget that again faces serious annual financial challenges.

Coburn has been proactive with his strategy as FSU works to overcome an operating deficit that hovered at $3.6 million last year and is projected to be similar this year. 

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While Coburn has expressed concerns about the department’s operating budget over the next couple of years, he notes that fundraising for capital facility gifts and scholarships is progressing very well. Seminole Boosters Inc., the independent fundraising arm of athletics, launched a five-year $100 million campaign for athletics in September and already has raised more than $60 million towards a variety of men’s and women’s sports projects.

Coburn has invested in new hires on coach Willie Taggart’s staff and improved the Seminoles’ home-and-home schedule with Notre Dame and soon-to-be-named opponents he expects will excite fans.

Coburn wants to improve the fan experience at Doak Campbell Stadium, including 5G technology enabling high speed mobile connectivity, and maybe with the addition of a beer garden or two. He has hired a ticketing and marketing expert in Paul Phipps, and looks to facilitate more affordable housing options for fans on home game weekends.

Coburn also implored Seminole Nation to continue to support athletics and acknowledged the importance of a winning football program. Taggart, who signed a six-year, $30 million deal in December 2017, is looking to rebound from last year’s 5-7 season.

“The bottom line is we need our fans to say with us,” Coburn said during an interview with the Democrat and Warchant.com.

“We need them to support us. In football, we brought in some new coaches. I think you are going to see a very different, very exciting offense in the fall. I think you will see that begin to develop through the spring. We had a very good recruiting class not withstanding what some people thought. And we are not finished. I want to make that clear, we are not finished. …

“The message is we cannot succeed in the budget area if our fans don’t stay with us. There’s just no path forward there for us without them staying with us and supporting us.”

While Coburn continues to navigate budget issues he described as “short term challenges,” he believes football fans will be excited about the Seminoles’ future schedules and non-conference games. FSU, of course, opens this season against Boise State in Jacksonville on Aug. 31. The Seminoles meet West Virginia in Atlanta in 2020 and open at home against Notre Dame in 2021. Coburn said every year until 2030, FSU will play either Notre Dame or a “big time football program” at a neutral site or on a home-and-home basis.

Coburn credited Taggart’s willingness to upgrade the Seminoles’ non-conference schedule. He said lucrative neutral-site games remain in the equation. Previous coach Jimbo Fisher wasn’t as willing to elevate the Seminoles’ non-conference schedule that includes an annual game against Florida. 

“Willie will play anybody you want to play in this geographic area where he’s recruiting. He’s all in,” Coburn said. “Now, he wants them back here or he wants them in a good neutral site with a lot of money. He has been really good to work with about that and a lot of other things, to be honest with you.” 

Coburn continues to describe his future as interim athletics director as open-ended. Last August he replaced Stan Wilcox, who accepted a job with the NCAA. After evaluating the department’s finances, Coburn implemented a 4 percent reduction in what he described as “non-operating costs” within the athletics department. That reduction, Coburn said, is roughly $600,000 from FSU’s $106 million athletics budget. He noted in December that no cuts were made to the football recruiting budget.

Big-time college athletic programs such as FSU are making more money – and spending more money – than ever before. Coburn views FSU’s budget as a three-year challenge, dating back to 2017-18.

He said that year ended in a $3.6 million deficit. He expects this year’s deficit to be similar, citing the continued slide in season ticket football sales and booster contributions, in addition to expenses such as coaching contract transition costs, the infrastructure for the ACC Network that launches in August and the scoreboard costs in Doak Campbell Stadium.

Coburn hinted the 2019-20 deficit could be deeper, again largely depending on season football ticket renewals. He said administrative cost-cutting would likely continue next year but “we will be all right.” He also sees a favorable swing once FSU gets through this current cycle. An appreciative Coburn also said the university has worked with athletics on the repayment of loans (scoreboards) and Seminole Boosters Inc., has pledged its financial support where needed.

“Once we get through 19-20, things begin to look a little better,” Coburn said. “The ACC revenues, the base revenues, continue to improve steadily. The ACC Network comes online and generates money and that will improve steadily. Some of our long-term vendor contracts continue to improve revenue wise. And the schedule is going to improve significantly in my view.” 

SEASON TICKET RENEWALS CRITICAL 

Coburn also reiterated the athletics department is studying ways to generate new revenue. That features a renewed focus on the marketing of ticket sales, which continue to trend downward in live college and professional sporting events across the country.

FSU’s ticket renewal process for the 2019 season started Dec. 1 and ends March 1. Jack Chatham, assistant athletics director of Ticket Operations and Service, said Thursday the trending renewal rate is just under 40 percent He said that mark aligns with last year’s rate at this time.

After selling out its allotment (45,000 season tickets in the main seating bowl) in 2014 following the program’s third national title, FSU’s season ticket sales have continued to fall. Last year’s mark totaled 32,194, not including an additional 6500 premium seats sold in the Dunlap Champions Club and stadium suites.

While Coburn admitted to prior pricing and strategic mistakes, he said FSU is working hard to correct those issues. Coburn said Seminole Boosters, Inc. is launching “an old ’70s style campaign” of knocking on doors and making telephone calls to help sell tickets and increase booster contributions. The approach will also include a volunteer campaign with rewards. Coburn doesn’t expect price increases and believes, in some cases, there could be decreases in certain sections of the stadium. 

“They are going back to the personal approach that used to work for us back in the day when Andy (Miller, CEO and president of Seminole Boosters) and those guys were building this organization,” Coburn said. “I think that will help a great deal. It has been effective for us in the past.” 

Speaking about the challenges of selling season tickets, Coburn pointed to a familiar refrain that “the cost of hotel rooms for out-of-town folks is an issue.” He said there are expected to be 1,200 new hotel rooms in the area by 2020. “And more affordable options  are popping up every day as technology makes that easier,” Coburn said.

Coburn added that FSU is working on smaller bundle ticket packages as an alternative to season tickets. It also is looking at premium “experiential packages” with special field access and other amenities at a high price for a single game.

Coburn said FSU also wants to utilize Doak Campbell Stadium for more than just football games. He said FSU wants to stage additional concerts and a Top Golf event is being discussed. On Thursday, FSU announced that MC Hammer will be among the artists performing after the April 6 spring game at Doak Campbell Stadium with a Friday Night concert planned in CollegeTown. FSU also wants to continue to improve the fan experience in the stadium on game days with improved cell service. Other amenities could include beer gardens in the plazas connected to the stadium. 

“We have challenges in the short term,” Coburn said. “I think we are dealing with them effectively. We have a plan. In the medium- to long-term, it begins to get better. When our fans ask me what can I do to help, the answer is you can buy season tickets, you can come to the games and you can support the boosters.” 

Coburn said that historically FSU athletics has either broken even or made money. He is determined to get back to that point, believing the athletics program should be self-supporting. He said that’s the intent of university President John Thrasher, who appointed Coburn to his new role, and believes the majority of Seminole fans and the university community wants it that way. 

Coburn also pointed to the comprehensive excellence of FSU’s athletic teams. Last year, the Seminoles placed ninth and finished first among ACC schools in the final standings for the NACDA Learfield Director’s Cup. Alabama, which won the football national title in 2017 over Clemson placed 14th. Clemson, meanwhile, was 52nd. 

“This is a well-endowed program,” Coburn said. “And the results show. We won two national championships (in 2018). … Everything is nationally competitive. I am proud of that and I don’t want to hurt it.”

When asked whether the solution to balancing the budget lies in cost cutting or raising revenue, Coburn was resolute, “Over the long term, because so many of our costs are fixed – coaching salaries, scholarships and recruiting — it’s going to lie in revenues,” he said. ” I’m working at it every day. We’re going to drive some revenues to this place.

Reach sports editor Jim Henry at [email protected]