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College ticket prices: Why they reveal a post Title IX problem

October 7, 2009 – 2:57 PM

By Laura Pappano

Reporter Libby Sander’s short piece in yesterday’s Chronicle of Higher Education (click here to read it), highlighted our Wellesley Centers for Women study with a simple headline: “Even at Elite Programs, Ticket Prices for Women’s Basketball Lag Behind Men’s, Report Says.”

The piece quickly became one of the “most commented” — with many critical and — alas — nasty. One (more thoughtful) reader e-mailed an off-line comment which made it clear that these guys are missing the point.

He noted that “people are sometimes willing to pay to indulge their own discrimnatory preferences, but it seems implausible to me that institutions would set the price of tickets for men’s sports artificially high or set the price of tickets for  women’s sports artificially low (creating excess demand) just to maintain the differentiation….I don’t think institutions are entirely rational actors, but it seems implausible to me that they would leave massive amounts of money on the table.  Do you consider that hypothesis?”

Of course. But:

1. Unlike professional sports franchises, college athletic departments are NOT businesses or even money-making enterprises (many are state-funded institutions). They take in revenues, but SPEND more (a recent report showed colleges are in the hock for massive capital investments for athletics not covered by revenues or donors).

2. Given that athletic departments are part of academic institutions that receives taxpayer benefits, the matter of ticket pricing (and add to that scheduling and promotion of games) is not purely a market situation. In fact, by making the men’s event “THE GAME” and the women’s as an afterthought (a number of D1 colleges don’t even charge to see the women if you attend the men’s game) colleges are LIKELY LOWERING audience interest (a study shows consumers equate higher ticket prices with higher value) plus missing a development opportunity to tap former female players, alumns, and supporters to expand their booster base.

(So yeah, they ARE leaving money on the table…)

3. The ticket price study is — fundamentally — NOT an argument to raise or lower ticket prices, but aims to reveal a key Post Title IX problem, that is, a skewed system that signals a higher value on male play (regardless of the team’s attendance or success) in an institutional setting in which we exactly expect female play not to be devalued to second-class status.

This is not merely about sports, of course, but the messages about power, access, status that are conveyed through college athletic departments.

4. Coda:  Last fall we did a pilot study of soccer ticket prices — taking a sport that was not expected to generate revenue — and found that while many colleges do not charge at all, that those that do, charge slightly higher prices for men’s soccer. This season, UConn, for example, charges $8 for reserved seats to men’s soccer, $6 for general admission. The college, on the other hand, has decided to charge $1 less — $5 — to attend a women’s soccer game.

Surely, that is precisely about a differential — and not about the bottom line (or, cough, making the event more attractive to families).

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