The result of the "Seat Transfer and Equity Plan" Average is this: Attendance is down slightly since 2010, though donations to the booster organization—called the Nittany Lion Club—are up slightly.
To counter—with the homecoming game vs. Northwestern on tap for Saturday—Penn State this week lowered minimum donation levels for about 11,500 seats at 106,572-seat Beaver Stadium. Other donation levels were frozen, too, and the school promised to hold the line on the actual price of tickets of $55 per game.
"This is not fixing something that didn't work. It's about maximizing what we began two years ago," associate athletic director Greg Myford said. He called the program a success because of the promise of increased revenue at a time of increasing budget pressures, while also "leveling the playing field for how tickets are allocated."
The athletic department is self-supporting and doesn't draw on tuition dollars to pay for the school's 31 varsity teams. Athletic officials spoke of looming budget pressures three years ago as they put the finishing touches on the changes—long before the NCAA slammed Penn State in July with strict sanctions, including a $60 million fine, for the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
Donations are used to help pay for other sports, and won't be used to pay the fine, athletic officials said.
Average attendance through the season's first three games is still a relatively robust 96,500.
But at massive Beaver Stadium, that leaves about 10,000 empty seats, noticeable gaps inside a venue that, until last 2010, regularly drew at least 100,000 per game—even for the less-exciting nonconference schedule. It's also unclear what, if any, impact the scandal may have had on attendance.
The stadium seating capacity is second in the country only to Michigan Stadium's capacity of 109,901. Penn State is currently at 91 percent capacity, down from the usual 97-98 percent, Myford said.
The roughly 60 luxury box suites at the stadium are again sold out, as is the 21,000-seat student section.
"People are talking about we only had 95,000 at a game the other day. Name me a school ... that had 95,000 at their game the other day, I don't know, there's a handful," coach Bill O'Brien told reporters this week as part of an answer on a recruiting-related question. "But I'm just saying this place is a very special place."
Starting in 2013, about 6,000 seats will fall under a new donation level of $200 per seat, down from $400. The giving levels for another 5,500 seats will drop from $600 to $400. All seats are in upper sections of the stadium between the goal lines.
The other donation levels are $100 per seat, mainly around the end zones; and a select number of $2,000-per-seat areas at prime midfield locations.
Projected revenue this year from the Nittany Lion Club donations are expected to reach $17.5 million, a record but up slightly—about $100,000, from the previous year, said Rick Kaluza, associate athletic director of finance.
The department is expected to take in about $108 million in total revenue for varsity sports, with about 60 percent coming from football—in addition to the booster club donations. A typical operating budget is usually in the mid-$80 million range.
But this has been anything but a normal year for Penn State, and Kaluza said it was too early to get the final tally for this year's budget. Besides the fine, to be paid over five years, the department budget will also take a hit because it won't be allowed to share in the Big Ten's pie of bowl money, about $13 million to $15 million over the next four years.
Still, Kaluza remained optimistic.
"We're still working under a five-year plan that allows us to remain being a self-supporting entity," Kaluza said. "A workable financial plan that allows us to be self-supporting and not go into the red."
The season ticket guideline tweak also included a five-year program option in which booster club members could earn "double points" and ensure their seat donation didn't exceed 2013 donation levels during the five-year period.
The Nittany Lions (3-2), after a rough start to the O'Brien era, have won three straight games and will need that homecoming crowd—however big or small—on Saturday against a 5-0 Northwestern team that is ranked No. 24.