The second-most attended spring exhibition in Tennessee football history, last month's free Orange & White Game, was hardly an economic wash for the Volunteers' athletics department.
In fact, according to data obtained by VolQuest.com through a Freedom of Information Act request, Tennessee realized significant six-figure fiscal impact from the April 12 intrasquad game/circus that drew an announced crowd of more than 68,000 inside Neyland Stadium.
"I think it's good. I think it's a win-win," UT Vice Chancellor/Director of Athletics Dave Hart told VolQuest.com this week. "We want to continue to afford our fans the opportunity to come to Neyland Stadium without there being a fee to watch the spring game. Now. We've been criticized for that in some corners because people say, 'Hey, your financial position is not what you need it to be. Why don't you just charge?' And that's the balance. But I think it's the recognition of how important our fan base is to the rebuilding of our football program. I feel strongly about that.
"We've charged for spring games at places I've been, and there have been times that we didn't charge. But you look at the activity that takes place, the families that get to come, and let's be honest: there are a lot of people in that (0-W Game) crowd that can't afford to buy tickets (to regular-season games); they just can't. And they don't, for that reason. A lot of those folks were the ones out here the night before at 4:30 in the morning in the autograph line with two or three kids sleeping in sleeping bags. So you're reaching out to all of our fans in that particular event."
Free, however, might ultimately have been what padded the Vols' coffers a bit more; even parking carried no charge on that day. Tennessee generated combined revenues of more than $300,000 --- $317,086 to be precise --- from its concessions and merchandise sales for the non-televised, afternoon event.
The Vols have pulled in nearly 130,000 combined fans for their past two spring games --- the first two of second-year coach Butch Jones' tenure --- but Jones said he had not concerned himself with what economic impact might be derived from the events.
"I hadn't even thought about it that way. That's for our administration," said Jones. "I'm just excited our fans have came out and supported us in spring football games. I thought this year was critical because of the youth of our football team. It was a great evaluation tool, to have 68,000-plus in that stadium, to see how these youngsters would compete in that type of competitive environment. It was a great, great teaching tool, also a great evaluation tool for us as well. Anytime you can simulate game-like situations, and there's people in the stands - especially almost 69,000 - that was invaluable for us."
For an athletics program with well-documented financial struggles, including one of the lowest reserve funds in the Southeastern Conference at well below $5 million, Tennessee certainly could not overlook the economic impact of the event. Of those revenue totals listed above, the Vols pocketed commissions of $120,129 from the spring-ending event. Tennessee retained more than $108,000 of the $240,565 in concession sales; the return off the $76,000 in merchandise sales was more than $11,000.
Hart pointed to his first major hire, Jones, and the tireless efforts of his football coach to help unite the Vols' fan base --- and peel back a layer of mystery to entertain them at the spring game, even as Jones touted the real benefits of seeing his inexperienced roster get to play an exhibition in front of more fans than capacity at four SEC venues.
"Number one, and as I've said many, many times, Butch has done a great job connecting with every constituent group that we have. Students, donors, alumni, former lettermen, high school coaches; you name the group and he's poured his heart and soul into making sure that they know how important they are to the rebuilding of our football program," Hart said. "So yes, absolutely, he deserves the lion's share of the credit.
"But I got more positive feedback, in the days following the spring game, on just the formatting. You guys see it all the time; we see it all the time. Practices, I've seen bits and pieces throughout my career. So the bull-in-the-ring, to me, it doesn't move my needle. But people come to see things that they have not seen; what kind of drills does the team go through? What kind of competitive environments are placed in in the practice setting? People responded to that very, very favorably."
Both Hart and Jones said the Orange & White Game lent brushstrokes to the vivid picture of just how important it is that Tennessee football regains on-field success in coming seasons; each referenced the Vols' fans who camped out around the perimeter of Neyland Stadium to ensure personal interaction with the Vols' coaches and players.
"I appreciate all of our fans coming out. I also think for our newcomers and for our football team, every time our fans are involved with any event, it should make them realize the magnitude, the relevance and the importance by which they represent Vol nation and Tennessee football," Jones said. "I think it's always great for our players to see all the individuals who showed up for autograph sessions, some waiting in line since 5 a.m. Again, that should let them understand that there's a lot of people counting on them. That's why we have the high standards and expectations that we have in this football program."
Added Hart, "There's no question, there is no doubt about that. And no, I don't need a reminder but I think that's one of the most gratifying days in this job, the spring game. It's to go out there and to see the people who have indeed made those kinds of trips, and they're the last to leave as well. They want to soak it all in. It's a very gratifying day."
This time, the gratification was twofold; the Vols fostered goodwill among their fan base and still registered a six-figure economic impact off a "free" event.