When East Carolina reached the 10,000 mark in football season ticket sales last Friday, Ryan Robinson was kind of surprised, yet not surprised at all.
The Pirates’ original goal was 16,000 for coach Mike Houston’s second season, but that was adjusted to 10,000 in March when COVID-19’s impact drastically changed the landscape in all sports.
A surge at the renewal priority deadline helped the Pirates reach 10,000 as they eye even more sales and continue to gauge what a football season might look like this year. ECU has plans for full refunds for season ticket holders if needed.
“Nothing really surprised me about the fans of East Carolina,” said Robinson, ECU’s executive associate athletics director for external operations, last Friday. “I’ve been here a year and a half, and all it takes is to go into Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium or Minges Coliseum when it’s rocking and baseball on a consistent basis with their fans. They are out there, but we have to do a better job engaging with them. I think the more we can engage with them and show them that we have kind of a plan to move forward, they are responsive to it.
“Absolutely no matter what happens, for any impacted game, they will get a full refund. They’ll have an option where they can move the credit to their 2021 football season tickets or turn it into a charitable donation to the Pirate Club, but we really haven’t had those conversations of not having football.”
Focus on college football has heightened since campuses opened for voluntary player workouts. Another step happened early Thursday when the NCAA football oversight committee finalized an extended preseason plan that includes an extra two weeks of limited walk-throughs (with a football), weight training, conditioning and film study in July prior to the start of normal 29-day preseason practice period.
There has been COVID-19 testing and there have been questions about game schedules and fan attendance as schools continue to plan during uncertain times.
The University of Houston, an American Athletic Conference member with ECU, suspended its workouts Friday after six symptomatic student-athletes tested positive for the virus.
“Do I think we’re going to have full capacity? Probably not, but we haven’t been told that,” Robinson said of football games. “We’re already making plans that we will have designated social distancing sections. Those will be available, and we’ll probably go more into that in the next couple of weeks as we start to really dive into football and Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium and all the precautions and things it will take. We’ll be ready. ... I’m under the impression that we’ll be in some type of capacity limit, but I don’t see anything right now that would affect our season ticket holders.”
The weightlifting area of the Murphy Center opened Monday for players who had already cleared protocol. ECU’s initial COVID-19 tests of 57 people, which were administered June 6 and included 32 football players, all came back negative.
The Pirates’ phased plan includes strategically integrating other student-athletes in addition to what already has begun in football. If a student-athlete tests positive for COVID-19, they will self isolate for at least 14 days and receive daily check-ups from ECU athletics medical staff.
“We’re going to have some positives as we go through these phases, but I was really pleased to hear that the initial 57 came back negative,” Robinson said.
ECU is scheduled to host Marshall at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Aug. 29 as an ESPN matchup in Week 0 of the college football season. Earlier than that, the Pirates also have a home women’s soccer exhibition match scheduled for Aug. 13 versus Longwood. Their regular-season opener is Aug. 20 at High Point.
Amid plenty of uncertainty still remaining in sports, Robinson at least was encouraged by Pirate fans securing football season tickets in recent weeks. ECU’s season ticket total was about 14,000 last year in a campaign that ended with a 4-8 record after 3-9 records each of the previous three years.
“People are prideful and they understand the situation we’re in that we have been through difficult times and still are going through some,” Robinson said. “The way I look at it is we are going through complicated times, but we have the right people in place to take a huge step forward. We are all aligned together, and maybe (fans) can see that.”
An important part of the fan base, especially in football, is the student section and its role in a game day environment. Student Pirate Club incentives are taking shape, which Robinson said includes a new initiative for students to receive discounts at local restaurants for paying to be in the Student Pirate Club.
“We still have to account for our students, and they are going to be in the boneyard,” he said. “When you add in visiting tickets and family tickets and things of that nature, the numbers can get up there pretty quickly. But when you look at it in mid-June, we don’t have to make all of the decisions right now because a lot can change in the next two and a half months.”