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It has been quite a few years since it was easy to find a good seat to watch the Utah Utes play football at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Now, it's getting harder and harder to find an inexpensive one.

The Utes are preparing to join the Pac-12 Conference next month knowing they need to generate millions of dollars in additional revenue to catch up with their mostly wealthy new rivals. Already, they have raised most football ticket prices by 20 to 24 percent from last year and approved a nearly 8 percent increase in student fees for athletics in the next academic year.

Call it the cost of doing business — or one of the major downsides to the biggest athletic move in school history.

"Our hope is people see and understand we are on a different level of competition now and are competing in a conference with prestige and national recognition," athletic director Chris Hill said recently. "We need to ratchet everything up to recruit and perform well."

Don't expect it to change, either.

The Utes have enjoyed sellout football crowds for the past three seasons, yet they still make only about half as much in ticket revenue as other Pac-12 teams because their stadium is smaller — its official 45,017 capacity is smaller than every other stadium in the league except that of Washington State (35,117) — and they haven't charged as much for tickets.

Hill said the Utes don't plan to expand the stadium any time soon since they have more pressing needs elsewhere in the athletic department, meaning the only way to increase ticket revenue is to keep increasing prices.

But the Utes will try to make more money in other ways, too, such as raising student fees — school officials envision a series of increases during the next several years, such as the $12.28 boost to $162.72 for 2011-12 — and soliciting larger donations, in addition to receiving much more money as part of the Pac-12's new 12-year television contract with ESPN and Fox Sports that begins in 2012-13.

The Utes won't get a full share of revenue distribution from the $3 billion deal until 2014-15, however.

"The bigger revenue gap and area of emphasis for us is in private donations unrelated to ticket sales," said assistant athletic director Zack Lassiter. "We are a distant 12th in the conference in private donations, and we will need to improve in this area for us to close the revenue gap between us and other Pac-12 institutions."

All that translates to fans, students and boosters bearing much of the financial burden of jumping into big-time college sports.

The Utes enter the Pac-12 with the smallest athletic budget in the league, about $31.8 million.

Every other school except WSU had a budget of about $50 million or more in 2009-10, according to the U.S. Department of Education, and the Cougars have a budget of $39.3 million.

Without more money to dedicate to all facets of their program, the Utes will have a harder time attracting top recruits to compete in the powerful Pac-12.

At least ticket prices won't go up for everything.

Lassiter said basketball ticket prices won't increase next year, as the Utes aim to simply sell more tickets for the rebuilding program — the way they did with football from 2003 to 2009.

Tickets for women's gymnastics will see a "modest" increase, he added, but that sport delivers only a sliver of revenue for the athletic department because of a combination of fewer home meets plus lower-priced and discounted tickets.

In football, though, fans have already seen the future.

Prices for premium seats in the scholarship boxes rose from $210 to $250 each, with the required donation to the Crimson Club now $2,750 per seat. Chair seats have shot up from a low of $260 to a high of $450 (up from $210 and $370, respectively) with a Crimson Club donation of up to $500. The more expensive bleacher seats now cost $225 and $210 (up from $175), while the least expensive bleacher seats have climbed to $120 from $99.

Yet the significant price hikes have hardly muted demand.

The Utes recently announced that a record 98 percent of season-ticket holders renewed 32,000 tickets at the higher prices, indicating that fans are willing to pay more to see their team take on the likes of Washington, Arizona State and UCLA at Rice-Eccles Stadium next season.

"I understand it, and I fully appreciate it," said Ryan Robinson, a Salt Lake City resident and season-ticket holder who believes most fans share the sentiment. "That's the way it has to be."

Interest is so high that season tickets won't even go on sale to the general public, though a few single-game tickets for each of the six home games could go on sale Aug. 1, if any are available. Some seats could also open up the week before home games next fall, if visiting teams return any of the 2,500 tickets that are allotted to them for their fans.

One big question that remains unanswered, though, is whether fans will continue to show such support if the Utes can't continue their remarkable success of recent years.

While some season-ticket holders such as Robinson believe the fan base at Utah "has turned a corner and is not going back," others aren't so sure what will happen once the exciting novelty of the new league wears off in a few years.

"I think the excitement of the new conference will be enough for a time," said John Rankin, of Sandy, a season-ticket holder. "But the team better keep having success to keep selling tickets in the long run. Look what has happened to the basketball program. I think it can happen with football, too, if they lose too much for too long." The Pac-12 Project