Big Money Boosters get access to SEC schools

ATHENS – A few years back, after making a pile of money in the carpet business, John "Thunder" Thornton gave $1 million to the University of Tennessee's athletic department.

His payoff? Thornton was allowed to join the Volunteers in running through the "T" prior to a game at Neyland Stadium.

That's just one extreme example of boosters gaining access to SEC athletic programs with their money, and it's another illustration of the dilemma facing athletics directors and presidents trying to fund these programs as costs skyrocket.

"The thing we have to be concerned about every day is finding appropriate funding for our athletic programs," Tennessee athletics director Mike Hamilton said. "Revenue only comes from so many sources."

How appropriate allowing a booster to join your team in its pre-game entrance is debatable, at least in the eyes of David Ridpath, an associate professor for sports administration at Ohio University and the director of the Drake Group, a watchdog group for college athletics. The arms race in spending puts more and more pressure on administrators to give more and more to boosters, whether it be simply perks or actual power, Ridpath said.

Auburn University should serve as a cautionary tale for the story of boosters run amok, Ridpath said.

"You don't have to look any further than (Auburn University) and a guy like Bobby Lowder," he said. "That athletic department sold their soul to a man like that, and that defeats any purpose of what college athletics should be."

Auburn is not the only place, though, where it's a problem, Ridpath said. When he was an assistant wrestling coach at Ohio University, his opinion meant far less than a prominent booster's opinion, he said.

"If I said one thing and a booster said the other, it would always be done the booster's way," he sad. "We were not following any of the ideals that the NCAA purports to be expounding."

And the problem is worse at bigger schools, he said. At Georgia, where one supporter has given more than $7 million in the last five years, boosters have made road trips with the team and stood on the sideline during games. And it's not just financial boosters who think they have a stake in the Bulldogs, university president Michael Adams said.

"I can tell you from my mail, e-mail and phone calls that there are 9.5 million people out there in the state of Georgia who think that they own this athletic program and this university," Adams said, "and most days I'm glad they feel that way."

College administrators are constantly on the lookout for ways to increase funding beyond taking more and more from boosters, said Alan Thomas, Georgia's associate athletics director for external affairs, the office that oversees fundraising.

Some schools have begun to sell naming rights. Tennessee's spring football game has a title sponsor in Edamerica, a student loan company. Louisville (Papa John's Stadium for football) and Texas (University Federal Credit Union Disch-Falk Field for baseball) have sold stadium names.

Neither Thomas nor Hamilton expects corporate naming to become the norm in college athletics, but Thomas acknowledged "there are certainly dollars and cents that can be driven off those pieces."

"You're not going to see a corporate name on Neyland Stadium, I can assure you of that, or on our (football) field," Hamilton said.

Instead, what may soon be coming to a stadium near you is premium pricing. The next major wave of stadium construction around the country probably will involve converting regular seats to more desirable, and more expensive, seats.

"There is no rocket science to how to drive more revenue," Thomas said. "It's raise prices."

Hamilton began thinking hard about the issue this summer when he noticed that the ticket he had been given for a seat behind home plate at a Houston Astros game cost $350.

"There is a percentage of the population that is very interested in premium seating," he said. "They are willing to pay a price for something extra. How far is too far to push that point? I don't know the answer to that myself. It's more a rhetorical question than anything else."

Rarely a day goes by that Georgia isn't offered some opportunity to make more money, Thomas said. The trade-off, though, is more commercialization and another step away from the ideal of amateur college athletics.

"We don't exercise the same rights and opportunities that other schools do," Thomas said. "For the most part, we're very much a middle of the road university. We are definitely not on the low end for commercial opportunity, but we're for sure not on the high end."

The Big Fish

In the last five years, at least 10 individuals, families, groups or corporations have given more than $1 million to Georgia's athletic department. The school is not required to release the names of their boosters and declined to do so after a request by The Telegraph. However, it did release the total donation figures. Here's how much the top 10 have given in the last five years

1. $7,005,200
2. $4,527,207
3. $3,000,000
4. $2,533,638
5. $1,311,650
6. $1,250,000
7. $1,149,200
8. $1,144,200
9. $1,063,730
10. $1,036,123

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