Cougar hoops revenue climbs but more needed

WASHINGTON STATE generated more than $950,000 in ticket revenue from men's basketball games at the Beasley Performing Arts Coliseum this season. That marks a dramatic increase from the $520,000 the team produced in 2006-07. It's a trend that no doubt warms the hearts of folks in the Bohler Complex. But a little perspective points out just how far WSU needs to go when it comes to dollars and cents.

To put that nearly $1 million revenue total into context, consider these two facts:

• It doesn't even cover Tony Bennett's annual compensation; and
• At least half of the Pac-10 schools pull in double that amount -- roughly $2 million apiece -- in home-game revenue.

Data obtained from sources at WSU show that the Cougars' winning ways – 26 wins in each of the last two seasons – have been a boon at the gate. The 85 percent jump from last season to this stemmed from increased attendance and the school's first ticket price hike in many years.

CRIMSON COMMENTARY

To gauge how far and fast WSU has come, consider that the average home-game attendance was 4,279 from 2004-05 through 2005-06. And the collective ticket revenue from those two seasons was about $790,000 – or nearly $200,00 less than the just-concluded season.

Still, WSU has a long way to go generate the money needed to meet the facilities upgrades, staff salary increases, away-game travel improvements and other program upgrades Jim Sterk and Elson Floyd are working to secure for Bennett.

While WSU won't disclose the amount needed to make all the improvements that are planned, sources close to the matter believed before this season began that about $2 million was needed. Add in the desire to entice more quality non-conference opponents to Pullman, thereby reducing road wear on the Cougs, and replacing some of the team's commercial air travel with charters, and that number starts to quickly climb higher.

Cougar fans stepped up last season with $600,000 in donations to Sterk's Fund for Basketball Excellence and they chipped in another $100,000 this season. That's a notable down payment and the type of generosity, if maintained, that will help lead to sustained success.

TV revenue and post-season appearances, of course, help prime the economic pump as well. There's perhaps more revenue to be mined there, though it figures to be incremental unless the Pac-10 secures a lucrative new television contract – and we all know that won't happen as long as bumbling Tom Hansen is the conference's commissioner.

SO THE QUESTION IS THIS: How can WSU secure more revenue for its basketball program in order to lay the type of foundation that can support long-term, consistent success?

The answer, simply, is the Beasley Performing Arts Coliseum. WSU needs to generate more revenue from home games.

That can be achieved in three ways. First, by selling the numerous unused student seats to the general public. Second, by increasing ticket prices. And third, by upping the minimum donation that's required before you can purchase the best season tickets.

One reason why other Pac-10 schools generate more in ticket sales than WSU is because they allocate fewer seats to students. WSU leads the conference in student seating at 5,300 – 3,000 seats more than the next-highest school, USC. Given the modest size of the general population in Whitman County relative to the locales of the rest of the Pac-10, WSU's generosity with students is understandable.

WSU students can buy sports passes -- $99 for the current school year, climbing to $129 next year -- that get them into all men's and women's varsity events. What that means for the basketball program is that approximately 50 percent of the seats at Beasley generate virtually no income.

Compounding matters is that the students don't use all the seats. Roughly 1,000 student seats went empty in the upper sections of Beasley every game during this past season.

"Student support is critical at Washington State," Dan Meyer, WSU's ticket sales director told CF.C earlier this year. "Do they need as many seats as they have? No. They didn't fill all of them for any game this season. The students have told us through their attendance how many seats they need."

And it's closer to 4,300 than 5,300.

So WSU needs to reclaim about 1,000 seats – probably the ones in the upper sections of the arena so the rabid crowd close to the court can still work its magic on opponents. Making those seats available for general sale will help maximize revenue potential.

In addition, WSU should consider making another small increase in the price of basketball tickets. Until this season, the school went years without a raise. And even then it's one of the great bargains in sports. A courtside season ticket cost $390 this past season, or $30 per game. A regular general admission seat is just $15.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that a 5 percent increase wouldn't depress sales in any notable way.

Now let's talk about donations. Access to the best season tickets requires that the buyer also make an annual donation to the athletic department. Depending on the seat, the requirement ranges from $75 to $600 per year. By way of comparison, consider that Arizona's donation requirement for the right to buy season tickets starts at roughly $9,000. WSU can't go there, but the current entry level number of $75 is positively out of whack. The numbers right now are way too low.

No one likes to pay more for anything. The pride and passion Cougar basketball has brought to the Crimson Nation, however, needs to be rewarded. Students need to give up the seats they aren't using. Alums and fans need to pay a bit more for their seats and the prime-time season tickets need to carry a higher donation requirement.

All these moves will help generate the money so critical to sustained success. I think Cougar fans would step up to the proverbial plate on this. Maybe not gladly, but certainly with confidence that it's an investment in the future of their school.


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