WSU drops Qwest idea, but hard facts remain

JIM STERK announced today that WSU is no longer pursuing the Apple Cup-at Qwest Field idea because of concerns about ensuring a "neutral-site atmosphere." That's no doubt good news for the thousands of Cougar fans who came out strongly against the proposal. But the driving force behind the idea in the first place -- money! -- cannot be ignored by the WSU faithful any longer.

"What made this possible agreement attractive were the additional number of tickets available to our fans, the financial gain seen by the athletic department, and the tremendous exposure created by playing a game of this magnitude at one of the premier sporting venues in the country," Sterk said in a statement today. "However, the final details could not be ironed out."

The bottom line on this six-year deal was believed to be in the neighborhood of $10 million for each school.

That's a powerful enticement if you're Jim Sterk.

And here's why:

WSU's athletic department budget is $30 million. And it's not enough to compete consistently. That's $14 million less than the next-closest school in the Pac-10, Oregon State, and it is $23 million less than the conference average.

Three-quarters of WSU's budget money comes from gate receipts, TV appearances and Pac-10 revenue sharing. One-fourth of WSU's budget comes from donations.

CRIMSON COMMENTARY

TV appearance money can be enhanced by winning more games, but the potential here for growth offers neither stability nor a big enough potential to solve WSU's budget challenges. Pac-10 revenue sharing is fairly consistent and can be boosted on the margins, but it's no cure for the crimson financial situation either.

Gate receipts can indeed help in a very big way. And that's why the planned $42 million, Phase III portion of the Martin Stadium remodel is so critical to WSU. The 2,200 premium seats that Phase III would put on the north side of the stadium will nearly equal the amount of revenue WSU currently generates through the stadium's 35,000 regular seats. Bottom line, those premium seats that are contained in Phase III will produce nearly $4 million per year all by themselves. And market surveys suggest that WSU will have no trouble selling those premium seats.

So getting Martin Stadium upgraded is critical.

Now let's look at the final piece of WSU's athletic revenue pie: Donors. This is where there's huge potential for growth.

The number of donors and the amount of money coming to the WSU Athletic Foundation in the most recent fiscal year were at all-time highs -- 6,185 people contributing $8.26 million. Those 6,185 souls who donate $100 or more per year represent just 2 percent of the living alums, friends and supporters in the WSU database. That's worth repeating: just 2 (two) percent.

Think of the leverage that's available. If just 10,000 more people donated $200 a year for five years, WSU is looking at $10 million.

To their credit, the folks in the WSU Athletic Foundation have made dramatic strides in recent years. The number of donors and the amount they contribute is significantly higher than just five years ago.

But the hard reality is that WSU alums and fans are way behind the rest of the Pac-10 when it comes to athletics support. Consider that Arizona State, which is No. 9 in the Pac-10 in donors and donations to athletics, still raises about $4 million more per year through alumni and fan contributions than does WSU. Oregon State, which went three decades without a winning football season, raises $5.5 million more per year.

THE REALITY IS THAT college sports have changed dramatically over the years. When I was a student in the early 80s working for Bill Moos and Jim Livengood in the Cougar Club, alumni donations covered virtually all of WSU's athletic scholarships.

Not so today. WSU's annual scholarship bill totals $5.8 million a year. Support via seatback donations, fundraising events, philanthropic scholarship giving and endowment returns covers only about 3.7 million of it. That leaves a $2.1 million chasm that must be taken out of the athletics operating budget.

Moreover, consider that just 20 of WSU's 85 football scholies are endowed by donors. All of USC's scholarship are endowed and roughly 50 to 70 are at each of the other Pac-10 schools. Each endowed scholarship means that much less money has to come out of the operating budget to pay for them.

WITH ALL THIS AS backdrop, the State Legislature is on the verge of imposing draconian budget cuts on all the state's universities -- cuts that will slash staff and programs at the same time a large tuition increase is being mandated. WSU's athletic department, which gets general fund assistance like any university department for basic overhead expenses, will not be immune from the meat cleaver. Word out of the Bohler Complex is that they'll be asked by President Elson Floyd to trim expenses well into the six figures.

So at the same time he's trying to get Martin Stadium's Phase III off the ground during a severe economic downturn, Sterk is also faced with daunting day-to-day budget pressures.

As a result, it's easy to see how the Qwest Field Apple Cup proposal could move from preposterous to plausible. The projected $10 million it would have yielded over six years is beyond enticing. It would have been a salve to get Phase III moving on Martin Stadium at the same time serious budget challenges loom.

Disgruntled Cougs complained over the past week that money shouldn't dictate the future of the Apple Cup. They need to understand that there is a financial bottom line that must be met and the prospects of laying off people who are needed or, worse yet, cutting sports so the budget stays balanced, is not a pleasant one.

If Cougar alums and fans stepped up the way boosters do at other schools, Sterk wouldn't even have considered the Qwest idea. Too many fans want to run with the elite but they don't want to pay for it. That means there have to be tradeoffs.

That's why Qwest was on the table. Sterk ought to be applauded for having the courage to grab that jug of political Castor oil and start pouring.

It's now off the table, but for Cougar fans what that really means is that you need to open your pocketbooks even wider than you thought.

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