The University of Oregon Ducks have expanded their athletics department by a factor of five over 15 years and has sold out 68 straight football games. // PHOTOS COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF OREGON
The annual Civil War rivalry between the Oregon Ducks and the Oregon State Beavers routinely sells out months in advance, but last year’s game may have been the biggest year ever on the national stage. Scheduled on a Thursday night rather than a weekend, the game had ESPN all to itself, with the winner bound for the Rose Bowl. It ended up being one of the network’s most watched games of the season and that single game reportedly added about $350,000 each to the Duck and Beaver athletics departments.
The Beavers came up short in that particular contest, but not for lack of effort, both on the field and on the money side. Even without a super-booster on the level of Phil Knight, OSU athletic director Bob De Carolis has nearly tripled his budget over his 12 years on the job, from $18 million to $50 million.
“The engine that drives the growth is football,” says De Carolis. “Football, and building the base there, going from paid attendance of 15,000 to …averaging about 42,000 tickets sold. And the growth of fundraising… In ’98 we were raising about $1.5 million. By ’04 it was $5 million. Then we hit an all-time high a few years ago at $11.4 million.” De Carolis estimates that about 70% of the revenues his department makes come from football. As he sees it, “football and to a lesser extent basketball finance the rest of the athletics department.”
Still, for all that growth, the Beavers are deep in the red. A 2009 NCAA report estimated that the Beavers ran a deficit of $3.8 million during the 2007-2008 season when factoring in subsidies from state lottery games and student fees.
According to ESPN’s college sports database, Oregon State earns about $8.5 million in annual ticket sales — a sizable sum but just half of what UO earns at the gate.
The department’s bottom line could soon be improving, however. The PAC 10 is expanding and is looking for a new television contract, which is divided among the teams in the conference based on TV appearances. The current contract pays the conference $58 million, while a future contract could pay twice that or more.
Besides, even if the Beavers lose money as a program, De Carolis believes the athletics program pays off from a marketing perspective, especially when you factor in the popularity of college sports on TV.
“It really is a good investment as a PR machine,” he says, “to help schools get their brands out there.”
Meyer Freeman, COO of the Oregon Sports Authority, agrees from a broader statewide perspective. “The impact of a Civil War game getting ESPN all to itself is huge in terms of great exposure for Oregon,” he says. “It generates an overall awareness of Oregon being a great place to live in, work in and visit, and that has benefits over the long term. It’s almost impossible to quantify what it’s worth, but it’s definitely valuable anytime you put your state on a platform that widely viewed.”
Lariviere says the money UO made by reaching the Rose Bowl “pales in comparison to having your logo in 15 million homes for four hours.”