Money Ball: Oregon colleges follow the cash to football

0910_Sports02It's smart business to have a stake in Oregon's $166 million college football industry.

STORY BY BEN JACKLET
 

COLLEGE SPORTS IN OREGON

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Budgets, all schools and all sports statewide

2003................................................$99 million

2004..............................................$111 million

2005..............................................$124 million

2006..............................................$141 million

2007..............................................$155 million

2008..............................................$166 million

A 68% increase from 2003 to 2008

SOURCE: U.S. Dept. of Education
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PHOTOS BY LEAH NASH

 

This fall’s incoming class at Pacific University is like no other in the institution’s 161-year history.

For one thing, the average freshman male is larger than usual — much larger. That’s because more than 100 of the 500 incoming freshmen at this stately campus in Forest Grove are football players.

After five years of planning and fund-raising, Pacific is resuming a football program that the university dropped in 1992. The mighty Boxers return to the field this month for their 100th year of competition, and it needs to be said that the 99th year was not a stellar one. During its last season before dropping football, Pacific lost all nine of its games and one of its players tragically died after receiving a concussion from a head-on collision during one of the games.

But Pacific’s ebullient director of athletics, Ken Schumann, couldn’t be more thrilled to bring back football, and his enthusiasm extends beyond the usual pep rally banter. Bringing back football was a business decision, he explains. As a private liberal arts college with 1,500 undergraduates, a $50 million endowment and a fairly hefty tuition of $31,000, Pacific has been struggling to boost enrollment during hard economic times.

Recruiting young men to campus has become particularly challenging. Last year the ratio of females to males was 69 to 31. The quickest way to even out that ratio, and to bounce back from the recession, Schumann explains, is to bring back football.

Unlike big-school powerhouses, Pacific does not pay athletic scholarships. But it offers the opportunity to earn playing time as a freshman, to be a part of something new and exciting. That’s a strong pitch to make to graduating high school athletes, and it has worked. Schumann had hoped to bring in 50 players for the debut season and Pacific ended up gaining over 120, between freshmen and transfers. Not only does that number of players equal teams at far larger football schools, it also represents a significant boost for Pacific’s bottom line. “For every student that we bring in, after you take all the costs, the net revenue generated for the university is a little over $17,000,” says Schumann.

Multiply 120 players by $17,000 each and you get more than $2 million.

With a 2,000-seat football arena, $50 season tickets and a $2.5 million athletic budget, Pacific will never be mistaken for the multi-million-dollar programs at the University of Oregon and Oregon State University. But it does have something in common with the Ducks and the Beavers and many other institutions of higher education: Its athletic program is growing like crazy, and the growth is driven by football.

Between 2003 and 2008, sports programs at Oregon universities increased their budgets by 68%, their football revenues by 51%, and game-day expenses by 111%. It’s part of a national trend of contention for many within academia, but there appears to be no reversing it, in Oregon or elsewhere.

The market forces at work are strong, even during an economic downturn. Taken as a whole, college sports in Oregon can be viewed as a $166 million entertainment industry — and that’s just if you add up the program budgets, never mind the hotels, restaurants, gas stations, book stores and bars that benefit from game-day consumer spending, the businesses that produce the television and radio ads promoting big games, the media outlets that benefit from the hype, the workers who build a seemingly endless supply of stadiums ranging from the $11 million Lincoln Park Athletic Complex in Forest Grove to the $200 million Matthew Knight Arena in Eugene. Then there’s the sponsorship/branding machinery of Beaverton-based Nike, the most powerful force in sports marketing on the planet.

The sports programs at the heart of this industry range from plucky Linfield College, the Division III football and baseball powerhouse that wrote the playbook on boosting enrollment through sports, to the University of Oregon, which has grown from a budget of $14 million in 1996 to $70 million today.


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