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Competing Programs in Area Are Real Deal

March 01, 2001|BILL SHAIKIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For the cost of the cheapest ticket to the UCLA-Stanford men's basketball game, you could treat a family of four to a Cal State Northridge game, with money left over for parking, a program and sodas for all.

Cheap Hoops!

It's catchy, and it gets a message across, but it's a marketing slogan local schools are unlikely to use. While minor league baseball teams emphasize affordability in their marketing--and draw record crowds--local colleges in the shadow of UCLA are reluctant to stress relatively cheap prices in promoting their basketball games.

"We're not minor league in my mind," said Dennis Farrell, commissioner of the Big West Conference. "We're big-time, competitive programs. We're competing for the same ring that UCLA, USC and Stanford are competing for."

The average ticket price for a UCLA game is $26.66 and the cost for a family of four is $157.64, including parking, two programs, four hot dogs, four sodas and two souvenir caps, a Times survey found. At USC, the average ticket costs $16, with a family of four paying $127.

The average ticket price is less at each of the seven other Southland schools playing Division I basketball. Aside from Long Beach State, where the big blue Pyramid is an attraction in itself, the average ticket price is $10 or less, and the cost for a family of four is under $100, with many schools offering discounts to families, children and senior citizens.

College basketball at half the price? That's not a sales pitch endorsed by officials within the Big West or West Coast conferences, for fear that fans would assume basketball at half the price must be half as good.

A minor league team never would play the Dodgers, after all, but Northridge played--and beat--UCLA this season. UC Irvine beat California and Washington, and UC Riverside, in its first season in Division I, defeated Oregon State.

"Our schools strive to be competitive with the Pac-10," Farrell said. "It's quality basketball at a reasonable price that a family can afford.

"But, as far as the message we like to send out to the public, it's that we're Division I basketball. We've had players in the NBA."

But, in the last seven years, only three Big West players have been selected in the NBA draft, compared to nine from UCLA alone and 37 from the Pac-10. No Big West team has won an NCAA tournament game in eight years.

And even Pepperdine is largely obscured in the shadow of UCLA and USC, although the Waves beat Indiana in the NCAA tournament last year and WCC rival Gonzaga advanced to the Sweet 16 last year and the Elite Eight in 1999.

Simply put: No "SportsCenter" for you.

"What Cal State Northridge and some of those other schools are up against is, do they get the media love UCLA and USC get?" said Rick Burton, director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.

"Even though they have attractive pricing and perhaps a comparable product on the court, they don't have the marketing buzz that they are big-time. It's probably a flawed perception, especially if they can beat UCLA, but it's the perception."

The Bruins might bemoan their attendance woes, but none of the local Big West and WCC schools even plays in a gym with more than 5,000 seats. (Northridge and Riverside next season join Irvine, Long Beach and Cal State Fullerton in the Big West, while Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount play in the WCC.)

The Matadors, conquerors of UCLA, sold 50 season tickets this year, said Mindy DeGroot, Northridge associate athletic director.

And, although the local schools might schedule a game or two against Pac-10 teams, those games are almost always at the Pac-10 site. Northridge can beat UCLA in Pauley Pavilion, but the Matadors cannot attract fans to their gym with a home game against the Bruins.

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