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What Price Glory? It's Right for USC

Football success is a boon for entire athletic department, but some supporters feel slighted.

September 06, 2004|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

How much is a Rose Bowl victory and half a national championship worth?

The obvious answer: Last season's success helped make USC the No. 1-ranked team entering this fall and certified quarterback Matt Leinart as a Heisman Trophy candidate before he threw a single pass. But that's not all.

There have been other indicators -- less apparent if no less significant -- that the Trojans still bask in the glow.

Season-ticket sales have jumped 24%, and athletic department officials say attendance at the Coliseum -- beginning with the home opener against Colorado State on Saturday -- could set a record with an average of 80,000-plus.

Winning also translates into corporate sponsorships, television revenue and more fans willing to join booster clubs, donating $1,250 or more in exchange for better seats at the Coliseum.

Although increased demand has some longtime season-ticket holders feeling left out, officials say they need to take advantage of the good times.

"We have 19 sports, and almost all of them need to be supported," Athletic Director Mike Garrett said. "It starts with football. That's the cash cow."

As a private school, USC is not required to disclose its finances. But a portrait of the athletic department's $46-million annual budget emerges from reports filed with the Department of Education and some information released by officials.

The business of running 19 teams can be pricey. The department must repay the university for every scholarship it hands out and, at roughly $40,000 each, that amounts to $10 million a year. There has also been a continuing effort, following criticism from the National Organization for Women in the late 1990s, to expand women's athletic programs.

According to federal documents, football carries much of the load for recouping these expenses.

In the 2001-02 school year, for example, the team finished 6-6, including a trip to the Las Vegas Bowl, and cleared $6.9 million.

Basketball helped a little, making $800,000, but the other 17 teams operated at a combined loss of $11 million. In addition, the department was still paying off the buyout of fired football coach Paul Hackett and the $1-million hiring of Pete Carroll.

When these numbers were factored into the department's other revenues and expenses, the result was a $4-million deficit.

The following year, 2002-03, the Trojans finished 11-2, sold more tickets and won the Orange Bowl. The football team's $12.4-million profit helped push the department $12,000 into the black.

Football is "clearly an economic engine" at major universities, said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "There's such a potential for return on investment that you cannot do with men's baseball or women's crew."

At USC, the finances for last season, including a multimillion-dollar Rose Bowl payout, will not be available until next month but should be just as favorable, officials said.

In the meantime, season-ticket sales have risen from 29,000 to 36,000, matching a high-water mark from the late 1980s when Rodney Peete was quarterback and the team went to three consecutive Rose Bowls.

Officials also have pushed to enlist 1,000 new members in booster clubs. Steve Lopes, a senior associate athletic director in charge of financial affairs, said: "When it's good, you go after it."

Some fans complain that the department has pushed too hard.

In return for donations, booster club members get priority at football games, which means that nonmembers face a choice: Join up or risk being shifted to less desirable seats.

That's what happened to David Eggenschwiler, a professor emeritus and season-ticket holder who, over 26 years, had watched his seats improve steadily until they were near midfield.

When Eggenschwiler declined to join a booster club in the spring, he found himself back on the 25-yard line and higher than when he started.

"I was there for the team during the '90s when we weren't No. 1 and I paid every raise in ticket prices," he said. "They talk about the Trojan family blah-blah-blah. What it comes down to is they can make more money off my seats."

Officials said they could not be sure how many season-ticket holders were displaced by new donors. The number of complaints "hasn't been overwhelming," said Ron Orr, an associate athletic director. "We tried to explain to them about our situation."

In business terms, the disparity between season-ticket holders and booster club members is significant.

A season ticket costs $260. The least expensive club that offers priority seating -- "freshman" Cardinal & Gold for someone 30 or under -- costs $1,250 a year, giving the member an option to buy four season tickets.

The most expensive membership, the Scholarship Club, runs $25,000 a year.

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