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CROWE'S NEST

USC football finds way to turn an extra buck

September 25, 2006|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

You would think that after winning two national titles in three seasons, reaching the bowl championship series title game in the other, adding two Heisman trophies to its case and drawing capacity crowds to the Coliseum, USC had wrung all it could wring out of Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart and their poll-topping teammates.

Think again.

Check out usctrojans.com, the Trojans' official website, where fans can enter into the bidding for game-worn jerseys used during the Bush-Leinart era.

In the latest example of its effort to cash in on the enormous popularity of Coach Pete Carroll's high-flying football program, USC has joined a growing number of schools, among them UCLA, in diving headlong into the sports collectibles business by auctioning apparel worn by its athletes during games.

As of Sunday, the bidding for a white No. 5 jersey worn by Bush in road games had reached $3,550 as today's 2 p.m. bid deadline approached.

Other jerseys worn by last year's Heisman Trophy winner, as well as jerseys worn by Leinart, LenDale White and Dwayne Jarrett and others, will be auctioned this fall, said Jose Eskenazi, associate athletic director.

USC, which plows the money back into the athletic department, already has pocketed $1,050 for a jersey worn by All-American receiver Mike Williams during its title-winning 2003 season and $1,150 for a jersey worn by former backup John David Booty, now the Trojans' starting quarterback.

Last fall, the ball carried into the end zone by Leinart for the winning touchdown at Notre Dame was auctioned off by USC for $15,000.

For fans, of course, these are impossible-to-duplicate keepsakes, a chance to pick up authentic equipment that might even include blood or grass stains.

Jim Zilka of Lake Forest, Ill., shelled out $700 for a No. 80 jersey worn last season by his son, John, a walk-on receiver.

"We just went for it," said Zilka, who guessed that the bidding spiked because the same number was worn by former USC receiver Johnnie Morton. "I did it more to put money back into the program because Coach Carroll gave my son a scholarship his senior year and that was a big surprise, very unexpected.

"It was a small way for me to say thanks."

And so what if the Trojans are cashing in on their success?

"You can't blame them for that," Zilka said.

Others, though, find it unseemly that schools would further profit from the star power of athletes who already have swollen their coffers -- without compensation to the athletes, of course. NCAA rules do not allow players to share in the proceeds from memorabilia sales, even if they've exhausted their eligibility.

"When you start going past promoting the team and selling individual players' merchandise, it feels like it's crossing the line into exploitation," said George Gardner, director of strategic communication at the Northeastern University Center for the Study of Sport in Society. "There are no specific rules about this, but the NCAA certainly has guidelines discouraging schools from exploiting athletes. These student-athletes, the schools benefit quite a bit from their presence.

"Let's draw the line."

Notre Dame wrestled with its decision to enter this realm, a spokesman said, before contracting this summer with a New York collectibles company that also hawks equipment used by the New York Yankees. In years past, the school sold off its soiled duds informally -- from a tent set up outside Notre Dame Stadium.

"I think these are tough questions that everybody deals with," said John Heisler, senior associate athletic director. "I guess all of us, especially if you have visible, well-known players, you have to decide if you really want to do this or not. I'm not sure there's a right or wrong answer.

"Fans are looking for all kinds of things today, and even when you don't sell these things yourself, you see a lot of black-market stuff out there. All of us, institutionally, have to decide, what is our philosophy going to be?"

In terms of sheer numbers, USC's Eskenazi said, nobody has jumped in like the Trojans, who plan to eventually auction off about 250 game-worn jerseys. If they can fetch an average of $500 per jersey -- a realistic goal, Eskenazi said -- that would net them $125,000, enough to fund three scholarships and all of it profit because the jerseys were given to them by Nike as part of an apparel deal.

Typically, Eskenazi said, the Trojans use their jerseys until they're practically threadbare. But after Nike supplied them with new uniforms this season, they had a surplus of game-worn jerseys still in good condition. The school started putting them up for auction, a few at a time, over the summer.

"Either we throw them away," Eskenazi said, "or use them for fund-raising."

And as USC has found, one man's trash is another man's collectible.

*

Jerry Crowe will use this space to catch up with former sports figures, do occasional Q&A stories and give readers a chance to say what's on their minds about the sports fan experience in Southern California. Concession lines too long? Food at the stadium deteriorating? Got an inside tip on the best way to enjoy a game at the ballpark? If you've got issues when you head out to watch games, let Jerry know at jerome.crowe@latimes.com.

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