PULLMAN, Wash. – This is what a serious investment project looks like in major college football – a five-story, $61 million building that has a cafeteria staffed with two full-time chefs, a mini-barbershop in the locker room and a top level full of coaches’ offices overlooking the stadium below.
It didn’t exist in late 2011, when Washington State hired head coach Mike Leach to save its football program after five straight losing seasons. But since it opened in 2014, some returns have started coming in, with record sales in season football tickets (14,400) and a national ranking of 22nd in this week’s Amway Coaches Poll.
“This just arguably could have been one of the worst, if not the worst, football programs in major college,” WSU athletic director Bill Moos told USA TODAY Sports. “The (WSU) president at the time, Elson Floyd, had my back when I took the job (in 2010) – that we had to invest in facilities, hire and retain the very best coaches and recruit top talent. I convinced the president that we have to invest right now, or we’re going to get left in the dust.”
These investments are paying off in fundraising for the athletic department as well, having grown from less than $3 million in annual scholarship fund donations in 2011 to more than $7 million projected for the current fiscal year. But even as the Cougars (1-0) look to further boost their profile Saturday night on ESPN against Boise State, sustained success will become even more expensive, showing just how challenging life remains for lower-revenue programs in the Power 5 conferences.
The Cougars, led by senior quarterback Luke Falk, already are punching above their fighting weight in the Pac-12 Conference. Even though big television revenues from the Pac-12 have helped the Cougars make these investments in football, they still have the lowest athletics budget in the league – $58.8 million in revenues in 2015-16, compared to about $112 million for Oregon and $107 million for Washington.
Meanwhile, Moos said WSU has annual payments of more than $7 million to pay off the debt on the football complex and a $65 million renovation to boost premium seating at the football stadium.
That debt, in turn, has led to at least two major consequences:
- The athletic department said it owes its university $51.5 million after posting operating deficits for six straight years, according to NCAA financial records. Its athletics deficit of $12.9 million for 2016 ranked second only to Cal ($21.7 million) out of more than 200 Division I public schools in deficit size, according to data compiled by USA TODAY Sports.
- The debt has stretched the Cougars to capacity, meaning they can’t borrow more without coming up with new revenue sources.
And they are already looking for ways to pay for more facility upgrades to keep up with the competition and attract top talent, including an indoor practice facility for the football team and other sports projected to cost $28 million.
“Our facilities are pretty complete once we get a new indoor (facility),” said Leach, whose teams have finished 8-5 and 9-4 in 2016 and 2015 after going 12-25 in his first three seasons at WSU. “It doesn’t just help us. It helps other sports. So we’re not the only ones rooting for that deal.”
Battling the elements
A new indoor facility is considered necessary for competitive reasons and would replace WSU’s “bubble” indoor practice facility that opened in 2002 at a cost of about $10 million. Other schools in the Pac-12 have better indoor facilities to shield them from harsh weather in the fall, including Colorado, which opened a indoor practice facility last year.
This week, WSU’s practice bubble helped shield the team from unhealthy outdoor air conditions caused by nearby wildfires.
But in the long run, Moos said the turf in the bubble “I don’t think is real safe, and the lighting isn’t good.” A new facility also would help in recruiting, much like the five-story football complex in the stadium’s end zone.
“I think Mike (Leach) would rather practice out in the cold – and it was cold last December – than risk losing players in the bubble,” Moos said. “If we’re going to be in bowl games, hopefully in late December or early January, we’ve got to have a place to practice.”
To make it happen, Moos needs money. And they can’t borrow any more without coming up with more somehow. The question is where.
It doesn’t help that television revenues from the fledgling Pac-12 Networks have fallen short of expectations by several million dollars per year for each school after they failed to reach a distribution deal with DirecTV. Moos said he’s optimistic that situation will improve and notes that revenue source “wasn’t really on board yet” when WSU decided to move forward with its football investment.
More subsidies from student fees have been discussed but have faced opposition. In fiscal year 2016, WSU athletics got about $800,000 in help from student fees and $3.7 million direct support from the school’s general fund, according to NCAA financial forms.
Other possibilities include selling corporate naming rights to Martin Stadium, which currently is named after former Washington governor Clarence D. Martin. Moos said a third-party consultant was looking into it for WSU and is “testing the waters in regards to realistic interest.”
Besides that, tickets need to keep selling. More fundraising is necessary, too. And that means the football team needs to keep winning to boost all of it.
“We’re seeing a consistency and stability in our football program, which is essential to our overall athletic department,” Moos said.
That falls on Leach, who was paid about $3 million last year and is a specialist in equalizing his teams against better-resourced competition.
'Trying to be creative’
While other, richer programs might get bigger, faster recruits, Leach’s offense is built to neutralize such advantages by spacing out the field on offense and spreading the ball around to multiple players.
It’s worked. The Cougars have gone to two straight bowl games and last year opened 7-0 in Pac-12 play for the first time in history.
“We’re not really the highest recruited stars and all that,” said Falk, who joined WSU in 2013 as a non-scholarship player. “But when we come here, we have that common ground. I think that’s what brings us together.”
Signs show a program turning ripe. Besides the sparkling football facilities and a tight senior class led by Falk, the Cougars set a school record for season-ticket sales this year despite not having the prized Apple Cup game against Washington on the home schedule.
The Cougars are opening the season with five straight home games, ending with a big game on Sept. 29 against No. 4 Southern California, whose athletics revenues also dwarfs that of WSU’s last year, according to federal data.
This is Leach’s sixth year at WSU, and it looks to be his best team yet.
“Oh yeah, it is,” Leach said before the season.
Moos and his balance sheet certainly hope so. His athletic department plans to pay back its $51.5 million debt to the university when it becomes solvent. In addition to a new indoor practice facility, he’d also like to fund improvements to baseball and swimming facilities. Not keeping up could mean falling behind in recruiting, games and more revenue.
“We have to have the money, and we’re trying to be creative in that regard,” Moos said. “We no longer can bond any facilities because we pretty much hit our capacity with the premium seating and the football complex. We have to have the money or the pledges.”
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