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WSU-Oregon at Qwest Field: Ducks' perspective on the proposal

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The Qwest Field proposal was obviously a no-brainer for WSU. Given the current financial state of the athletic department and the amount of revenue a normal home game generates, the money to be made at Qwest makes the decision simple.

The proposal isn't just about WSU, though. An agreement that takes away home games from both the Cougs and Ducks requires a mutual agreement. It's important to examine the Oregon side, a side that will ultimately decide whether this idea sinks or swims.

The biggest factor for Oregon, like WSU, will be money. The sentiment that Oregon doesn't need alternative sources of revenue has been overplayed many places. Oregon, like every other school out there, could use a bump in money. The Ducks have bonds on Matt Court to pay off, and plans to build an addition to Autzen Stadium for football offices. State budgets everywhere are in trouble and athletic departments are seeing the effects right now. While Oregon's athletic department operates at a higher volume and is in better shape than most, they can still use additional revenue if a deal is favorable for them.

To examine the pros and cons of the deal, it is first necessary to look at the current situation. A game at Autzen Stadium generates crowds upwards of 58,000, bringing in a high amount of revenue with a loud home field advantage to boot. It is not a fun place for opposing teams to play.

The latest revenue numbers come from the 2008-2009 season. Using the ticket revenue for the athletic department, we can find low and high end numbers for the football team. In that year, Oregon pulled in $17,153,036, dwarfing the just over $6 million that WSU pulled in. Oregon held their standard six home games that year.

For the high end number, I assumed all of the ticket revenues came from football, working out to $2,858,839. For the low-end number, I used 2/3 of the total revenue. This worked out to $1,886,833 per game. The true number probably lies somewhere between the two. In fact, it's fairly safe to say that a game at Autzen generates at least $2 million dollars.

For this deal to be even worth listening to for Oregon, a game at Qwest Field would have to at least break even over a two year cycle. A traditional home and home cycle includes one home game gate, plus $200,000 for an away game.

Here's where my knowledge of Seattle games comes into play. It's easy to say that taking a game out of Autzen and putting it into Seattle means that $2+ million dollars that would've been gained at Autzen is lost. Is it, though? Oregon sells the vast majority of their tickets at Autzen in the form of season tickets, with upwards 45,000 sold per year. From my experience at WSU, losing a home game to Qwest Field doesn't drop the prices of season tickets. In fact, once season ticket prices are raised, it's rare for them to be lowered substantially (Apple Cup years typically cause fluctuation).

Essentially, WSU double-dips with the Qwest Field game. Season ticket holders continue paying for Martin Stadium games while WSU also charges for games at Qwest field. Would Oregon do the same? It's possible. Although it may not sit well with the fans, adding a home game against a smaller school in the non-conference slate and moving the WSU conference game to Qwest may allow the Ducks to increase the bottom line. It's not a popular move, but it also isn't an uncommon one.

Although money is the biggest factor in all of this, moving the series to Seattle does have some fringe benefits. Recruiting would seem to be one of them on the surface, but probably isn't as much as we'd like to think. Chip Kelly and the Ducks have recently taken a national approach to recruiting. A look at their roster shows groups from Texas, Hawaii, California, and everywhere in between. In fact, Oregon only has four athletes from the state of Washington on their roster currently. While we do have some highly touted prospects in the state and a growing football presence nationally, recruiting may not be as big a factor in this decision.

Another reason for an off-site game, as we learned with WSU, is reaching out to alumni outside of the typical footprint. Oregon does have a presence in Western Washington, although not as big as in Portland, and moving a game to Seattle would allow them to make an event out of it. Fund raising for the university and the athletic department could be built into the week leading up to the game itself, creating an opportunity to connect with alums in Washington.

On the flip side of this, the businesses in Eugene count on games at Autzen to balance their own books. On an given weekend with a home game, 58,000 people, many of whom love traveling to Eugene, are staying in hotels, dining at local restaurants, and spending their money at local establishments. The local economy will not want to see any home games taken away from the Ducks. Eugene, like Pullman, is a college town that feeds off the university that resides in it.

Finally, Oregon would avoid having to travel to Pullman every other year. Yes, they would be traveling to Seattle twice in a year (once for UW, once for a Qwest game), but the Ducks would avoid a trip to Pullman nonetheless. A trip to Seattle is a little more than half the distance, and a lot easier of a bus ride to make, than a trip to the East side of the state. Again, travel may be a negligible difference.

After finishing this piece, I passed it on to two writers for some critiques and an opinion that wasn't in the Washington State mold.

I asked Matt Daddy, a writer for Addicted to Quack, to drop some knowledge on me regarding the athletic department and whether this deal would be worth it for Oregon.

1. Money

You're going to have to do more than break even in this scenario for Oregon to be enticed to jump at this deal considering Oregon is being the one courted here.  That means Oregon is going to need a guarantee of approximately $1.5MM to $2MM per year to come close to being interested in trying to cover for their bi-annual $2-3MM they already make.  For Oregon to get a guaranteed $2MM each year out of playing at Qwest, I think that WSU would have to give up equal revenue sharing, which when UW offered that WSU pulled out... and that situation made a lot more sense than WSU/UO.  Also, I could see Oregon pulling the "you're paying the same for season tickets, but getting less games" thing if the economy was better, but I think the last thing Lariviere and the new AD want to risk doing now is pissing off their most loyal supporters and biting the hand that feeds.

Finally, and this was my whole argument against going to 16 teams in the conference, Oregon doesn't need money.  Matt Court has a $150MM fund that will contribute to paying the interest on the bonds associated with it.  The new Autzen expansion has another $30MM from Knight backing it.  Oregon's deficit with a crap TV contract this year was approximately $600k.  Plus, every school is looking at nearly a doubling of their annual TV money coming down the pike in 2 years (thanks Larry Scott).  Why give up an Oregon home game, an Autzen Stadium advantage and risk alienating fan, supporters and local businesses for what??? an extra $1MM maybe (a 6% annual increase if all things go right)?  That's a high risk, low reward scenario, and not something I think Oregon needs to take on.

2. Recruiting

I actually like the idea of having another game in Seattle to attract recruits, but what if WSU starts to turn things around (thanks Moos) and starts to pull more recruits out of Seattle and gets better?  Then Oregon has essentially helped turn a team and a game that was helpful to their schedule, ranking and standings into a game that ends up possibly hurting them.  Plus, as you mentioned Oregon is going more national with recruiting so I think this helps WSU again way more than Oregon.

The other fringe benefits (travel and alumni) are negligible considering Oregon is already going to have a lot on their plate with the changes coming due to expansion.  Personally, I think expansion was the worse case scenario for trying to get this game (more revenue, new alumni areas, new recruiting grounds, etc) that adding this piece in now seems like adding peanuts to an already awesome sundae.  Sure it might be better, but then again you might end up allergic to nuts and now you're screwed.
He brings up very good points, some of which I hadn't thought of. In regards to expansion, he's right. The influx of money we all should be receiving makes this deal less attractive than it was 6 months ago. The analogy he makes in the end is also incredibly awesome.

jtlight, a writer and editor for Addicted to Quack, has also been active in discussions about a Qwest Field proposal from the beginning. He looks more at what the value of a home game is and whether the advantages of playing at Qwest Field really are advantages for the Ducks.
Anyway, one note on the season tickets. Cougar fans seem to be assuming that season ticket prices would continue their increase if a game were to be moved to Seattle. I actually don't think this would happen. Season tickets are basically sold for face value on each ticket. That's the price of the season ticket. On top of that, each season ticket holder must make contributions to the athletic fund. Prices per ticket will annually increase, but season ticket prices seem to jump every other year, based on the 7th home game every other year. This is clear when you look at the financial reports from 2007 to 2008. Oregon actually made more in 2007 in ticket sales, which I think we can safely assume was due to the extra home game (oddly, contributions fell from 2007 to 2008 as well). 

You're basically saying that Oregon could screw their fans. While they may be able to do that, there are enough older fans that have been turned off by ticket and donation increases, I just don't see them doing that. I think the 6-game, 7-game alternation has given a pretty clear indication on what Oregon would do with ticket prices over a whole season. 

Really, this all comes down to numbers. I just don't see any of these other aspects of advantages, but as disadvantages that the money must overcome significantly. I don't see having a game in Seattle being a recruiting advantage for Oregon. Why do we want to have a game as Qwest when we could host recruits in Eugene, which is our real recruiting strength. And while Oregon does have a strong fanbase in Seattle, it's nowhere near the size of UW or WSU, which would inevitably lead to more pro-WSU crowds at the game. As far as avoiding Pullman, we played there 5 out of 6 years so that we wouldn't have to miss the NW schools earlier in the 2000s. I don't think that getting out of Pullman is any sort of priority.

But even if the money is better, which it very well could be, I don't see this happening. It doesn't benefit Oregon in any significant way (outside of money), and I don't see them giving up an Autzen game for money that at this point would be a luxury more than a necessity.
An added bonus of asking both of them for opinions is that they chose different angles to come at this with. After talking to them, and spending way too much time thinking this out, I'm inclined to buy what both jtlight and Matt Daddy are selling.

In any situation where a mutual agreement must be made, both sides need to make sacrifices and the benefits for both sides should be near equal. The scales in this deal are tipped greatly in favor of WSU. There's no question in my mind that we need this more than Oregon does. WSU has more of an alumni presence and recruiting need in Western Washington than Oregon, making the fringe benefits more enticing for the Cougs than the Ducks.

Even if we could hit the high end number as a guarantee for a Qwest game, I don't know that the deal would be favorable for Oregon. They already have a 60,000 seat stadium on campus with many of the amenities that a pro stadium brings to the table. In the end, I can completely understand Oregon deciding to walk away from this.