For Utah boosters, Pac-12 membership comes at a cost
The launch site of one of the most ambitious fundraising efforts in the history of college athletics is the very reason this campaign will be challenging for the University of Utah.
Rice-Eccles Stadium is new enough, nice enough and big enough to rank low among athletic director Chris Hill's priorities. Nothing would drive excitement about the school's $150 million campaign like a football stadium expansion or renovation. Instead, the Utes are selling less glamorous and more nebulous products in their Invest in Excellence campaign, which formally began Saturday night with a donor event in the stadium tower.
"We have to educate our fans," Hill said, acknowledging his wish list is "not as tangible for people."
The reality is that the Pac-12 Conference's lucrative television contract helps but also heightens the competition. Everybody else is receiving and spending those millions of dollars and Utah's share is lower during a phase-in period until 2014-15.
"We can't give up on fundraising," Hill said. "If we give up on that, the gap's going to be bigger."
Utah hopes to capitalize on the enthusiasm surrounding their Pac-12 membership, coupled with the growing recognition of what competing in this league is like.
Employing a North Carolina-based consultant, the Utes are using a traditional approach to fund-raising: comparing themselves to the competition, with the league's smallest budget. A mailer to sport-by-sport season ticket-holders asks and answers, "Why do we need your help? The numbers don't lie."
So the Utes brought back the likes of former gymnast Missy Marlowe and football star Eric Weddle for Saturday's dinner, inviting the top 150 donors (those who contribute $12,500 or more annually) and other prospects to join in the fun and financing.
"Gymnastics has always been a little bit spoiled," Marlowe said, citing donor funding of facilities. "For every sport on campus, my hope would be that everyone gets to experience the level that gymnastics has gone to."
Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott was part of the pitch, testifying to what everybody else is doing around the league.
"There's an amazing amount of investing going on," Scott said. "The revenues coming from the conference do a lot, but if Utah wants to be competitive â¦ fans and the donor base have to step up, like is happening on other campuses, to support that vision."
As much as $70 million would go toward facilities, and the rest toward "excellence" meaning coaches, support personnel, recruiting and travel. The big issue is how much donors care about sports other than football, or whether the high interest in football is enough to spur contributions to the overall program.
Unlike a stadium, the facility improvements this campaign is targeting would never touch the average fan: a football complex, an academic center, a softball park, a basketball practice court, tennis courts, a pool and a soccer field.
"Utah richly deserves being part of this conference," Scott said, "based on their great history."
As for competing in the present and future, Pac-12 membership comes with a cost.