Red Is the New Green for Eastern Washington's Money-Making Football Field

Eastern Washington University is finding that being in the red can be good for business.

The $975,000 red artificial football field installed by Sprinturf Inc. for the school, which stages its first home game of the season tomorrow, is saving the university $12,000 in field maintenance and 300,000 gallons of water annually.

Season-ticket sales have tripled, the university bookstore is on its fourth order of “Red is the New Green” T-shirts, and a webcam showing the construction of college football’s only red field received over 2 million hits, athletic director Bill Chaves said.

“The project has taken on a life of its own,” Chaves, 44, said in a telephone interview. “The red turf is going to make a significant difference at the box office, in marketing and in merchandising.”

The project was funded privately, led by a $500,000 donation from 27-year-old Tennessee Titans offensive tackle and Eastern Washington alumnus Michael Roos. The Cheney, Washington, school wants to use the local excitement to increase awareness for its non-athletic endeavors, similar to what Idaho’s Boise State University accomplished with a blue field 24 years ago.

“There is only so much state and federal money a school like that receives,” said Roos, a 2008 Pro Bowl selection. “Any extra income they can create, whether it’s for athletic programs or scholarships, is going to benefit the entire university in the long run.”

The stadium has also been renamed Roos Field. Wayne, Pennsylvania-based Sprinturf makes synthetic turf systems for athletic fields, playgrounds and landscaping.

A Ticket Seller

Eastern Washington sold 6,400 season tickets for the 2010 season, 3 1/2 times last year’s total, ticket manager Troy Kirby said. Single-game tickets went on sale Sept. 1 and the 3,000 available seats for the Eagles’ home opener against the University of Montana sold out in 23 minutes.

“I have the best advertising product there is,” Kirby, 34, said in a telephone interview. “I’ve had a lot of people go see the field in person and then say, ‘Wow, I want to buy season tickets.’”

Dale Kliest owns Fast Eddies, a bar in Spokane, Washington, 18 miles (29 kilometers) from Cheney. Kliest bought 40 season tickets for giveaways and other promotions.

“I would have bought Montana tickets regardless, but I bought season tickets because of the turf,” Kliest said in a phone interview. “There is a lot of buzz about it.”

Eastern Washington’s first batch of “Red is the New Green” T-shirts sold out online in less than a week.

“The red turf is providing us an opportunity to sell a new product line,” Bob Anderson, the bookstore’s director, said in a telephone interview. “It’s also going to help sell the basic sweatshirt by creating excitement that was not there before.”

New T-Shirt

For the home opener, the bookstore will release a new T- shirt -- “In Your Head On the Red” -- as well as travel mugs, flags, pennants, and a floor mat of red turf.

“Green turf would have made a nice surface to play on, but it would not have done much for marketing”, said Anderson, 60. “It would be hard to say, ‘Hey, we have new green.’”

Boise State installed blue Astroturf at Bronco Stadium in 1986, the first non-green playing surface in the sport.

“The notoriety and visibility we’ve received since putting in the blue turf has been remarkable,” Boise State Athletic Director Gene Bleymaier said in a telephone interview. “Over the years it has become our swoosh, our brand.”

Boise State made the brand official in 2009 by acquiring a trademark. Eastern Washington, whose school colors are red and white, is exploring a possible trademark and is already witnessing branding at work.

“When somebody says, ‘I watched a football game on the red turf,’ people are going to know that’s Eastern Washington,” Kirby said.

Blue Field

Boise State is “a great case study” of a school using football to raise the institution’s overall profile, said Paul Swangard, managing director of the University of Oregon’s sports marketing center.

“The blue turf is very much a part of that brand that they have developed,” Swangard said in a telephone interview. “Being unique will give Eastern Washington coverage that they would otherwise have to pay for.”

Eastern Washington is counting on its red field to similarly benefit the entire university, which enrolls 10,000 students. Tuition ranges from $13,980 for in-state students to $22,698 for out-of-staters, and the school offers 10 Master’s degrees and 55 graduate programs. Alumni include former New York Jets running back Jesse Chatman and Todd McFarlane, creator of the Spawn comic-book series.

‘Amazing Things’

“There are so many amazing things happening on our campus,” Chaves said. “If the turf is the linchpin that gets people here, that’s an exciting thing for us.”

The Boise State comparison ends with the two schools’ football teams. The Broncos are 1-0 and ranked No. 3 in the Associated Press Top 25; the Eagles play in a division below the top tier and were 8-4 in 2009, their last season on natural grass.

Eastern Washington lost 49-24 at the University of Nevada on Sept. 2 and beat Central Washington 35-32 in Seattle on Sept. 11. Swangard said the red turf was “creating some sizzle, but the steak has to be good, too.”

“You can gain awareness by doing something very unique, but if your product doesn’t meet expectations, it becomes a gimmick and that hurts your brand,” he said.

Coach Beau Baldwin said there’s hasn’t been any fallout from the field so far.

“I want our boys to feel that there are more eyes on us,” Baldwin, 37, said in a telephone interview. “I want them to feel that expectations are high, but added pressure? I don’t feel that.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Eben Novy-Williams in New York enovywilliam@bloomberg.net.

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