College Sports Gifts Outperform Economy as Givers Get Good Seat

College Sports Gifts Outperform Economy
University of Florida Gators' football fan and alumni Stumpy Harris takes a fleet of custom vehicles to each home game. He first bought Gators football season tickets in 1956 and now owns 14 of them around the 45-yard-line, plus a 30-person suite. Photographer: Jim Overmeyer via Bloomberg

Donations to the biggest college sports programs climbed as the U.S. economy faltered, with contributions rising 24 percent from the middle of 2006 to the middle of 2010.

The 54 public schools in the six most powerful sports conferences collected $998 million in fiscal 2010, up from $805 million in 2007, according to records from colleges in the Atlantic Coast, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern conferences. The increase came during a period when unemployment jumped to 9.5 percent from 4.6 percent and the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index fell 19.5 percent, to 1,030.71.

What sustained contribution levels were the gifts that schools require fans make to purchase, or hold on to, tickets for prime seats, according to fundraising executives. While one season ticket for University of Florida football games costs $259, a Gator fan who wants to sit in a premium seat near the 50-yard line would have to donate an additional $2,450.

“People are worried about paying their mortgage and car payment and covering the gas bill, and they are making cuts in other areas of their lives to hold onto their Gator tickets,” said Doug Brown, associate executive director of Gator Boosters Inc. “It’s surprising we’re doing as well as we are.”

Audited results for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2011, won’t be available until January. Fundraising executives said giving was basically flat for that period, which they view as a victory.

“For now, holding serve is a win,” Brown said.

Most Gifts

Stumpy Harris, 73, who founded the law firm Harris Harris Bauerle Sharma in Orlando, bought his first Gators football season tickets in 1956. He now owns 14 of them around the 45-yard-line, plus a 30-person suite. He gives an undisclosed sum to keep his seat placement, and said he would economize in other areas before he would give that up.

“The fall is the high social season,” said Harris, whose son Bruce proposed to his wife, Medea, at the stadium. “We’ll break bread with people we haven’t seen since last year.”

He said he keeps his original seats for sentimental reasons and because “there are certain games where you want to smell it,” which requires leaving the suite.

“I like to get down there and rub shoulders with everybody,” he said.

Florida is among the schools that received the most in gifts last year -- $39.4 million, up from $36.9 million in 2007. Contributions didn’t rise in fiscal 2011, Brown said. He said he can’t provide a total until the donations have been audited.

Hitting Wallets

Once boosters feel confident about the economy again, giving “will bounce back,” Brown said. “That confident feeling is different for each individual.”

The other schools in the top five that recorded the most in donations last year were the University of Oregon in Eugene at $73.8 million, up from $10.6 million in 2007; Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, at $51.9 million, a gain from $18.9 million; Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge at $38.3 million, up from $19.6 million; and the University of Texas in Austin at $37.1 million, compared with $27.2 million in 2007.

Oregon’s 2010 number was outsized because of a one-time gift of $41.7 million from Nike Inc. Chairman Phil Knight. Knight was a track athlete when he attended the university, graduating in 1959 with a bachelor’s degree in accounting.

Rob Mullens, the school’s athletic director, said the economy has “hit the wallets of everybody.” He said that while he can’t provide a total until the books are audited, donations were probably between $15 million and $20 million, basically flat from the previous year.

Energy Insulation

Mullens said demand still is high for tickets for key spots -- and the gifts required to reserve them -- in the 54,000-seat Autzen Stadium. The school said it has sold out 74 consecutive home football games for the Ducks, who lost the national championship last season on a last-second field goal to Auburn.

At Oklahoma State, many athletic department donors have profited from a run-up in the energy sector, said Larry Reece, senior director of major gifts. The S&P 500 Oil & Gas Exploration & Production Index has climbed 24 percent since the end of 2009, compared with a 16 percent gain in the broader index. Energy suppliers in the S&P 500 have earned $481.1 billion since 2006, more than last year’s gross domestic product of Argentina, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

“We are fortunate that we are a little insulated from the downturn,” Reece said. “We have a lot of donors who work in the energy sector, which is what drives the economy and seems to be getting through this better than most.”

Partisan Politics

Oklahoma State has received more than $600 million since 2003, including about $300 million from energy tycoon T. Boone Pickens, chairman of BP Capital LLC. In the previous 50 years, donations totaled $9 million.

The Cowboys kicked off a $115 million campaign to endow athletic scholarships in 2007 and the fund has grown to more than $50 million from $2.1 million, Reece said.

At Louisiana State, “people that give to athletics are extending their pledges from three years to five years because of the uncertainly with the economy,” said R.G. Richard, a retired Marine major general who manages the Tiger Athletic Foundation. “But we’ve seen no decrease in the sale of football tickets or donations for the tickets.”

Richard said partisan politics in Washington is hurting, not helping, the economy -- and that can hurt fundraising.

“I’m an independent,” he said, “and I’m ticked off at both parties, and the president too.”

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