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August 16, 2013

Flock Talk: Mission Accomplished

Last week, for the first, and possibly last time, the University of Oregon provided a guided tour of the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex as it is formally dubbed. Many simply refer to it as the football operations center. The tour took a little over two hours with Jeff Hawkins, Senior Associate Athletic Director for Football Administration and Operations, leading the tour.

Along the way Hawkins touched on the many influences behind not only the original concept but each individual detail. There is not a single detail that was not heavily considered prior to its inclusion. From the glass facade designed to help reduce the energy use of the building, to the murals in the parking garage and everything in between, this Taj Mahal of football facilities was thought out in immaculate detail.

Some of those details, though, have drawn the ire of outsiders and even insiders, with what they describe as opulence. Yes, there is Italian carera tile in the showers. Yes, the floors of the 25,000 square foot weight room are made of a special Brazilian hardwood. There are plenty of other fine details that are more expensive than the simpler materials might cost. But is that really the point? Is the only argument available to people that it cost too much? If so, there is a lot missing from the argument.

This week, Duck Sports Authority continues our two part look at the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex. After discussing the need behind the building, we look now to the economic impact of athletic success on the university as a whole.

Along with the excitement fans have experienced by the glowing reviews of the new football operations center, there have been some less than savory reviews focusing on the cost as well as what some deem as the derivation from the mission of the university.

ECONOMIC IMPACT

Football has a definitive economic impact. There has never been a question. The exact amount of the impact of Oregon's football program can be debated, but, generally speaking the Oregon football program creates a huge boon to the local economy. Some have suggested a number as high as $250 million per year that is generated in Lane County thanks to the Oregon football program. No other discipline at the University of Oregon can boast such a claim.

Would that number be the same were Oregon to be good but not great? It is difficult to quantify definitively what the impact of having a perennially "good" team, let alone define exactly what constitutes the term good. Nonetheless, let us take a look to the other Pac-12 school located in the state of Oregon.

Last season could be defined as one of those "good but not great" seasons for Oregon State. With just one BCS bowl appearance while maintaining a good team every season, the Beavers should be a comparable concept. (And, I imagine, for those detractors to the facilities built for the Oregon athletic department, a more moderate example of their point.)

Last season Oregon State, with a listed capacity of 45,674 at Reser Stadium, the Beavers averaged 43,339 fans per game. That is an average capacity of 94.9 percent.

The Ducks, meanwhile, with a listed capacity of 54,000 fans averaged 57,490 for an average capacity of 106.4 percent. Now, think if the Ducks averaged the same capacity as Oregon State. That would equate to an average attendance of just 51,246 fans. Over the course of a seven game home schedule, that is a total of 43,708 fans. At the average ticket price of $69.42 for the 2012 season, that is a hit of over $3 million; and that is just one season. Multiply it out by 10 years and, suddenly, good but not great equates to $30 million in lost ticket revenue. Throw in ancillary expenses such as concessions and sales at the Duck Shop and suddenly the university would have lost tens of millions of dollars, all for the sake of moderation.

We could go on talking about the effect, economically speaking, of this lack of success by pointing out even more statistics about the numbers of people who would lose their job; the lost revenue to the county that comes from travel expenses of fans, etc., but, the point stands strong, good but not great costs the athletic department money.

What comes with that lost revenue? General funds paying for football.

ATHLETICS VERSUS ACADEMICS

Frequently, the next bullet point in the standard anti-facilities debate is why the money is not being spent equally on academics. Conveniently, for the sake of these arguments, the $41 million that was spent for the Lillis Business Complex (opened in 2003) or the Knight Library which cost over $27 million in 1991 ($10 million of which was privately funded) are ignored.

The list goes on with the Knight Law Center, completed in 1999 at a cost of $27 million and considered, at the time, the most technologically advanced law school in the nation. Also ignored in these arguments is the most recent renovation project to be approved, the $44 million renovation of Straub Hall.

Clearly the academic side of the University of Oregon is receiving plenty of attention. Is every department on pace with the football program? Of course not. Nor should they be expected to keep that pace.

There is a further economic impact, though, of the football program. That impact directly affects the University of Oregon in the most positive manner possible; student enrollment.

Nationwide student enrollment at all universities has gone up steadily over the past 10 years. The University of Oregon, though, has outpaced the national average increase by nearly 8% between the fall of 2001 and Spring 2012 enrollment.

When comparing the numbers of additional students with the average in-state and out of state rates, this additional enrollment above what should be expected based on national averages has generated an extra $25 million per year for the University of Oregon.

Can all of this be attributed solely to football success? Maybe not. Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests that athletics success has a definite impact on applications for admission.

While touring the new Hatfield-Dowlin Complex, Duck Sports Authority took a few moments to discuss the economics of athletics with Craig Pintens. During this conversation, Pintens relayed information that truly sheds some light on the thought.

According to Roger Thompson, Vice President for Enrollment Management, there have been clusters of applicants from all across the nation, including one pocket in Pennsylvania which the university has never marketed.

Thompson concludes that athletics, and the exposure the football team receives on television, is the best explanation for receiving applications from such a vast array of regions within the United States.

So, overall enrollment at Oregon outpaces the national average; the university is receiving applications from non-athletes all across the nation; and the university has seen a large amount of campus renovation outside of athletics over the past twenty plus years.

The difference is that the Lillis Business Complex does not host an event that draws millions of people to watch on television. As such, few people think about the improvements that have been made because they do not receive the attention from ESPN, the New York Times, MSNBC and every other media outlet whose interest was piqued by this new athletics complex.

How many of these critics will be writing stories about the cost of the Straub Hall improvements? Even if they did reach absurd levels of opulence, little would be made of it because it does not generate interest.

MISSION VERSUS ATHLETICS

This was not originally a part of this story, but, reading some more criticism today, it seemed appropriate as many critics want to question how the athletic department even ties into the mission of the university.

The portion of the statement that really caught my eye was this:


a dedication to the principles of equality of opportunity and freedom from unfair discrimination for all members of the university community and an acceptance of true diversity as an affirmation of individual identity within a welcoming community


This is one part of the mission that seems applicable to athletics. Athletics provides a diversity on the University of Oregon campus that would not otherwise exist, both culturally and academically.

More importantly, athletics offers the opportunity for several hundred young men and women to receive an education. While there may always be lingering questions about just how much education the athletes receive, the reality is that these young men and women are given an education that they might not otherwise be able to afford.

This ties further into the mission statement which states that the university has "a commitment to undergraduate education, with a goal of helping the individual learn to question critically, think logically, communicate clearly, act creatively, and live ethically."

How better to accomplish this part of the mission than to provide an education to those who otherwise would not learn such skills and techniques?

CONCLUSION

This is not meant to criticize the questions being asked. In my opinion, the questions have validity. There should be debate about the place that athletics serve on a college campus. Unfortunately, these discussions are so tainted by disillusionment that they are frequently unproductive justifications for political rants.

Life is more than sports; but it is also more than books. The Oregon mission statement speaks directly to intellectual health. That entails more than simple intellectual knowledge, it requires a symbiotic relationship between mind and body. A healthy intellect accompanied by an unhealthy body, is an unhealthy person. Just as an unhealthy mind accompanied by a healthy body is also an unhealthy person.

Through athletics, the entire university community can learn diversity in a way never imagined.

Phil and Penny Knight gave the university an amazing gift. It is not, however, their largest gift. It should be noted that the two largest gifts made by the states wealthiest resident have two things in common:

1) Neither was to the University of Oregon and,
2) Neither was for athletics.

Their two largest gifts were for academics with a $105 million to Stanford for their business school and $125 million to OHSU for a cancer research facility. In all the criticisms, these two donations are mostly ignored because they do not fit the framework of their argument.

Were there some extravagances in the building of the new football complex? Absolutely.

But, as Mike Jorgensen, former Oregon quarterback and current broadcaster said "these guys deserve this building. They've earned it."


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