LAWRENCE — It was late last November and morale was waning. A football team was limping to the finish, and KU athletic director Sheahon Zenger was forced to embark on a pivotal and urgent mission.
The stakes were high. Time was short. And the wrong decision could cost his department millions on the balance sheet.
On the field, Zenger had watched his football program implode, leaving a sizable and smoking crater at the bottom of the Big 12 standings. It was just coach Turner Gill’s second season, but the Jayhawks were on their way to finishing 2-10 overall and 0-9 in the conference. For the second straight year, a football season in Lawrence had been scarred by blowout losses and woeful defense, and Zenger and his staff could begin to feel the pushback from a frustrated fan base.
Attendance was down nearly 17 percent from two seasons earlier, the last year of Mark Mangino, and all qualitative signs pointed to more squandered ticket revenue if Gill remained in his job.
“We were going to experience a significant hit,” Zenger said.
But firing Gill would also be costly. Former athletic director Lew Perkins had handed Gill a sweetheart deal — five years, $10 million, all guaranteed — and it left Zenger little wiggle room. If KU wanted to rid itself of Gill, it would need to pay Gill the remaining $6 million — just two years after it doled out $3 million to buy out Mangino.
So Zenger began the mission, seeking out donors and raising money. The price could be steep. But in the new world of college athletics, where budgets continue to rise and television money continues to pour in, the decision was already made. Kansas could not afford another disastrous campaign — on or off the field.
“The economics of the decision were quite stark,” said Dana Anderson, a KU booster whose donations sparked construction of the $31 million Anderson Family Football Complex, which was completed in July 2008.
Nearly seven months later, with new coach Charlie Weis at the helm, the football program appears to be slowly nursing back to health. According to associate athletic director Jim Marchiony, reserved season ticket sales are up nearly 4,500 over last year’s total. And that number, officials say, should increase during the school’s summer sales push.
For now, KU’s $6 million gamble is delivering the expected results. But it also underscores the athletic department’s urgency to win more football games — and squeeze more money from an inconsistent program.
As Zenger continues his second year at KU — and as football continues to hold sway in the ongoing college realignment landscape — much of the financial story in Lawrence remains the same. The Kansas football program is still a fragile resource with untapped potential.
“There is room for growth,” said Sean Lester, a senior associate athletic director. “Football is where the growth needs to come. I think that’s made very clear through this conference realignment; that football is what we need to have grow here at KU.”
In the final years of Perkins, the KU athletic department continued a nearly decade-long trend of expansion. According to records submitted to the NCAA, Kansas’ operating revenue increased from $63.6 million in 2005-06 to $74.9 million in 2010-11. Likewise, operating expenses grew from $47.9 million to nearly $72 million during the same period.
Aside from the growing pot of conference television money, the steady gains were buoyed by increases in men’s basketball and football ticket sales. On the heels of the widely documented ticket scandal that came to light in 2010, the men’s basketball program pushed past the $11 million mark in ticket revenue in 2009-10 and 2010-11, according to documents submitted to the NCAA. In addition, the football program rode the Orange Bowl victory in January 2008 to a nearly 40 percent increase in ticket revenue in 2008-09; the program averaged 50,907 fans for seven home games and raked in $9.5 million.
But the past two losing seasons threatened to drag the program back to the depths of the pre-Mangino era, when Memorial Stadium was often half full and the department’s facilities were badly in need of renovations.
According to the NCAA, KU averaged 42,283 fans last season. The revenue numbers for financial year 2011-12 have not been released yet, but the attendance figures match up with the 2005 season, when KU reported nearly $6.5 million in revenue.
In a rough analogy, Zenger compares increasing revenue to playing a guitar. There are only so many strings — and there are only so many ways to bring in money. The challenge, Zenger says, is playing the right chords at the right time.
“You can only play so many chords on a guitar so many times,” Zenger said, “And you go back to it, and you go back to it. And just like any personal budget, you hope to increase your revenue steadily over time.”
KU is set to receive $19 million from the Big 12 in conference revenue, a sizable increase stemming from the league’s new television rights deals. But Zenger will certainly be hoping that the combination of Weis and KU’s recent facilities investment will result in the perfect harmony at Memorial Stadium this fall. Because even with the increases during the past years, the Jayhawks still lag behind their historic rivals in generating football revenue.
During 2006 to 2010, KU averaged $15.7 million in total revenue from its football program. Meanwhile, rivals Missouri ($22.4 million) and Kansas State ($22.3 million) both comfortably exceeded that while reporting similar football expenses. In 2010-11, Kansas spent $13.1 million on the football program, while K-State spent $13 million and Missouri just a shade less than $15 million.
In the long-term, Zenger says KU is still exploring plans to invest in the football program.
In 2009, the athletic department unveiled plans for the Gridiron Club, 3,000-seat luxury club-level addition to the east side of the stadium that was priced at $34 million. The project fizzled amid the turmoil of Mangino’s controversial exit in 2010.
But Zenger says another Memorial Stadium project — the removal of the track — is still on the agenda. That would only come after KU completes a new track facility that would be capable of holding the KU relays.
In 2009, the department also released the results from a self-study that included tentative plans for an Olympic Village and new soccer complex southwest of Allen Fieldhouse.
Zenger said new facilities for track and field, soccer and softball are needed. But all ideas remain in the planning and fundraising stage. In addition, the track and field and football ideas are not necessarily connected — other than that one is needed for the other to occur.
“At some point,” Zenger said, “We will remove the track from that football stadium. In order to remove the track, we need to build a track. So they’re connected in that regard.”
On June 19, the Lawrence City Commission discussed plans for a city-run recreation center that would be integrated with a new KU “sports village” that would include facilities for track and soccer. The commission directed staff to continue with the project while moving ahead with a tenancy agreement with KU.
Earlier this month, Zenger did not mention specific plans, but did say that KU had employed architects to explore certain projects.
“We know what we want,” Zenger said. “We know what facilities we need. But then what do we want them to look like? What fits our needs?
“To use carpenter’s terms: We’re going to measure twice and cut once. And when we start talking about what we’re going to do, we’re going to be well down the path of knowing we can accomplish that.”
For now, the visions of new facilities can only be imagined in the abstract. And the same can be said about Weis’ football program. He’s certainly not the first football coach to come to Lawrence with inspiring rhetoric and grand plans. And the first game is still months away.
But if it’s true that people vote with their feet, the tickets and groundswell of enthusiasm around the football program have given Zenger a measure of gratification.
“It certainly beats the alternative,” Zenger said, “with what we might have been looking at.”