An artist’s illustration of the new University of Oregon baseball stadium, currently under construction in Eugene.

Can Baseball Make Cents?

EUGENE — When Pat Kilkenny announced the resurrection of University of Oregon baseball in July, it came with a promise: that Oregon wouldn't use athletic-department funds to do it. Kilkenny and other baseball backers would have to support the team by themselves.

Skeptics question whether the Ducks can fulfill their promise, especially considering some repeat national champions have failed to break even.

Since 2002, Oregon has become one of only a handful of athletic departments across the nation to be self-sufficient, meaning it operates entirely without funding from the university's general fund. Baseball is slated to become another piece of the sustainability puzzle, according to Oregon officials.

University officials want to make sure the department stays that way.

Despite winning back-to-back national championships, Oregon State University has been unable to create a sustainable program in baseball. The Beavers lost nearly $1 million when they won their second title in the spring of 2007. Other universities have had trouble turning a profit in baseball as well, including Louisiana State University, one of the sports' perennial attendance leaders.

Contrary to evidence suggesting college baseball teams can't be profitable, the Duck athletics administration insists it can create a self-sufficient program by partnering with a marketing company to put Oregon baseball on TV and on the radio, as well as a contract to rent out the new stadium to the Eugene Emeralds minor league team.

IMG Worldwide Inc., one of the largest sports marketing firms in the world, is working to sell naming rights to the new baseball stadium for $2.5 million. The agreement is part of a larger, $67.5 million contract between the athletic department and IMG.

Associate Athletic Director Renee Baumgartner said Oregon is making progress in its efforts to have Duck baseball generate money, and at the very least, balance its own budget.

"The schools across the country that break even or make money have a variety of things going on," Baumgartner said. "We're feeling like the pieces of the puzzle are fitting together nicely. But we've still got a ways to go."

Oregon is in the development stage of what officials say will be one of the best stadiums in the nation. The contract with the Emeralds is expected to net Oregon a couple hundred thousand dollars, Baumgartner added. The exact amount Oregon will receive from the contract is uncertain because the deal has not been finalized.

In their efforts to develop design concepts for the new stadium, Oregon officials visited 15 schools across the country. One of those schools was Mississippi State University, which comes close to breaking even almost every year that the team has a winning season, said head coach Ron Polk.

"They came to see us, they saw our facilities," Polk said. "I met the AD. If Oregon's doing it to make money — I don't know."

Mississippi State has 5,500 season ticket holders who pay $130 apiece for their yearly package. He said gate revenue, parking and concessions cover about 80 percent of the baseball program's budget.

The school also has 18 sky suites, which run $14,000 a box for the season.

"It's very difficult to break even and make money," Polk said. "LSU at one time, when they were winning title after title, was making money. But not too many schools are. If we have a good season we have a chance of breaking even."

Mark Ewing, an assistant athletic director at LSU who manages the athletics budget, said the sport used to be more profitable for the Tigers. Recently, he said, as coaches' salaries climb, it hasn't been as easy.

The Tigers' coach, Paul Mainieri, makes $450,000 a year. Reports say that Oregon coach George Horton's base salary will pay him in excess of $400,000.

"A few years ago you were paying $180,000 for a baseball coach, now it's $400,000 or $500,000," Ewing said. "Just the cost of transportation and coaches' salary makes it so we can only break even."

In 2006, according to financial reports, the LSU baseball team brought in slightly more than $6,000. A year later, the Tigers lost almost $8,000.

Alex Box Stadium, the 7,500-capacity venue the Tigers call home, seats 50 percent more fans than the still-unnamed Oregon Ducks stadium is scheduled to hold, which reports say will be 5,000.

"We bring in about $1.8 million and spend about $1.8 million," Ewing said. "And we sell out pretty much all our tickets."

In fact, not a single Pacific-10 Conference school was able to turn a profit in baseball during 2007.

Even after winning their second national championship, the Beavers found themselves $800,000 in the red, according to Hank Hager, an assistant communications director at Oregon State.

"I just think it's a different model," Baumgartner said of Oregon State's inability to generate revenue. "They don't have sky suites. They aren't going to have 4,000 seats. The culture we are going to develop will, hopefully, entice people to come back."

But UO, located 45 miles away from Oregon State, will face the same challenge of attracting fans in baseball's rainy early months. And records show that even outstanding teams in sunny climates struggle to fill their stadiums.

Polk said Mississippi State averages about 6,000 fans a game throughout the season. He said that number is inflated during weekend games and contests against other SEC schools but lags in the beginning of the schedule before ideal baseball weather arrives.

He added that his program benefits from a lack of competition, something Oregon will have to deal with. The Beaver baseball team is just a short drive away and the Seattle Mariners are less than a half day's drive from Eugene.

"They have a lot of distractions on the West Coast with pro sports and everything else," Polk said. "We don't have any pro sports here. There's a double-A team in Jackson."

The Arizona State Sun Devils, located in Tempe, Ariz., were among the Pac-10 schools that lost money last season. The program has consistently been among the nation's best, even beginning 2008 as college baseball's top-ranked team.

"We've never made money in baseball," said Randy Policar, Arizona State's assistant director of baseball and football. "Short of charging outrageous amounts for tickets, you can't make money."

In the Oregon athletic department's efforts to fulfill its promise to President Dave Frohnmayer that baseball will support itself, Baumgartner says that in addition to renting out the stadium, Oregon plans on selling naming rights to the complex and some of its other entities.

A nameplate inside the home locker room can be had for $1,000. Stadium bricks can be purchased for $250 to $1,000.

Rights for the entire baseball park are being advertised at $5 million.

At least 50 lifetime seats have been purchased at $12,500 apiece.

Baumgartner added that she knows the sport can't be self-sufficient on the strength of gate revenue and concessions alone and additional fundraising is necessary.

"We've gotten hundred thousand-dollar gifts, $50,000 and $25,000 on down," she said. "If you add it all up, we will break even."

Baumgartner cited Mississippi State's Left Field Lounge, a section just beyond the outfield fence where the school sells parking spots for fans to watch the game and tailgate, as one of the alternatives a school has found to generate revenue.

She attributes a lot of Mississippi State's success to the culture established around the program, something she said will be crucial to the success of Oregon's baseball team.

While officials from other universities expressed skepticism, none said it would be impossible for Oregon to make money, just difficult.

Polk said the sport as a whole will never join basketball and football as revenue generators because of its schedule.

"If the Seattle Mariners played once a week or every two weeks, I bet they'd fill the place and make all kinds of money," Polk said. "Playing everyday, you just can't compare it to football and basketball and the way they make money. If we have a good season we have a chance of breaking even."

Bob Albrecht is a journalism student at the University of Oregon. He served as an intern at the Mail Tribune last summer.

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