The news broke on a Friday, and not just any Friday – the second Friday of March, with the Pac-12 tournament unfolding and Selection Sunday looming and the footprint’s attention scattered every which way.
But that doesn’t diminish the significance of the news for its source, Washington State, or the lessons available for other campuses. For their presidents, their faculty, their chief financial officers and all other stakeholders.
The Cougars unveiled a sponsorship agreement with Gesa Credit Union that gives the company naming rights to the field at Martin Stadium in exchange for $11 million over 10 years (and other benefits).
The Gesa logo will be on the turf in time for the season opener, Sept. 4 against Utah State.
“To have the revenue certainty over the next 10 years is important to Washington State and does provide a little flexibility once we’re up and running,” athletic director Pat Chun said during the news conference.
We’ll address the “revenue certainty” momentarily, but there are other reasons the partnership feels significant for the Cougars.
— The compounding effect
Gesa is the second-largest credit union in the state of Washington. It employs 400 people and generates $150 million in annual sales, and it sees value in a partnership with WSU athletics.
Specifically, with the WSU football program.
The partnership could “inspire others” to align with the Cougars, as president Kirk Schulz said.
Because the deal lacks an exclusivity clause, the university could sell naming rights to Martin Stadium itself, or to Beasley Coliseum. Or to any other building on campus.
Purists within the WSU fan base might recoil at the prospect of seeing “Martin Stadium Presented by Amazon” or, simply, “Amazon Stadium.” But it’s the future, folks.
There are few untapped revenue streams available for college athletic departments, and stadiums are high-value assets as the site of massive community gatherings and the object of TV cameras.
Across the state, in fact, there’s Alaska Airlines Field at Husky Stadium.
USC plays on United Airlines Field at the Los Angeles Coliseum, perhaps the most venerable stadium in American sports.
Thus far, no Pac-12 school has renamed the stadium itself, as Colorado State did a few years ago when it sold naming rights to Public Service Credit Union for $38 million over 15 years.
That’s right: The company was willing to pay more than $2 million annually for a Mountain West stadium in Fort Collins.
It’s only a matter of time before one of the Pac-12 schools gets an offer it cannot refuse.
Given this development, WSU just might be the first.
— The cross-campus connection
The deal comes during a fraught time on WSU’s campus, and not just because of the pandemic.
The administration is considering a $2 million to $3 million annual subsidy that athletics could use to cover operational expenses.
The faculty has pushed back, arguing there’s no data to suggest winning can benefit the university writ large.
Now along comes Gesa, seeking to partner with WSU — and willing to pay $11 million for the privilege — precisely because of the football program.
Make no mistake: Washington’s State pre-pandemic success made this deal happen.
The Cougars won at least eight games for four consecutive years and went to bowl games for five consecutive seasons. They compete for the division title, were ranked in the top 25, brought ESPN’s “GameDay” to Pullman and produced a star (Gardner Minshew).
They have tens of thousands of alumni throughout the state, many with a deep affinity for Cougar football.
Gesa recognized the value of a partnership and was instantly rewarded. Within 90 minutes of the announcement, the company’s website had received 10,000 views (per WSU).
You know who understands the impact football can have on the campus? Schulz, who arrived in Pullman five years ago from Kansas State. And he’s not alone among Pac-12 power brokers.
Last month, Oregon State president F. King Alexander masterfully explained why investing in football facilities — even during a pandemic — could bring value to the campus experience for all students.
The conference needs its presidents and faculty members to recognize the connection, to understand that football success can benefit the university at large.
And that football success requires football investment.
— The value of the dollars
The sponsorship agreement with Gesa includes immediate relief for the debt-strapped Cougars, in the form of a $1 million signing bonus.
But the $1.1 million annual payment will be no less impactful in the post-pandemic world.
WSU generates an average of $1.3 million in ticket sales for each home game, so the revenue from Gesa is essentially an extra date at Martin Stadium every fall.
That’s not a game-changer for an athletic department carrying about $100 million in accumulated debt from a series of facility upgrades over many years.
But that $1.1 million is real cash for annual operations.
It’s triple the football team’s annual recruiting budget.
It’s almost enough to cover the football team’s travel expenses for an entire season.
It comes close to paying the annual salaries of both offensive coordinator Brian Smith and defensive coordinator Jake Dickert.
It covers more than 50% of the annual travel expenses for all of Washington State’s Olympic sports teams.
It’s more enough to cover the annual salaries for the women’s basketball coaches, who might be due for a raise — or at least a bonus — after leading the Cougars to their first NCAA tournament in 30 years.
And that $1.1 million annually is enough to cover all the training-table meals for every Washington State athlete on every Washington State team for an entire year … with $200,000 left over.
Winning football matters, for everyone.