When Michael Kelly arrived in Tampa four years ago, the Wake Forest grad and avid college sports fan immediately began a search for a new collegiate team to follow.
He found it in South Florida.
Now it is Kelly's job to convince thousands of others in the Tampa Bay area USF should be their team too.
"I think people underestimate what we have up here, without question," said Kelly, USF's new associate athletic director for business development and marketing. "Because of the relative infancy of the school, I don't think people realize we really are playing with the big leagues now.
"In my two weeks here, I've given a few speeches and I tell them about the Sears Cup (USF finished 59th, first among Conference USA schools, in the national competition that awards overall athletic excellence) and the 10 teams that went to NCAA (tournament), and people are like, really?"
And therein lies his first challenge: product recognition.
Kelly, the 30-year-old who organized two of the area's biggest athletic events _ the NCAA Final Four and the Super Bowl _ is a central figure in USF's effort to revamp its marketing, raise public awareness and boost fund raising. Kelly views his role as two-fold.
"Part of my job is certainly to be able to get out there and help anyway possible to raise ticket sales, sponsorship dollars and to help in any way possible from a fund-raising standpoint," he said. "But it's also to push a more consistent message in terms of the overall success of our athletic department as a whole."
The "product" Kelly is selling is an athletic program that has won eight C-USA regular season titles, 20 tournament championships and has more than 75 NCAA appearances. Kelly said finding the right niche to market USF is crucial.
Records show USF ended the 1998-99 fiscal year with a $453,384 deficit. It then lost an additional $553,830 the next school year, a time when all eight other state universities showed a profit, for a total debt of $1,007,214. USF also needs approximately $10-million to help build a $12-million athletic facility.
With a directive from USF president Judy Genshaft to operate in the black, and a desire to ensure it remains competitive in C-USA, new athletic director Lee Roy Selmon and his department are in the midst of a broad, creative "strategic planning" effort.
One financial avenue that already has been tapped _ and remains a viable option _ is student athletic fees. An increase in the student fees that took effect last fall generated nearly $1-million, which was used to help erase a deficit. A 34-cent raise for the coming school year, to $7.50 per credit hour, will produce at least $200,000 in new revenue.
And then there are ticket fees.
Last year, South Florida saw an additional $450,000 in increased football ticket revenue. Athletic officials are hoping the move to Division I-A will mean more fans and translate into more dollars. Genshaft said she believes USF needs to be more proactive in its effort to get more fans at Raymond James Stadium.
"Thus far, we haven't been as assertive or effective in my mind, in terms of ticket sales and promoting the games and promoting student attendance," Genshaft said. "We've brought in almost all new people to help us and help guide us. Sometimes, it just takes some new eyes to look at things and to see different ways of operating that might be more effective than what we were currently doing."
Selmon said he also would consider the possibility of moving a basketball game to a larger venue such as the Ice Palace, which Genshaft said in a letter to Chancellor Judy Hample last spring, could bring in $100,000 in additional revenue. And while Selmon doesn't want to be in a position of playing top-ranked football programs just to fund the athletic department, he said he isn't totally opposed to playing a road game against a more established program, which could net hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In college athletics, money is everything. And USF is discovering that the higher you go, the more money you need.
"This is not strange to any other athletic program," Selmon said. "We just happen to be in a position where we're young. We're new, unleashing this new product and continuing to grow our existing programs. It's more or less we're now about trying to move the whole department to another level."
Kelly said part of his strategy will be raising public awareness of C-USA and taking advantage that the Bulls play almost year-round, with prices that are family-friendly compared with many professional sports.
In a marketplace that has proven it loves football, athletic officials believe the move into I-A football will significantly aid their efforts in generating more excitement for the program.
"It's just a matter of time for us, through the success of all of our programs, to really catch their (public's) eye " Kelly said. "Right now, I think everyone realizes we have all these people in the area, we just need to reach them. If you can get an emotional attachment whether it be from people who have lived here all their lives or transplants, we can become their default home team. But it takes time to get things together and resources to get the word out. We're certainly on the right track."
USF INTERCOLLEGIATE ATHLETICS AUDITED REVENUE/EXPENDITURES
YEAR REVENUE EXPENSE BOTTOM LINE
1992-93 $5,192,822 $5,161,339 $31,483
1993-94 $5,550,644 $5,471,901 $78,743
1994-95 $6,073,022 $5,968,565 $104,457
1995-96 $7,155,805 $6,646,670 $509,135
1996-97 $8,525,597 $8,475,122 $50,475
1997-98 $10,767,141 $10,747,683 $19,458
1998-99 $11,364,131 $11,817,515 ($453,384)
1999-2000 $11,776,675 $12,783,889 ($1,007,214)
The 2000-01 fiscal year ended June 30 and final audited numbers are not available. Source: University of South Florida.