The University of South Florida's meteoric football development, culminating with the move to Division I-A status this fall, was supposed to fuel the entire athletic program.
But the full financial benefits of football won't be realized for years to come.
Some of the critical football-related revenue from Conference USA's television and bowl contracts, which won't kick in until 2003, already has been committed to paying off a $1.6-million loan from the USF Foundation and a $1-million advance from the league itself for USF's membership for football, the Times has learned. Those outstanding debts, including interest, will not completely be wiped out until February 2010.
That might not be a concern were it not for the unexpected economic troubles USF has experienced since the arrival of football in 1996.
USF found itself $450,000 in debt by the end of the 1998-99 fiscal year and $1-million in the red by the end of 1999-00, records show.
School officials say money from a student fee increase and booster contributions should eliminate that debt and help create a $90,000 surplus entering next year, although the final audited report on the past fiscal year is not yet available.
The bigger question remains: How will new athletic director Lee Roy Selmon and his staff take the athletic program to the next level with such heavy financial burdens looming?
"It's still a work in progress and history is still being made with this team," Selmon said. "We're new; we're not one of those teams that has been around a long time. I believe there is a lot of excitement in this community for athletics and this football program.
"We're analyzing ourselves, too, and how we go out doing our business internally. I think we've only touched the tip of the iceberg for this community."
Adhering to the old business adage of spending money to make money, the USF Foundation loaned the athletic department $600,000 to assist in the program's start and accelerate its move to I-A status.
When USF had the chance to join C-USA for football, officials saw it as a solid investment in the program's future. A conference affiliation, even with a middle-tier football league, creates new revenue streams from television contracts (C-USA has a lucrative deal with ESPN) and bowls (tie-ins with the Motor City Bowl, the Mobile Alabama Bowl, the Liberty Bowl and the Galleryfurniture.com Bowl).
If you don't think a conference link is vital, just ask Central Florida how desperate it is to join one.
"A conference relationship is so critical and theirs is a fait accompli," said Bill Carr, a former athletic director at Florida who prepared the initial football feasibility study for USF in 1992 and more recently has consulted on the hiring of both Selmon and a yet-to-be-named deputy athletic director. "It's an investment and it's a responsible investment for your program. It's establishing equity."
South Florida athletic officials said they accelerated the move to I-A because the opportunity to join C-USA was something they couldn't pass up.
"We (previous administration) understood the potential and the payoff and if we didn't grab the opportunity at that point, it might never come again," said Jack Wheat, special assistant to USF president Judy Genshaft.
But it came at a price.
USF needed $2-million to join C-USA for football.
"No one sits around with membership dollars, but the Foundation assisted us with it," former USF president Betty Castor said. "That's the importance of the Foundation."
The USF Foundation is a not-for-profit agency with $355-million in total assets, $230-million in endowments, which routinely gives gifts and endowments to promote university development. The Foundation has given gifts and loans for such things as the current major renovations to the campus residence halls and upgrading commencement ceremonies.
By giving to athletics, the Foundation helps the entire university, Genshaft said.
"We're all parts of a whole," she said. "Athletics raises awareness nationally in a variety of ways."
Robert Bryan, a former Florida president who as the USF interim president in 1993-94 preached restraint when it came to football, understands how desperately USF needed the kind of boon football promised.
"When I got there, one of the first things that shocked me was I went to some civic meeting downtown and had a person, one of the leaders of the community, come up to me, shake my hand and say, "How's that university up to the north of us doing?' " Bryan recalled. "I thought, "He's talking about Gainesville,' and that's how I gave my answer. He said, "No. No. The university out there; out there where the beer plant was.' That's what I got worried about."
To move its football program into C-USA and begin play in 2003, the Foundation loaned the USF athletic department $1-million (in addition to the $600,000 start-up loan), and a second $1-million came from the league itself in the form of an advance against future earnings.
But that created three obligations, which Virginia dean David Breneman, a noted authority on higher education financing, likened to the "ante in poker" that carries inherent risk but is necessary to play:
For three years beginning in December 2003, the athletic department is scheduled to make quarterly $25,000 payments on its original $600,000 Foundation loan. The $300,000 balance, not counting 5 percent in interest, will be due in 2006.
The second loan is scheduled to be repaid in four installments of $250,000, again not counting 5 percent in interest. The last payment is due February 2010.
Meanwhile, C-USA will withhold $200,000 a year from USF's cut of football revenue for five years beginning in 2003-04.
USF officials are confident they still will realize money from the league during those years.
"From the conference and the NCAA, we're already generating about $450,000 per year without any revenue from football," Wheat said. "Once the TV rights and other issues involved in C-USA scheduling come into play, there should a significant increase in the revenue stream."
But what if that stream, even temporarily, is more of a creek? Breneman said that's when the poker game becomes more like taking a risky chance on the stock market.
Struggling to survive? Like so many other athletic programs, USF has been there before.
In the mid 1980s, USF fell about $600,000 in debt without football. It gradually became a modest money-maker and in the year before the Bulls' football debut, the athletic department's revenues exceeded expenditures by $50,000.
Throughout four years of discussions over the feasibility of adding a football program, there were concerns about how to maintain financial stability.
Bryan understood how expensive football could be. USF had an economic safety net _ a $5-million endowment that would mean $250,000 in interest each year _ that would be in place before starting the program, but he worried it might not be large enough. For "shock value," he told supporters they should shoot for a $10-million endowment, an amount some followers agreed should be collected before the program would move from I-AA to I-A.
USF settled for the $5-million endowment.
Even with those donations, others on campus worried that the addition of football would drown the athletic department in red ink. Their fears weren't irrational. UCF had overestimated football gate revenues and ran up a $1.2-million debt by 1985. The University of Tampa dropped its storied football program in 1975 after the sport lost money for 11 straight years, a total of $1.7-million.
While attendance has generated revenue, South Florida has struggled in other areas. The program needs a $12-million athletic facility, of which just over $2-million has been raised.
Its only other revenue-producing sport besides football, men's basketball, brought in $118,566 in 1999-00.
Spending more than ever because of football and the addition of women's soccer and women's sailing _ programs necessary to maintain gender equity _ USF amassed a $1,007,214 debt at the end of the 1999-00 school year.
"I'm not surprised," said Charles Arnade, a distinguished professor of International Studies and a faculty member since the university opened its doors.
Arnade raised similar economic concerns during a 1994 Board of Regents meeting, even though he realized he was voicing a minority opinion.
"Everyone else who gave statements were rah-rah-rah for football and got tremendous applauses," he recalled. "I got up and said it wasn't going to help. When I finished, the hall was dead silent. It was probably one of the high points in my 50 years (in academia)."
After taking over in July 2000, it took several months before Genshaft realized how much red ink had to be sopped up. Her immediate response when apprised of the debt?
"Fix it," Wheat said.
"That's what you do when you see something that's not on track," Genshaft said. "You take all your resources and your knowledgeable people and you say, "Let's analyze this. Let's see what we're doing, how can we get out of this. What's our plan? What's our strategy?' "
When Chancellor Judy Hample wrote Genshaft in April to express concerns about USF's "steadily deteriorating" financial position and its strategy for "long-term financial success," Genshaft assured the Board of Regents that athletics would be back in the black, likely by the end of this year.
"When we looked at the university's request to move to Division I-A, we asked if the move was a part of a solution or was it a part of the problem?" said R.E. LeMon, a vice chancellor. "They argued, and the way we looked at it, that it was part of a solution to bring the athletic program into solvency."
USF officials say they are now there. A $359,400 contribution from boosters and about $1-million from another student athletic fee increase, the third raise since the start of football, helped immensely.
So did an improved schedule during USF's transition year from I-AA. Wheat said an increase in average football attendance, from an announced 25,053 (18,225 actual in-house) to 26,414 (18,714 actual) produced about $450,000 for a $90,000 surplus.
That's no small feat given that many schools nationwide lost money. During his state of the union address before the men's basketball Final Four in March, NCAA president Cedric Dempsey said only 48 of 976 athletic programs will end this year in the black.
But now comes the Bulls' move to a higher level, with higher ex-pectations across the board.
And even greater expenses.
SHOW THE MONEY
Under the state's student athletic fee assessment, a full-time student at South Florida at the Tampa campus taking 15 hours paid $117.40 per semester, which included a $10 flat fee, during the 2000-01 school year. All students are required to pay the fee, and it entitles them to free entry into every sporting event.
USF ATHLETIC FEE HISTORY
TAMPA PER CREDIT
CAMPUS HOUR FLAT FEE
1990-91 $3.51 ----
1991-92 $4.15 ----
1992-93 $4.96 ----
1993-94 $4.96 ----
1994-95 $5.15 ----
1995-96 $5.65 ----
1996-97 $5.65 ----
1997-98 $6.50 ----
1998-99 $6.50 ----
1999-2000 $6.50 ----
2000-01 $7.16 $10
1990-99 $0.66 ----
TOTAL REVENUE COLLECTED
_ Source: University of South Florida
STATE UNIVERSITY SYSTEM
OF ATHLETIC FEES
ATHLETIC FEE FLAT FEE
USF $7.50 $10
UF $1.90 0
FSU $4.35 0
FAMU $8.75 0
UCF $9.90 0
FAU $11.75 0
FIU $7.45 $10
_ Note: This is effective Fall 2001