USF's stadium hopes hinge on increased donor dollars, community support

Athletic director Mark Harlan talks about USF’s new strategic plan at the Marshall Center.
Athletic director Mark Harlan talks about USF’s new strategic plan at the Marshall Center.
Published May 20, 2016

TAMPA — While discussing his department's five-year strategic plan to trustees and administrators Thursday, USF athletic director Mark Harlan recognized the handful of Bulls coaches — including Willie Taggart, Jose Fernandez and Orlando Antigua — in attendance.

Then, he recognized the two elephants in the third-floor conference room: an on-campus football stadium and the Bulls' odds of moving into a Power Five conference.

"We're aspirational, but this university's aspirational," Harlan said. "If there's something that we're aspirational toward and it makes sense for the university, let's go for it."

On a day when many fans hoped Harlan would move the needle on both hot-button issues, he instead gave it a nudge. Addressing a USF Board of Trustees work group, Harlan said a feasibility study into an on-campus stadium would forge on and that he's "in discussions with leaders" about conference realignment.

Yet how a stadium would be financed remains a far more difficult question than where it would be located. Hence the reason for an ongoing stadium feasibility study that Harlan said would be conducted by his cabinet and outside entities.

No time frame exists on the study's completion, he said.

"The great thing about this campus is there are multiple (location) opportunities," Harlan told reporters after presenting his 44-page plan to the work group.

"It's time to zero in on which opportunity is best for this program. And then lastly, how are we gonna pay for it? Apparently these things aren't free, so we need to really look into all those things and really decide if there's an appetite for it."

As his strategic plan outlines, the philanthropic support USF received ($2.5 million) in the 2014-15 academic year paled next to the average of the American Athletic Conference's six other public schools ($7.7 million). Conference revenue also has dipped considerably in the last three years, he noted.

"Simply put, in 2012 and 2013 we had $11.4 million from the conference (Big East) that we were in," Harlan told the work group. "Today it's closer to $6.4 (million)."

Harlan did note that the Bulls' 3,000 donors are 900 more than when he arrived from UCLA 26 months ago. He also reported a 90 percent season-ticket renewal rate for football, as well as 2,200 new season-ticket buyers with more than three months remaining before the 2016 season opener.

"Are tickets important? Absolutely. We have to sell more season tickets," Harlan said. "I don't run from that; it's a key focus of the strategic plan. We have to challenge our community to support us more profoundly. They've been waiting to invest in a winner over the last few years. I think we've got one now. We have to get our corporations behind our program, and that's what we're setting about doing."

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Harlan also confirmed the school will look to add women's rowing as USF's 20th sport, and will re-examine its multi-media and apparel contracts once the current ones expire. The only vague portion of his strategy involved Power Five aspirations.

Harlan refused to discuss specifics about talks with peers in other conferences, except to reiterate that some Power Five football programs compete in off-campus stadiums.

"If there's another conference that's for us and improves these things, then we're gonna go for it. And we're in discussions with leaders about that topic," he told the group.

"But in the interim period, we're proud to be in the American Athletic Conference, but we also know that we have to get better. And that's what this strategic plan is all about."