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Why USF won’t follow UCF’s lead on a campus stadium

Even in the heart of football country, money matters — and a new stadium costs loads of it.

USF’s new president, Steve Currall, dealt a dose of reality last week to football fans hoping for a new on-campus stadium.

Currall was lukewarm at best about the potential of a new home, saying a football stadium was “a vision … not a plan,” in comments detailed by the Tampa Bay Times’ Matt Baker and Megan Reeves.

That’s because, even in the heart of football country, money matters — and a new stadium costs loads of it.

Baker’s Monday article triggered a predictable cycle of chuckles from the UCF Mafia on Twitter. But Knights fans should check themselves — Currall isn’t wrong in how he’s playing the hand he’s been dealt, even if it means many more years playing nearly a dozen miles from campus.

It’s easy for UCF fans to throw stones when they’re enjoying a historic run on the gridiron, filling their 44,000-seat on-campus stadium every Saturday. And the Bulls, who once surged to No. 2 in the nation in 2007 and filled the majority of Raymond James Stadium for a good five years, have fallen on tough times.

Yet the two schools are remarkably close on the scoreboard that most university presidents really care about: finances.

Neither UCF nor USF is in great shape when it comes to their athletics budget, as they strain to keep pace with teams in high-revenue conferences. Both the Knights and the Bulls balance their budgets on the backs of students, as well as general alumni donations, that might otherwise fund academics, to close their remaining budget deficits.

UCF is moving in the right direction by growing its booster donations, season ticket base, and game-day revenues, as it’s “if you build it, they will come” approach toward an on-campus stadium has been slowly working. But the debt payments on Spectrum Stadium have limited the financial impact of the team’s recent success.

USF has similar goals to boost revenue through attendance and donor growth, but instead of using a new stadium to advance their efforts, USF is risking its future with a page out of its old playbook: trying to reignite its base with upsets over ranked teams.

The Bulls have agreed to a series of 2-for-1 series with top programs, such as Alabama and Texas, where USF will play its bigger, wealthier opponents twice on the road in exchange for just a single game at home. USF, hoping to one day join those foes in a high-revenue conference, sees the short-term price well worth the potential long-term payoff.

UCF Nation absolutely hates USF for it.

Knights fans, as well as their athletic director, have been critical of 2-for-1 series, saying they shouldn’t have to make a sacrifice to play high-revenue teams. Many have suggested USF should be above it too.

Each school has a right to its own strategy, but at the end of the day, they each need to find a way to boost their revenues … significantly. The risk of not doing so has been realized by UConn, which will leave the American Athletic Conference in 2020 for what it hopes are greener ($$) pastures in the Big East.

USF’s new president knows this. He knows money rules in college sports. He also knows building stadiums isn’t necessarily the best way to make money.

“I was just talking to the commissioner of the AAC (last week) on the phone about a number of topics, but they all always involve TV rights … that, frankly, has a big financial impact,” Currall said, according to Monday’s Times article.

That’s why you’re more likely to see USF change its coaches, conference, or even logo before you see it change its home football stadium.

Written By

Noah Pransky is a multiple award-winning investigative reporter, most recently with the CBS affiliate in Tampa. He’s uncovered major stories such as uncovering backroom deals in the Tampa Bay Rays stadium and other political investigations. Pransky also ran a blog called Shadow of the Stadium, giving readers a deep dive into the details of potential financial deals and other happenings involving the Tampa Bay- area sports business.

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