Higher-than-expected revenues from football’s Husky Stadium, generosity of donors Wayne and Anne Gittinger and others plus the new millions from the Pac-12 television contracts have combined with an ultra-motivated and grateful team to create the best start to a UW baseball season in 20 years. It’s also created a jewel of a new ballpark.
By Gregg Bell
UW Athletics Director of Writing
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SEATTLE – It’s the day before the opening of the Huskies’ jewel ballpark, and Lindsay Meggs is standing at home plate on his sparkling, new FieldTurf playing surface.
He looks as proud as he is impressed.
Meggs, Washington’s fifth-year coach, is the commander of this project , one that was decades in the dreaming and has revitalized Husky Baseball. He is the visionary who first took sketches and ideas to contractors years ago. Now he is looking south at his new reality, beyond the purple seat backs in the quite-grand grandstand. Past the $4.5 million Gittinger Team Building – named after the project’s lead donors, Wayne and Anne Gittinger -- with new offices and locker rooms, beyond the new, $2 million Team Performance Center with five indoor batting tunnels and state-of-the-art computer pitching system.
He sees Husky Stadium, the seven-month-old football palace, a couple of long home-run drives down the street. And he ponders whether his new Husky Ballpark would exist if not for revenues from Washington’s new football stadium plus those from the Pac-12’s $3 billion television contracts with ESPN and FOX.
“Probably not,” Meggs says.
Meggs’ Huskies are 17-5-1 after their seventh consecutive victory and 14th in 15games, Tuesday night over Gonzaga in the rain at the “Diamond on Montlake.” They are off to their best start since 1994. That is the only season in which Husky Baseball has won as many as four games in an NCAA tournament, which UW is trying to get to for the first time since 2004,
This – one of the best college baseball stadiums in one of the most picturesque settings in the country, and the best start to a Huskies baseball season since Bill Clinton was in his second year as our president – is not an accident.
Husky baseball’s resurgence is the result of football and Husky Stadium’s success.
It is what UW Director of Athletics Scott Woodward foresaw when he said at the start of Husky Stadium’s renovation in November 2011: "Our donors and our fans recognize the importance of this project, not just to the football players but to the volleyball players, the soccer players, the golfers, the gymnasts , the baseball player -- to every Husky athlete.
“To be the best, to fulfill our goals to win championships, you have to have the best facilities.”
New Husky Ballpark and UW Baseball being 17-5-1 is also the flip side to those maddening, 8 p.m. kickoffs on as little as six days’ notice the last two football seasons. To those 9 p.m. basketball tip-offs inside Alaska Airlines Arena. To the Huskies and every other Pac-12 team in all sports being playing and us watching whenever and wherever ESPN, FOX and Pac-12 Networks desire.
CAUTION: MATH AHEAD
UW’s athletic department projected football’s new home would produce about $14.3 million in increased annual revenue over previous Husky Stadium. That $14.3 million was the sum of expected annual sales from new luxury and patio suites plus club suites, plus from additional Tyee Club and season-ticket revenue.
Well, in its first season in business last fall the new Husky Stadium exceeded that $14.3 million in estimated revenue for 2013. Credit the new luxury seating, new amenities, new sightlines, a rising team on its way to its fourth consecutive bowl plus an attractive home schedule that included the perfect unveiling against Boise State then games with Oregon and the Apple Cup.
“The stadium performing so well is the impetus behind new Husky Ballpark,” said Jennifer Cohen, UW’s senior associate athletic director for development and its senior administrator for football and baseball.
Not only that, donors to the Huskies’ athletic department exceeded by about $2 million UW Athletics’ goal of raising $50 million privately toward Husky Stadium’s $250 million renovation.
That giving carried on to Husky Ballpark over the last year, far enough to cover the debt service UW Athletics owes on the baseball stadium: $850,000 per year over the next 30 years.
The late Wayne Gittinger and his wife Anne provided the leading push that made the ballpark and the adjoining baseball facilities a priority to happen now, rather than the later Husky baseball had been hearing for decades.
"Our donors and our fans recognize the importance of this project, not just to the football players but to the volleyball players, the soccer players, the golfers, the gymnasts, the baseball players -- to every Husky athlete."
Has this been a windfall for UW Athletics? More like a perfect storm.
The Gittingers and fellow Husky donors stepped up at the same time UW and the rest of the Pac-12 began realizing their new revenue streams from those new TV deals.
The institutional distribution for Washington in 2012-13 from the conference’s contracts with ESPN and FOX was $16.1 million, according to figures from UW Athletics’ chief financial officer. That distribution is $16.6 million in these 2013-14 playing seasons and is scheduled to be $17 million in ’14-15 and $17.9 million in ’15-16.
Over the life of the contracts with ESPN and FOX that end in 2023-24 – mammoth deals that show how valuable live sports broadcasts remain to networks in this broadband, wireless and TiVo age -- each Pac-12 athletic department is expecting to end up receiving an average annual revenue of $20.8 million. That doesn’t count the $800,000 per year Washington and each conference school is receiving per year from Pac-12 Networks, which the league owns entirely.
Before these new contracts, each Pac-12 athletic department was receiving $6 million per year from television rights. So the net gain each year in TV money (ESPN, FOX, Pac-12 Networks) for Washington was $10.9 million last year and is $11.4 million this year.
Last weekend John Canzano of The Oregonian in Portland reported how each Pac-12 school may not necessarily be realizing every dollar of the new TV money as had been ballyhooed nationally -- at least not yet. Canzano described how Stanford and Oregon State, to name two in the conference, had to pay $1.3 million each to Learfield Communications once the Pac-12 had struck its new media and marketing deals.
But at Washington, the timing of its deal with IMG meant UW didn’t have to pay back to its marking rights holder to buy out the previous contract. That’s meant no such minus off Washington’s new TV revenue.
Canzano also described how schools such as Arizona and Oregon State have been asked by their universities to “payback” to their schools with some of the league’s new TV money. At Oregon State that meant another $6.5 million off its approximately $11 million net gain to athletics for this year.
While other Pac-12 schools such as California have subsidized their athletic departments for year, Washington’s athletic department has long been virtually self-sufficient; the only money UW Athletics receives that is not generated by Husky sports are the federal dollars earmarked to each university in the country that complies with Title IX laws. UW Athletics hasn’t taken from nor has it paid back into its university.
ENTER THE “DOER”
OK, so Husky Baseball had the resources. The timing was ideal. But it still took a trigger man to make a reality out of what had been promised to decades of Husky baseball players and alumni.
Lindsay Meggs had already been that guy.
Meggs was the coach at Indiana State for three years before arriving at Washington in July 2009. In those three years he became the Missouri Valley Conference coach of the year while getting Indiana State to break ground in May 2009 on a new baseball stadium.
“Coach Meggs got here and it was obvious he was a doer,” John Schreiber, a UW outfielder in its Class of 1990, said Friday as we watched pregame festivities on Husky Ballpark’s opening night from the patio of the Gittinger Team Building.
Schreiber, who after graduating from Washington got into the financial business, is now the president and chief financial officer for InfoArmor, an identity fraud-prevention firm based in Phoenix. He played on old Graves Field next to the UW golf driving range out by the Baskin Robbins of Sand Point Way, a baseball place that was even more Spartan than Husky Ballpark used to be – if that’s possible.
He’d listened to presentations for years on what might become of a new baseball stadium at Washington. But when Meggs arrived, it was different.
“His legacy was as a stadium builder,” Schreiber said.
Andrew Ely, the Huskies’ junior second baseman from Eagle, Idaho, said he heard while he was in high school all about how Washington would get a new baseball stadium. Someday. Maybe.
“I remember having people tell me, ‘You know, they are going to tell you about a new stadium. They’ve been saying it for years,’” Ely said last week.
“But when I got here on my recruiting visit Coach Meggs had the actual documents on the construction and the plans for the stadium. I remember him telling my parents and me, ‘This is happening. It will get done.’”
In football a new stadium is huge in recruiting, to attract better players to win more games, which means better runs at championships.
In baseball, a new stadium can be a more direct factor in winning titles. Better facilities attract better baseball players who produce better team records. That can lead to hosting NCAA regionals, which is a mammoth inside track to advancing to the College World Series in Omaha each June.
Oregon State had appeared in one CWS – ever – way back in 1952. Then it got its Goss Stadium renovated in 1999. The Beavers then went to four College World series in nine years and won their first two national championships, in 2005 and ’06. They are currently ranked seventh in the country.
Oregon didn’t even have an intercollegiate baseball program – it was a club sport for three decades – until its PK Park opened in 2009 in Eugene next to football’s Autzen Stadium. The Ducks have been to the NCAA regionals in each of the last two seasons; they advanced to a super regional in 2012. Oregon entered this week 17-5 and ranked eighth in the nation. The Ducks come to Husky Ballpark next week for a big series that will a barometer for Washington.
“When you talk about postseason play, think about getting to go to a super regional and the College World Series, the results speak for themselves about being the host for a regional,” Meggs said.
“This stadium gives us a legitimate chance to host a regional.”
Could that be as soon as this spring?
“A VERY EXCITING TIME TO BE A HUSKY”
The players understand the wondrous opportunity they just received to become competitive with the nation’s best programs. They know the stadium has risen from where fans used to watch while in gravel or on splintered wooden benches, with Port-a-Potties as the ballpark’s “facilities.”
They know where there were once swampy marshes there is now the Team Performance Center. It not only is already giving current Huskies training opportunities they’ve never had at UW but will attract future Dawgs from across America.
“The thing that I’m most excited about in that building is we now have a self-feeder to pitch batting practice to us,” junior second baseman Andrew Ely said last week, days after he was named the Pac-12 player of the week for leading the Huskies to their first series win at Arizona State in 10 years.
“I don’t need a coach to take batting practice now. I can go into the indoor cage at 11 o’clock at night if I want to, press a button, and I can work on hitting by myself.”
Hmmm... Is it a coincidence the Huskies lead the Pac-12 with 11 home runs – one more than UW had all last season?
The point is, the new stadium, new locker room, new indoor practice facility and the excitement around it all are sparking this team to Washington’s best baseball season in 20 years. At least so far.
Oh, yes, the players are grateful. And driven.
“Now that we have this, we don’t take it for granted,” junior pitcher Jared Fisher said. “We are all ready to prove this is a stadium we deserve. We are going to get after it. We are not going to take this for granted.”
They are going to take this as motivation.
“Nobody is picking us to win the Pac-12, which is understandable given our recent seasons,” Ely said.
Ah, but that was before all this. Before Husky Stadium and the TV money. Before new Husky Ballpark turned an unfulfilled dream into stunning reality.
“Yeah, man, I like it,” Ely said with a grin.
“It’s a very exciting time to be a Husky right now.”
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for the Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.
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