The Breakdown

Explaining Southern California's economy

USC football: A delicate dance to keep big donors happy

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Give half a million dollars to the Trojan Athletic Fund and you get four prime seats at every football game and year-round parking on campus.  A million dollar donation will get you reserved parking at the Coliseum.  Some donors, such as USC law school alum Arthur Barens, even get the ear of university administrators.

“I wouldn’t say they seek my input, but they’re certainly used to be being put on by alumni wanting to express their point of view, hoping it will make a difference,” said Barens.

During the week, Barens is a lawyer in Century City, and come Saturday, he’s a rabid SC fan.

“If they play 13 games a year, I try to go to 13 games a year,” Barens said.

The influence of high-value donors to USC's athletic programs arises as the university announces the hiring of Steve Sarkisian to coach the Trojans.

When USC hired Sarkisian, Barens called the school to register his disappointment. He says he donates the same amount whether the Trojans are winning or losing. But not all alumni are so forgiving.

“In years where the university has been more successful in football there’s been an upward effect on giving by alumni and certainly, season on ticket sales and attendance,” said Barens.

Administrators have to perform a delicate dance, according to Patrick Rishe, an Economics Professor at the George Herbert Walker School of Business and Technology at Webster University in St Louis, MO, and the Founder and Director of Sportsimpacts, a consulting firm.

They have look out for the long-term interests of the program, but they have to make sure people writing the checks feel heard.

“Alumni donations is, on average, the second-largest source of income for most Division I schools behind ticket sales," said Rishe. “So, it’s very important that you at least show you’re showing them some lip service.”

And that can be all they get, which could be a good thing.  Consider Pete Carroll.  When USC hired him 13 years ago the school was inundated with thousands of angry phone calls and e-mails from donors threating never to give again.

The boosters were ignored, and Carroll went on to be one of the most successful coaches in college football history.

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