Have you always dreamed of running through the storied Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum tunnel onto the field in front of 70,000-plus roaring fans before a University of Southern California football game? Up until now, you usually had to play or coach for the team to have this "once in a lifetime experience," as the school calls it.
Now you can do it for $1,500, as long as you're a USC season-ticket holder. If that's too pricey, consider the pre-game locker room tour for $1,000, or a pre-game photo with the "World Famous" USC Song Girls for $750. (Added bonus: The money is considered a donation, so it's tax-deductible, but that's a different story.)
USC recently started selling these experiences and more for its upcoming season, but at least one former player says they commoditize something that shouldn't have a price tag.
“The menu reads like a [TGI] Friday’s menu, with charges to split meals and charges for extra Jack Daniel's sauce,” said Petros Papadakis — who captained the USC football team in 1999 and 2000 — last week on his Fox Sports radio show "Petros and Money."
“It does feel a little weird to me to put a price on running out of the tunnel to play a football game, which we were told as players constantly was a very earned and special right, that we earned through camp, the off-season, weight training and grades," Papadakis continued. “It’s USC football. It’s supposed to be honorable to be in that locker room. I didn't think you could put a price on that.”
Craig Kelly — an assistant athletic director at USC — says that while donors get to run through the tunnel, it won't match the specialness of actually playing on the team.
“Putting on the pads, the walk through the tunnel, coming out of the locker room, the meetings that they have and the speech before the game… all that’s included in what Petros is referring to and what we’re offering isn’t that," Kelly said.
Kelly said the offerings aren't as much about raising money as improving the fan experience and rewarding loyal season ticket holders, which is important as many fans choose to stay home and watch the game in high-definition.
“It’s not necessarily generating as much revenue as people think, because they are significantly limited in the numbers," said Kelly. "It’s not 50 people running out of the tunnel. It’s five.”
Kelly said the pricing is only set for the first three games so that the school can adjust according to demand — which so far he said has been strong — and that what USC is doing is not unusual.
“Speaking with schools around the country, these things aren’t that uncommon,” said Kelly.
But Kristi A. Dosh, an expert on the business of college football, said USC's approach is unique.
"I’ve never seen a school put up this assortment of opportunities," Dosh wrote in an email. "While top donors have long been given preferential treatment from seating in the stadium to face time with player and coaches, USC is taking a proactive approach to building its donor base by offering low-cost, high-engagement experiences."
Josh Rebholz, UCLA's senior associate athletic director for external relations, also agreed that USC's offering is unusual — especially because of the relatively low cost.
"I haven't seen it done like that," Rebholz said. "The USC approach seems to be more of a mass approach."
Rebholz can sympathize with the need to raise money.
"At the end of the day, we're all trying to generate increased revenue and there's a lot of increased costs," said Rebholz.
But he said UCLA wouldn't open up its tunnel to season ticket holders, at least not for such a low price.
"We do offer some of these experiences, but we really believe that many of them — like running out of the tunnel with the team and being on field pre-game — are pretty sacred assets, and so we try to limit who we offer them and really, we try to only offer them to highest and most generous donors that we have," Rebholz said.
"Access for the sidelines for us can run as much as $100,000 a year," added Rebholz.
And if you want to run out on the field at the Rose Bowl with the Bruins and join them in the locker room after the game? You'll have to write a half-million dollar check to UCLA.
In that sense, USC's mistake isn't that it's commoditizing the college football experience — every school has been doing that for years, albeit usually more subtly, selling naming rights to every room and even letting boosters have a heavy hand in which coaches get fired and hired.
USC's mistake seems to be that it's not charging enough for the experience, offering a TGI Friday's-like menu for all the world to see.