Early on in the University of Hawaii’s now-27-year experience with local television broadcast of its sports events, a University of Utah official asked then-athletic director Stan Sheriff about its worth.
Sheriff withdrew a gold credit card from his pocket and tapped it confidently on the table.
"It (local TV) is golden for us," Sheriff said.
But as last year’s sharp decline in pay-per-view receipts suggest, no longer should UH take what has become one of its largest sources of nonticket revenue for granted. No more can it sit back and just wait for the checks to roll in without regard to the product it puts on the field and court.
Last year, for the first time in its eight-year experience with pay-per-view, revenues dropped by double figures. According to UH, unaudited revenues were approximately $3.4 million, down approximately 15 percent from 2008.
While UH’s share of the rights fees slid only 4 percent to $2.47 million due to a renegotiation of provisions of the contract that placed more of the up-front burden on its partner, Oceanic Time Warner Cable, the results were both significant and eye-opening.
Part of the dip is certainly attributable to the economy. But it is also a reflection of the struggles of its two biggest financial engines, football and men’s basketball, and fan’s perceptions of value.
Football went 6-7 and missed the postseason for the first time in four years. Rainbow Warrior basketball was 10-20, its third consecutive losing season. The two sports were responsible for the bulk of the pay-per-view offerings.
UH’s current contract with Oceanic is open to renegotiation if the school’s three-year rights fee total hasn’t hit at least a $7.5 million threshold by the end of this year. That shouldn’t be a problem but, then, few expected the depth of last year’s dip, either.
UH is counting upon a coaching change to bring renewed interest in its men’s basketball team and hoping that football, which was beset by injuries in 2009, can get off to a better start.
But the rights to what would be its most bankable home game, the Sept. 2 season opener with Southern California, belong to ESPN under the Western Athletic Conference contract.
When Sheriff and TV general manager Rick Blangiardi first drew up the beginnings of the local TV contract in 1984, the proceeds were considered icing on the financial cake for UH, which was averaging more than 40,000 per game at Aloha Stadium and drawing well at Blaisdell Center.
But these days, with a $27.6 million athletic department budget, TV revenues are an important component. To help break out of its cycle of $2 million-plus annual budget deficits — and every fiscal year but the 2007 Sugar Bowl season since 2002 has closed in the red — UH needs its revenues to rise, not go stagnant or retreat.
Beyond that, as Blangiardi and his successors have liked to say, the live free television of UH events equates to a 3-hour infomercial for its teams. When they play well — recall the Rainbow Wahine softball team this year or the baseball team in its midseason run — they bring fans out to the ballparks and arena. But when they don’t, as men’s basketball underscored, they turn fans off.
Then, there is the issue of who UH plays. Witness individual pay-per-view sales of just 396 for the football game with Central Arkansas last season.
With the departure of Boise State from the WAC and UH’s schedule after 2010, the need for quality opposition and performance grows.
For more than a quarter-century local TV has given UH something of golden goose unique in the WAC if not much of college athletics; one the school can’t afford to see tarnished.
Reach Star-Advertiser columnist Ferd Lewis at firstname.lastname@example.org