Big Sky victory may not equal big dough

The Portland State men’s basketball team finished with its best record since 1959 this year. It will not necessarily attract big donations to PSU sports or to the university, but it will bring prestige to Portland State as a whole.

This sentiment was voiced by people who should know: Tom Burman, Portland State Director of Athletics, and Pat Squire, Director of Alumni Relations.

Both were hopeful the team would win the Big Sky tournament Tuesday and Wednesday and earn itself a ticket to the NCAA national playoffs.

"If we win here, we’re going to the big dance," Burman said with obvious relish before the tournament.

But as for athletic success increasing the channeling of big bucks to the athletic program or the university, he is not sure that will happen.

He added that there are varying opinions in college athletics about the value of sports success in bringing in money. Some research says it does, some says it does not.

"When the Oregon State football team beat Notre Dame, it brought money," Burman said. "I have no doubt that a high-profile athletic program increases prestige, maybe national but certainly statewide and regional."

Athletic success also helps in "branding" the program, a current buzzword that applies to "how we can better market ourselves to the public."

It is an anomaly that the successful basketball team this year has only one player from Oregon, Antone Jarrell from Jefferson high school in Portland. More prestige should help bring more Oregon talent to the PSU program.

The Portland State athletic program has resulted in some big donations to the university. These have hinged more on an enthusiasm for the PSU athletic program than on any outstanding success registered by a Portland State team. In recent years, great successes have been limited.

The most prominent donors are Peter and Julie Stott, who have given more than $2 million to the university’s athletic program. Their money helped create the artificial turf field adjacent to what is now named the Peter Stott Center.

Although sports success may not generate big donations, it does bring other economic benefits.

"I believe this kind of success is going to increase support to athletics," Burman said. Recalling the basketball team’s late-season surge that earned it the Big Sky championship, he added, "We’ve already seen more interest in the last six weeks. In early February it started to look like we had a chance, then the media stepped in and it grew from there."

The basketball team already has garnered publicity in the national sports press. Burman exhibited a page from the March 1 sports section of USA Today. A large picture features two players in action. One is Seamus Boxley of Portland State, a forward named the most outstanding player in the Big Sky conference this season.

"CBS called, they may do a special story," Burman said. "If we make the NCAA tour, we’ll be seen all over the world."

But as for big money gifts, they’re rare.

"Fifty percent of donations come from non-alumni," Burman said. In his view, the donations come because givers like the entertainment, the athletes and the visibility athletics gives the university.

Division 1 competition is not a poor man’s game. Portland State stepped up from Division 2 to Division 1 in 1996.

"It’s expensive," Burman said.

Squire, looking at the situation from the alumni side, believes that athletic success does bring in more financial support in the way of donations and grants.

"It may not come directly as a result of a winning team," she said, "but success stimulates pride and pride usually stimulates donations." Athletic giving also can create a radiating effect on other gifts.

"There are people who give to athletics who end up giving to other university priorities, because they’ve had such a good experience with athletics and they get to know the university better," she said.

She finds that any positive experience with the university helps in financial support. Though PSU fell short in the Big Sky tournament in Portland, the prospect of participation in the NCAA playoffs ramped up enthusiasm.

"I’m hearing from alums that I haven’t heard from for a long time and they are very excited," she said.