SBJ/January 29 - February 4, 2001/Special Report

Central Florida finances, attendance grow with reputation

At the University of Central Florida, it's all about Daunte Culpepper, even though he's been out of college for two years and is better known as the Minnesota Vikings' starting quarterback than as UCF's first superstar.

The football team moved into Division I-A in 1996, and with Culpepper, the school was able to meet its financial plan. He brought recruits to the team. He brought national attention by helping UCF almost beat several football powerhouses.

"There is no way to calculate the value of him to the program," said UCF athletic director Steve Sloan.

Now UCF is growing without Culpepper on the field, and there are significant challenges. For one, the football team has no conference affiliation — something that even school officials say is essential in today's football environment. Second, the team has to compete for a fan base with the state's more established schools, the University of Florida, University of Miami and Florida State University.

The Golden Knights' average attendance rose from 13,000 to 25,000 per game after making the jump to I-A, meeting a goal the school set for itself. That number is expected to grow, with revenue from ticket sales projected to climb 47 percent by 2005.

"The key is developing the fan base and continuing to produce a good product, and I see Central Florida doing that," said University of Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley.

Sloan admits it will be a long time before the school is on the same level as Florida's big three. The program's plan for success relies solely on gaining a conference affiliation. Besides the obvious lobbying tactics, Sloan is working on the football team's schedule. The team's schedule now includes several national powerhouses and as many teams from as many different conferences as possible. The hope is to gain exposure and help the program's recruiting ability.

Already on the books for the next few years are games against Florida. The Florida games in 2002 and 2003 will each pay UCF $500,000, another bonus for playing against national powers. The financial benefits are there, but the lack of a conference still looms over the program.

The athletic program is currently working on a loan to help the university update its facilities. The loan will be part of a larger package that will include private donations to help pay for a $5.3 million field house. Sloan says there is no timetable for the planned project. The department is waiting until enough money is raised.

"The only living example of a college program able to succeed as an independent is Notre Dame," said Paul Griffin, athletic director at the University of South Florida, which made the move to I-A this year and will join Conference USA in football in 2003.

The reason South Florida was able to get into a football conference easily was that it was a founding member of Conference USA in other sports. UCF's other sports play in the Trans America Athletic Conference, which doesn't have football. But in reality, it all goes back to football. The more football succeeds, the better the rest of the sports will become.

Sloan agrees with Griffin in some aspects. "It is more difficult to achieve all of our objectives if we are not in a conference," he said. "We would hope that we could be structured to succeed, but it would be difficult. That is why becoming part of a conference is such a high priority, the only goal that is set for the five-year plan."

Alan Byrd writes for the Orlando Business Journal.

Revenue from athletic operations
School year Revenue
1996-97 $6.56 million
1997-98 $7.62 million
1998-99 $8.19 million
1999-2000 $11.1 million
2000-01 $11.7 million*
2001-02 $12.1 million*
* Projected
Note: The budgets are based on the program's nonconference
status. If the school joins a conference, those budgets will be
Source: UCF athletic department

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