WSU's annual Seattle game poses debate

MOSCOW-PULLMAN DAILY NEWSJune 26, 2013 

PULLMAN - When it comes to college football, one of the best parts about Pullman also happens to be part of its downfall.

As a small town, Pullman prides itself on being a tight-knit community and a true college town. But with that small population comes with a price. Pullman's market size cannot compare with Seattle, and the Washington State football team has decided to play an annual game out west in search of higher profits and more media exposure. The decision is hardly new, but the issue continues to stir its fair share of controversy on the Palouse.

"The local fans don't like it and the Seattle fans do. Both are understanding of why we're doing it," WSU Athletic Director Bill Moos said. "It's a critical part of trying to get our budget balanced and trying to grow our program."

Moos said the money generated by the Seattle game is vital to the success of the program. A game at CenturyLink Field generates $1.2 million in revenue for the athletic department, a number that could never be reached at Martin Stadium in Pullman.

"We're trying to get ourselves established and get ourselves in a position to be competitive in all our programs," Moos said. "The fact is that our bottom line of a Seattle game more than doubles the net of a home game at Martin Stadium, even if we were full."

That money goes into the operating budget for the athletic department. However, the Seattle game is not free. In addition to the cost of transporting players, coaches, the band and other university members, there is also the expense of renting out CenturyLink Field. Moos did note, however, that WSU was given a great deal on the rental and the stadium allows them to put Crimson and Gray decorations around the field to make it resemble Pullman.

WSU also happens to be in a unique position because the vast majority of the state's population comes from the west side. Many of the corporate sponsors for Washington State reside in the Seattle area, as do many of its students. Nearly 70 percent of the undergraduate enrollment comes from the west side, and many of them move back once they graduate. Moos said the Seattle game is a chance to reconnect with those former students. Moos was involved in 33 university-related events during the six days he was out west in October for the Seattle game.

"Our WSU Foundation, our Alumni Foundation and others seized the moment to have a lot of meetings and celebrations during that week," Moos said. "And I think it's really good to have the presence in the media that we get that entire week as well."

What isn't taken into account is the economic loss to the Palouse. According to Vicki Leeper, tourism director for the Pullman Chamber of Commerce, a home game brings in approximately $350,000 to Pullman. That money comes from people eating at restaurants, staying in hotels and shopping at local stores. That figure may be on the low end, as that statistic came from 2009. Since that time, the economy has grown and the presence of coach Mike Leach has renewed interest in the football program.

The issue, though, was raging even during WSU's glory days a decade ago. Since the 2002 season, when WSU was in the midst of three straight 10-win seasons, the Cougars have had a home game in Seattle for 10 of the past 11 years. And decades before that, WSU held an annual game in Spokane. Glenn Johnson, who is the mayor of Pullman and the voice of the Cougars since 1980, recalled the coaching staff was not a fan of the Spokane games.

"We had to travel to Joe Albi Stadium in Spokane to do games, and it certainly wasn't a home game," Johnson said. "Jim Walden, who was the coach at the time, really made it a key point that this was really an away game in Spokane because you have to travel, you have to pack up, you have to move, you have to get up there."

The team now flies to Seattle, but the reception within the program is the same. During a press conference leading up to the Oregon game last year, WSU quarterback Connor Halliday vented his frustration.

"It's not a true home game. It's kind of frustrating we don't get to play the game in Martin Stadium," Halliday said. "I just wish all of our home games were here. I don't see why we have to go someplace else to play a home game."

The reason for Halliday's frustration is obvious. The athletic department does not bus students over to the Seattle game, and the difference is noticeable.

"I think the atmosphere in Martin Stadium is far louder. It's a very active audience and they really get into it," Johnson said. "In Seattle, you're a little more distant from the audience and it doesn't sound as loud -- even though it's at the Seahawks' stadium, which is said to be one of the louder stadiums around."

His claim is particularly surprising, considering that the attendance at CenturyLink Field has doubled the crowds at Martin Stadium. Nearly 50,000 fans showed up for the 2011 game against Oregon State, and last year's game against undefeated Oregon drew more than 60,000 people.

Moos said the Seattle area has been quite welcoming, despite it being home to WSU's arch rival.

"That's an area that we have to have a presence, and for that particular week, I'm going to continue to say we take the town over," Moos said. "Last year Washington played Stanford on a Thursday -- the Thursday night before we played Oregon on the following Saturday -- and we outdrew them."

This year WSU will be directly competing with Washington, as both teams are playing in Seattle on Sept. 28. The Huskies will host Arizona while the Cougars host Stanford at CenturyLink Field.

Tom Hager can be reached at (208) 883-4629, or by email to thager@dnews.com. Visit the Moscow-Pullman Daily News (Moscow, Idaho) at dnews.com.

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