IU athletics donors: Winning program is slam dunk

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. - Hoosier Hysteria is back -- and Indiana University is the big winner even before the first tip-off in a tournament game.

The resurgence of IU's men's basketball team the last two seasons has driven an increase in donations, boosted royalties for IU-licensed merchandise and led to the highest number of student season-ticket basketball packages sold in three decades, The Indianapolis Business Journal reported.

IU's reversal of fortune makes the struggles under sanctions imposed by the NCAA for violations under former coach Kelvin Sampson seem a distant memory for many fans.

Athletics Director Fred Glass gives coach Tom Crean the credit.

"It is impossible to overstate the impact Tom Crean has had not only on Indiana basketball but Indiana University," Glass said. "I can't go anywhere without someone going on about how well Tom Crean represents the university."

Donors and IU fans apparently agree. Giving to the IU Varsity Club and money designated for athletics through gifts to the IU Foundation grew more than $1 million in the fiscal year ended last June 30.  Royalties from the sale of IU merchandise have risen 31 percent over last season and are expected to top $2 million this year.

"We're getting 12 to 16 inquiries a month from companies that want to license IU products. That's double what it was running before last year. And the success of the team is clearly being reflected in the amount of IU items being sold," IU spokesman Mark Land said.

IU officials say those amounts could increase significantly if the Hoosiers win the Big Ten championship and a national title.

The Hoosiers have had a strong following even when the team finished 6-25 in Crean's first year, the 2008-2009 season. The basketball program still generated $15.2 million that year.

Experts say the loyal following even in lean times could limit the size of the financial boost from the program's success this season. Assembly Hall is already stuffed full of ads, which means IU will have to get creative to take advantage of its renewed popularity.

"Any good salesman will look for new inventory to sell," said David Morton, a local sports marketer who formerly sold advertising and promotional inventory for IU's sports broadcasts.

Glass said IU is "about maxed out" for in-stadium signage and other advertising. Sponsor messages have been added to video sideboards and the overhead scoreboard.

But Morton said IU could raise another $1 million through stadium avenues without cheapening the experience.

"From a consumer standpoint, we're light years beyond that," he said. "Consumers understand that college athletics is commercialized now."

Some options include increasing rates for sponsorship deals and game program advertisers and raising ticket prices at the 17,472-seat Assembly Hall. Another possibility would be to require alumni ticket-buyers to donate more to the athletic department to keep their tickets.

IU's reliance on revenue driven by its basketball program is unusual in the NCAA. Football programs typically drive more sales of licensed merchandise than basketball, said Mark Long, who led IU's licensing efforts from 2002-2008.

Long said that's because many items are tailored for tailgating, and a "massive football culture" generates large fan bases.

But IU's football program is traditionally weak, making basketball revenue more important for the athletic department.

Basketball revenue has accounted for 25 percent to 31 percent of total IU athletic department revenue in recent years, a higher percentage than any other Big Ten school. Basketball revenue at Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State is about 15 percent of the athletic department pie.

"With the continuing arms race in college athletics, Indiana has to leverage every asset they have," said Rick Horrow, a Florida-based sports business expert and author. "Their basketball program is clearly their biggest asset. And after a season like this, it's bigger than it has been in a long time."

Attorney Phil Isenbarger, a member of IU's 1981 championship team, notes that much of the jump in support for the program stems not from the victories, but from the way Crean is running the program. All of Crean's players have graduated or are on track to graduate within five years of enrolling. Jordan Hulls and Derek Elston are working on master's degrees, and Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller are on track to graduate by the end of their third year.

"Tom Crean has done all the right things, all the right way," Isenbarger said. "The support is exponentially higher under Crean than it was under Kelvin Sampson, and Sampson was winning. But none of the IU players are making the police blotter; they're getting good grades and graduating."

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