If, as they say, timing is everything, the timing for a major donor-financed development at Kansas University’s Memorial Stadium may be a little off.
Five straight conference losses tends to dull the enthusiasm of many football fans. Even with a victory today against archrival Missouri, the Jayhawk football team’s chances for a post-season bowl appearance are in doubt. If they are invited, it certainly won’t be for a marquee event.
Then there’s the controversy swirling around Coach Mark Mangino based on reports of verbal abuse of his players. If Mangino survives at KU, there are real questions about the impact the current flap will have on his ability to recruit top athletes. If Mangino leaves KU, it’s highly unlikely that a top-notch coach could be recruited quickly enough to have any impact on the tight deadline athletic department officials face for making a decision on whether to go ahead with plans to have the new 3,000-seat Gridiron Club completed by the start of next season.
Kansas Athletics needs donations totaling at least $34 million to move forward on the project. If the Gridiron Club is to be ready by next fall, athletics officials will have to decide by the end of this year whether to move ahead with construction. They say they remain confident they can meet that goal, but time obviously is growing short.
The Gridiron Club clearly isn’t for everyone. Membership in the club costs from $25,000 per seat for five years up to $105,000 per seat for 30 years. One local alumnus did the math and figured out that even buying in at the lowest level, he would be paying about $1,000 per game for the membership, which includes a seat, parking and food.
The big selling point, athletics officials say, is that the memberships will be an asset that the members own and can trade or sell at any price. The only problem is that it’s pretty hard to predict at this point exactly how valuable an asset a Gridiron Club membership will be in five or 30 years. If KU has one of the top teams in the nation, memberships may be a valuable commodity. If not, well, fans had better hope they really enjoyed games that they paid $1,000 or more to see.
Regardless of the team’s record or the controversy surrounding Mangino, there’s also the matter of the economy. Even for dyed-in-the-wool Jayhawk football fans, there comes a time when amateur intercollegiate sports must take a back seat to other, far more important, needs.
Added to this is the growing general disgust with the manner in which KU Athletic Director Lew Perkins has orchestrated the Mangino inquisition. This has not reflected well on the university, the athletics department or Perkins.
Former KU great Gale Sayers was brought in to lead the fundraising drive for the Gridiron Club. He is a tremendous representative of KU, but it is clear he is being used to sell the costly project. He and another former KU great, John Hadl, who has raised the bulk of the millions of dollars for the recent costly construction of athletics facilities at KU, should not be blamed if the Gridiron project is either delayed or falls flat and is canceled. If the millions of dollars do not pour in for the project, it won’t be their fault but rather a combination of factors cited above plus the growing unfavorable attitude about the manner in which the athletics department has conducted its affairs.
The original plan for the Gridiron Club was that it would raise enough money not only for itself but to fund a $25 million “Olympic Village” development for nonrevenue sports and contribute more than $40 million toward KU academic programs. As others have pointed out, if fundraising for the club falls short, it’s a pretty safe bet that the village and academic funding will be the first victims.
In fact, that may be about the safest bet involved with an investment in the Gridiron Club. Although everyone wishes the KU football program all the best in the years to come, investing large sums of money in a club membership whose value depends on the team’s future success doesn’t really seem all that safe right now.