Penn State President Graham Spanier understands many fans are upset about the new, more expensive football seating program going into effect in 2011, but he contends the university had no choice but to implement the plan.
"We're overdue on it," Spanier said. "We're especially overdue at Penn State because we're one of just a few universities - you could probably count the number on your fingers - that truly operates intercollegiate athletics on a self-support basis.
"This is important to us at Penn State because I don't want to be in a position where I'm taking money from academic budgets to support athletics."
Spanier's comments were made during an interview that will air today on WHVL-TV's "For the Record" program.
BlueWhite Illustrated publisher Phil Grosz conducted the nearly hourlong interview and agreed, along with WHVL, to share the transcript with the Mirror prior to the broadcast.
Spanier has been relatively quiet about the new Seat Transfer and Equity Plan (STEP) at Beaver Stadium since it was unveiled in November, but he discussed it candidly during the TV interview.
PSU chief on TV
Watch Graham Spanier's interview with BlueWhite Illustrated's Phil Grosz on "For the Record" at 11 a.m. today on State College's WHVL-TV. Spanier also discusses Big Ten expansion and why he thinks the Bowl Championship Series is here to stay. WHVL is channel 97 on Atlantic Broadband and 235 on Comcast. Check listings for channel number on your system.
Big Ten rates
Most Big Ten schools force fans to pay large amounts upfront to be eligible to purchase premium season tickets. The following figures are based on 2009 minimum donation prices, per seat, for season tickets near the 45-yard lines.
School...Fee per seat
*Penn State's fee will rise to $600 in 2011
Sources: Ticket office representatives for each school
"Sometimes people criticize us for being focused on money when it comes to athletics," he said. "We have to be focused on money; it's like any other aspect of life. There has to be an income side to match the expenditure side. I assure you, we don't do anything very lavishly at Penn State. We're very working-class when it comes to what we do."
Many Nittany Lion fans are working-class, as well, and will feel the pinch in their pocketbooks with the new STEP plan.
For years, Penn State season-ticket holders have had to make an upfront minimum contribution of $100 per seat to the Nittany Lion Club to be eligible to purchase season tickets. Starting in 2011, the minimum contribution will increase to $400 for most seats from the goal lines to the 30-yard lines, and to $600 for most seats between the 30s.
A fan with four seats near midfield who has been paying $400 in Nittany Lion Club dues will see that price jump to $2,400.
"We can't afford that," said 84-year-old Jim Williamson from Bellwood, a 1946 PSU graduate and season-ticket holder since 1960. "It's just not possible. On our income, we can't do it."
This fall will be the final season, therefore, that Williamson buys his four season tickets.
"I hear a lot of people say, 'I'm not going to renew my tickets,'" Williamson said. "I know there are a lot of people waiting for tickets, but it's going to be interesting to see if they can maintain about 110,000 there for games.
"They're just taking a big bite out of everybody. I don't understand it. It's to hell with everybody. If you can't afford it, get out."
Some seats cheaper
Season-ticket holders still can purchase tickets for the $100 minimum contribution, but they will have to move to other parts of the stadium.
"I won't move," said Williamson, whose seats are in section WF near the 35-yard line. "I picked those seats out in 1960, and I'm not going up in the end zone. That's the dead zone."
Spanier addresses many fans' issues during his TV appearance.
"One of the concerns that we've heard in a number of letters is that, because people have been loyal - they've been coming to games for a lot of years and they've had the same seats for a lot of years - that we owe it to them to keep them in those seats for the lowest possible price and that they should somehow be exempt from participating in the program," Spanier said.
"That's been one of the issues. We really can't have an imbalance like that, where a person is paying one price and the person in the seat next to you is paying another price. I know that might happen in the airlines, but I don't think that would fly in a football stadium too well."
Spanier knows other changes may not fly well with fans.
"We've also had concerns about people who have been together for many years in one spot, and they've developed camaraderie," he said. "We understand that. We will try to keep people together and facilitate that, but they have to be willing to pay the new price of those seats.
"A lot of the mail we've received is from people who are worried that if they can't pay the higher price then they're out for good.
"That's not true. There's a solution for everybody. They might have to move to a different part of the stadium where the ticket price is closer to what they're accustomed to paying. Nobody gets kicked out for that reason."
Cost of athletics rise
Why is Penn State implementing this new plan? Simple.
As coach Joe Paterno frequently says, the school has to pay the bills.
And the bills are very expensive.
"The cost of administering intercollegiate athletics goes up all the time," Spanier said. "We try to give salary increases to our coaches. While we don't pay exorbitantly at Penn State, we want to be competitive.
"The cost of travel, health care, employee benefits, everything keeps going up. So to keep up on the revenue side, we have to figure out ways to bring income into the university."
As the school does that, some fans are figuring out that they don't want to be counted on to pay for everything.
"They're holding the season-ticket holders hostage yet again," said Eric Reinke of Clearfield, a season-ticket holder for nearly 20 years. "That's been happening for years, but now it's even more so."
Reinke will not be renewing his season tickets in 2011, and the price is only part of his reasoning. He believes there are too many home games overall, as well as too many unappealing games against weaker opponents.
"There's going to be a surplus of tickets for most games except the most desirable ones," said Reinke, who believes he can pick and choose individual games much cheaper.
Others charge more
Most other Big Ten schools have been operating with similar seating plans, and Spanier noted, "We're actually one of the last major universities with a significant sports program to go to a program like STEP."
Even with roughly $20 million a year coming in from TV contracts, Spanier pointed out extra funds are needed to pay for the school's 29 varsity sports and to upgrade athletic facilities on campus. Like most other major universities, football pays most of the bills at Penn State.
"I don't want to see us in a position where we have to eliminate sports," Spanier said.
Another major concern, he added, is the possibility of the athletic department someday being unable to pay for itself.
"We want to do athletics right, but you do have to pay the bills to have a first-class athletic program," Spanier said. "It all comes together. I'm very proud of it. But we do have to keep up with the right balance.
"Income, expenditures, opportunities for athletics - if the state support of the university does not keep up, we have more and more of a burden on the tuition side. So tuition increases every year, and athletics has to pay the full tuition for a student who is on a scholarship."
Penn State waited much longer than other major programs around the country to increase season-ticket contribution limits, and school officials believe a further delay would not be fiscally responsible.
"We have to find ways to keep up," Spanier said, "and the STEP program is a part of it."
Mirror Staff Writer Cory Giger can be reached at 949-7031 and firstname.lastname@example.org
OTHER HIGHLIGHTS OF SPANIER'S INTERVIEW:
On whether Joe Paterno's successor will come from in-house:
"If and when Joe ever retires, I think we have to take a look at the big picture at the time and pick the best person who would work for Penn State. It could be somebody within Penn State, somebody with ties to Penn State or it could be somebody from outside Penn State who wouldn't even be on our radar screen. It's probably something that the athletic director thinks about from time to time. In the end, he and I would work together for a happy ending."
On escalating coaching salaries in college football:
"I don't like it all. We're not going to pay two million or four or five million. I'm sorry, I don't care who it is. That's just something we're not going to do at Penn State. We want to pay people fair salaries. We don't want our coaches standing in a bread line or whatever they call it. We want to pay people fair salaries. But this is Penn State. Whatever we pay people has to come out of that self-support fund in athletics. We do have that pressure. I don't understand what it means to pay somebody five million dollars a year. What are you expecting out of that? I assure you, there are a lot of people, a lot of very talented people who would be thrilled to be the head coach in any sport at Penn State. We will treat everyone fairly, but if someone has unreasonable expectations, then we would go with someone who has more reasonable expectations."
On the BCS and a possible playoff in college football:
"I was one of the creators of the BCS and have been on the oversight board since its creation. I'm very happy to not have too much publicity on that, because it just increases my mail. I think the BCS has been good for college football. It does work, despite what some critics might say. I think it's the best mechanism we have out there to match up the No. 1 and No. 2 teams at the end of the season. To have this very positive thing in the eyes of a lot of people which is a game to determine a national champion.
"There's not going to be a playoff. It's just not going to happen. The presidents of our universities are not going to go for it. I'm not just talking about a few of us on the BCS board. I'm talking about Division I-A major college football school presidents, 120 or so of us are not inclined to go in that direction. Sports writers and fans can debate this all they want. There's so much attention on the BCS, as if talking about it and debating it more and more makes it more likely that something will change. Some people say, let's just go to four teams, then we'll go to eight, then eight will go to 16. Then we'll end up with an NFL-style playoff. Everybody knows where it will head if we go beyond the two teams. And we just don't want to head in that direction."
On why he likes the BCS format:
"I think there are a lot of reasons. One is that a lot of us believe that putting more emphasis on postseason play de-emphasizes in-season play. If you go to a playoff, let's say that Penn State's share is a million dollars, a lot of money. We have several million dollars of income for each home game that we have. Keeping our stadium full and having people interested in our games during the season is far more valuable to us and the community around us than any incremental share of revenue that we'd have from a postseason. Generally, we have intense interest in every game during the season.
"The current system that we have in place is one of the best. We're very concerned about the growing emphasis on winning at the end of the season. It's a great thing to go to a bowl game with the atmosphere there. When you start getting into a playoff-type format when you have four, eight or 16 teams ... we are worried about the academic calendar and the toll on the athletes physically. The competition with academics. The basketball situation works pretty well and people like the postseason play. But if you look at attendance and other things during the season, the interest in each game, TV contracts ... we think there a lot of reasons and not just one specific reasons.
On Big Ten expansion:
"I'm very involved in the discussions. ... We have not concluded that we will expand or that we want to expand, but we think it's prudent as things are shifting around the country and will continue to shift, we need to be out in front and looking at whether it makes sense for the Big Ten, whether or not it would work. We'll continue to look at it. The presidents meet and talk from time to time to think through this. We'll work with our commissioner, Jim Delany, on the question. There are a lot of different aspects to it, and of course it does have to work financially.
"People will say it's going to be about money. Well, yes and no. Of course, it has to be about money because we do depend very heavily on Big Ten revenue we don't want to see those decline. At the same time, it's about the fit of various institutions, it's about what would be good for the conference. It's about whether you could really even pull it off. It's a very complicated business with media contracts, the academic reputations of universities. If someone were to move from one conference to another, that's a very tricky business. There would be a transition period of anywhere from a year or two to several years, depending on the conference. There's a lot of different things to look at. There's certainly been no decision, I can tell you that."
On the Big Ten Network's success:
"I envisioned that it would be successful, and I knew it would be good for the university because of the income stream from it was guaranteed. I didn't realize it would be this successful this quickly. I thought it would take a little longer. It's a real credit to our Big Ten staff, especially the Big Ten Network staff."
On the basketball programs:
"I think we've had great success across the board at Penn State. There's no reason why we can't enjoy that type of success in men's and women's basketball. We've seen some flashes of success in men's basketball. I have great hopes as we move ahead. We have a great coach right now in Ed DeChellis. He does everything right at Penn State. We were disappointed, I was, along with everyone else, in the type of season. It was disappointing. No one cares more than Ed does. He's going to work on it. We're going to give him all the support we can to improve basketball and have the kind of long-term success we've enjoyed in some of the other sports."