PULLMAN – It was just more than four years ago that Tony Bennett walked down the tunnel into Beasley Coliseum for his first game at Washington State and pulled back the black curtain.
“I looked out there, and it took my breath away. Just like someone threw a bucket of cold water,” said the men’s basketball head coach, who was an assistant at the time. “I mean, there was maybe 500 people at the game. And you could hear everything. It was like a golf gallery.”
How times have changed since Bennett and his father, Dick, built WSU basketball into a Top 25 program, and since the 2006-07 Cougars made it to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 13 years.
Last year’s Cinderella-story team brought in 74 percent more ticket sales and 29 percent more total revenue than the season before, according to numbers provided by WSU.
The money keeps rolling in. Season-ticket sales have spiked and basketball donations have ballooned, WSU athletics director Jim Sterk said.
“The two sports that make money, if you will, are football and basketball,” he said. “Basketball, even in our poorest time during my tenure, still made money. … And now it has obviously increased.”
During the 2005-06 season, men’s basketball brought in $305,381 in ticket sales and $2.2 million overall. When the team started becoming successful last year and garnered national attention, those ticket sales nearly doubled – to $531,466 – and WSU raked in a total of $2.8 million.
That’s because Cougars fans got excited.
“The way they get into (games) and bounce around it definitely generates excitement,” Bennett said. “Just that feeling – I can remember, not too long ago, when you had to generate your own. And it was pretty depressing at times in Beasley Coliseum.”
The university sold more single-game tickets, interest in season tickets boomed, and more students started buying sports passes to get into all WSU games, Sterk said.
But the support wasn’t limited to Pullman and the fans who travel from nearby to attend basketball games. Last season lit a fire under alumni’s Cougars spirit.
Mikal Thomsen, a Western Washington investor and former chairman of the WSU Foundation Board of Governors, spearheaded an e-mail fundraising chain specifically for basketball. He sent out his first e-mail after the Cougars beat the Washington Huskies 75-47 in January 2006.
“Doesn’t the success this team is having make you feel good?” Thomsen wrote. “Doesn’t it put an extra spring in your step? It makes you feel good to be a Cougar.”
Sterk said the campaign was the first successful one done entirely through e-mail.
“There was a big buzz going on, and you really couldn’t do it quick over the phone,” Thomsen said. “It was viral.”
He sent the e-mail to his Cougars contacts, they sent it to their Cougars friends, and so on. The campaign raised about $600,000 for the A.D.’s Basketball Excellence Fund.
“It was a lot of fun, and clearly we’re a basketball school now,” Thomsen said.
He wanted to help boost Bennett’s and his assistants’ pay, and prod the university into improving the basketball facilities and locker rooms. Sterk said it could also help bring in a bigger basketball school for a preseason game.
“I know it has helped us overall with support,” Sterk said of the basketball team’s success.
Revenue has also increased as television stations pick up more games. WSU gets $20,000 to $30,000 per basketball game that’s on TV, Sterk said. That not as much as a football game, which brings in about $300,000, but there are more basketball games per year.
“Eighteen were originally scheduled and then a couple more were selected,” Sterk said of this season. “We’ll probably be in the 20-game range. I think 18 was the highest before that.”
The more games that are on TV, the more visibility WSU gets. Whenever sports teams do well – such as when the football team played in the Rose Bowl in 1998 and 2003, and last year when the basketball team made the NCAA tournament – university enrollment spikes the next year, Sterk said.
“I know the admissions at the university, they’re very happy when football and basketball are doing really well,” he said. “Probably basketball more, because that’s when students are making … decisions about where they’re going to go. And it’s that number of impressions that they get, as those 18-year-olds make a decision.”
When it all comes down to it, the basketball team’s success is thanks largely to the program the Bennetts built with a pack of under-recruited players. The recruiting class that includes seniors Robbie Cowgill, Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver has endured the lows and highs of Cougars basketball.
“To be part of that process is – I always tell our kids and kids I’m recruiting – that to me is more enjoyable and better than maybe going somewhere where it’s already established,” Bennett said.
“For this group to do what they did their first two years and to continue to go in this direction, they’ll have some lifelong memories that they can sit back and say, ‘We were the group that did something pretty special.’ “