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Sports >  WSU football

John Blanchette: Washington State hopes Gesa partnership leads to more financial unions down the road as budget deficit builds

UPDATED: Fri., March 12, 2021

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

So Washington State athletics gets $11 million, minimum. What does the credit union get?

Well, tangibly, a couple of new branch offices on campus to better handle the average Wazzu student’s checking account – which is probably overdrawn due to the latest tuition hike.

And this: a shot at future customers pronouncing the name right.

It’s “Geesa” as in VISA, and not “Gessa,” as in “take a guessa at how to say ‘Gesa.’ ”

Seems like a win-win, then. And that’s rosier than the zero-sum game of something like the Pac-12 standings, or the negative-sum game of WSU’s athletic financials.

The medium was sterile old socially distant Zoom and the smiles of the principle dealmakers were as blinding as Friday afternoon’s sun. But as WSU and Gesa Credit Union announced their “integrated partnership” that will put a new name on the Cougars’ football field for the next 10 years, what couldn’t be missed was the undercurrent of sheer relief from the campus partner.

See? There is some money coming in.

The teams are winning some and losing some, but the Cougs can’t get out from underneath all the black ink in the papers about the red ink in That Darned Deficit. The accumulated athletic debt is now almost $120 million, much of it accrued from constructing football facilities on credit and planning to pay it off with TV revenue from the Pac-12 that turned out to be more lemonade stand than mother lode.

Then WSU athletic director Pat Chun had to schlep himself in front of the Board of Regents on Thursday to report another $31.7 million gash this fiscal year after COVID-19 wiped out more than half the football schedule – the TV dough with it – and the selling of even a single ticket.

In that context, the $11 million over 10 years coming from the Gesa deal is more Band-Aid than tourniquet.

But, you know, it’s something – something the Cougars have never had. There are sponsors’ names flashing on the scoreboard and LED ribbon, of course, but nobody’s come across with an eight-figure commitment to put their name on an athletic facility, all of which to this point have been dedicated to Cougar legends – Friel, Brayton, Bailey, Mooberry, Bohler.

Well, except football. That stadium bears the name of a governor and, oy, a Husky.

But moving ahead, the official name will be Gesa Field at Martin Stadium. Another, uh, integrated partnership.

Naturally, everyone but the school will continue to refer to it as Martin Stadium out of sheer habit and shortness of breath.

That could change over time.

Friel Court seems to have overtaken Beasley Coliseum as the preference for the basketball peeps. And maybe gratitude will win over Cougs to Gesa Field.

Beyond gratitude, however, the hope is it will trigger imitation.

“What I’ve found in my experience as a president and working in several land grant university,” WSU president Kirk Schulz said, “is that any time you see a major investment like Gesa is making at WSU, what it does is it inspires others. It gives us an opportunity to take the investment, the partnership, and talk to other people about that.”

Such a pitch finds more traction when there is buzz around Wazzu’s various programs – Chun mentioned the ESPN GameDay circus of 2019, pictures of which he might want to tuck into his wallet alongside snapshots of his family for the sales calls. Sponsors are going to want to see parishioners in the pews, something only football currently generates.

And sometimes there is a limited marketplace in making such a marriage.

Don Miller, Gesa’s president and CEO, outlined his company’s unique interest.

“Back in 2019, we merged with Inspirus in Western Washington, which made us the second-largest credit union in the state,” he said. (The biggest, BECU, is already a major Cougar sponsor, which might make for a tricky dynamic.)

“But the reality is, there are a lot of pockets in the state who don’t know who we are or what our name is. We were looking for a platform that would leverage us to a point for that brand recognition to where our story gets out.”

Chun has done some leveraging of his own with WSU’s football success pre-COVID with some record fundraising, and breaking through with a naming rights deal after a yearlong slog merits a toast.

Even if it doesn’t make a dent in the debt.

But that’s the far thornier discussion the school and its supporters still must embrace. Even with the surge in donations, WSU athletics still hasn’t squared an annual budget never mind the cumulative Everest. It still hasn’t proved it can live within its modest means, and recently Schulz proposed a $3 million a year subsidy to athletics of university money while calling for an $8 million campuswide cut.

That doesn’t sound like an integrated partnership as much as a one-way street.

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