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Check out this article that was printed in the New York Times about the Louisville Cardinals the the rise of the athletic department.

At Louisville, Athletic Boom Is Rooted in ESPN Partnership


Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, a state-of-the-art venue that opened in 1998, was part of a construction boom for Louisville athletics. The football team’s rise began after it moved into the stadium and, a few years later, agreed to play Tuesday night games on ESPN, giving the university desperately needed exposure.Andy Lyons/Getty Images



LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In February, the president of the University of Louisville, James R. Ramsey, traveled to Florida to meet with donors and alumni.

Dr. Ramsey is an economist, and he led off on the dismal side of the ledger, from the challenges facing the economy to dwindling government financing for higher education, including a sharp drop in aid from the State of Kentucky.

But about halfway through his PowerPoint presentation, Dr. Ramsey declared that for all the gloom, things were not so bad at Louisville. Average test scores for incoming freshmen were way up, as was the university’s graduation rate. The research budget had quintupled since 1998.

Louisville’s athletic department was on a roll, too, what with a recent invitation to join the Atlantic Coast Conference, the football team’s victory in the Sugar Bowl and its coach’s decision not to pursue job opportunities with rival universities.

“U. of L. is on an upward trajectory,” one of Dr. Ramsey’s slides proclaimed. “Even ESPN is talking about us!”

What ESPN was not saying was that Louisville’s rise, both academically and athletically, was in large part the product of its partnership with the sports television giant.

Over the past dozen years, to feed its unending appetite for live football, ESPN has made Louisville Cardinals midweek games a mainstay in prime time. In turn, Louisville has made exposure on ESPN the centerpiece of a campaign to rise above its commuter-school roots and become a powerhouse in college sports.

“If it wasn’t for ESPN, we would be a fraction of what we are today,” Tom Jurich, Louisville’s longtime athletic director, said in an interview in his office on April 1 as the university savored its latest basketball success: the men’s and women’s teams were each on the way to the Final Four. The men went on to win the N.C.A.A. title.

Tom Jurich, Louisville’s longtime athletic director, gave ESPN much of the credit for the university’s turnaround. “If it wasn’t for ESPN, we would be a fraction of what we are today,” he said.Christopher Gregory/The New York Times

“We owe them so, so much,” Mr. Jurich said of ESPN. “They were willing to take a chance on us.”

Louisville’s ascent is a case study of how an institution of higher learning can become all but inextricably conjoined with ESPN, an institution of higher profits. It illustrates not only ESPN’s power to make kings among athletic programs, but how profoundly its presence can affect an entire university and its institutional priorities.

Some people on campus wonder if those priorities have become a bit skewed.

“We worry that the university gets too much identified with the athletics,” said Tom Byers, an English professor and a self-described big fan of Louisville sports. “I would love it if we competed with professors with the same kind of financial resources. But that’s not the world we live in.”

What ESPN offered Louisville, beyond millions of dollars in fees for television rights, was prime-time exposure on the leading sports network, putting Cardinals football in front of national audiences of fans, donors, recruits and prospective students.

The cost to Louisville? It had to be ready to play whenever ESPN could fit the Cardinals into its schedule.

“Louisville came to us and said, ‘We’ll play anyone, anywhere, anytime,’ ” said Mark Shapiro, a former head of programming and production at ESPN. Indeed, “anytime, anywhere” became Mr. Jurich’s motto in his early years as athletic director.

When he took over in 1997, the athletic department struggled on an annual budget of about $14 million and attracted little outside attention for sports other than men’s basketball. Today, the budget has swollen to about $77 million, and it will increase significantly with the move to the A.C.C. in 2014.

The arrangement has also been a boon to ESPN. The Cardinals’ prime-time games quickly became ratings winners, convincing others that playing at midweek, while unconventional, could be a blessing in the form of exposure.

“It was a programmer’s dream,” Mr. Shapiro said. “We already had N.F.L. on Sunday nights, N.H.L. and M.L.B. on multiple nights, Thursday night college football. We were all filled up. So I said, ‘How about Tuesday nights?’ They seized it, and over time their results have been spectacular.”

A Surge in Coverage

ESPN’s coverage of Louisville football increased sharply starting in 2000, partly because Louisville agreed to shift its schedule to meet ESPN’s programming needs.

Football as a Foundation

When John W. Shumaker became president of Louisville in 1995, he met with the university’s trustees to chart a way forward. While the university was “respectable,” they agreed, it could be much more. It could be a player. And sports could be its window to the world.

Louisville was still a youngster as far as public universities went, having shed its roots as a small, private college to join the Kentucky state system in 1970. Even its academic strengths in medicine, business and engineering were not widely known beyond a campus bordered by brownfields and railway ruins.

On the sports side, the men’s basketball program was running on the fumes of its two national championships won in the 1980s under the Hall of Fame coach Denny Crum. The athletic department, which had recently joined the new Conference USA, was vastly underfinanced, its teams housed in outdated facilities. Some teams were saddled with penalties because of N.C.A.A. infractions.

Mr. Shumaker’s grand plan, in a nutshell, looked like this: If the athletic program took hold, Louisville could move to a bigger, better conference with a better television deal, putting the whole university — academics and athletics — on a wider national stage.

The key to the whole thing was football. In the economics of big-time college athletics, football is the alpha and the omega — generally by far the most profitable sport, because of the size of the crowds, the sponsorships and the lucrative television agreements. Perhaps two dozen elite universities make enough money from football, and to a lesser degree basketball, to subsidize their entire athletic departments. What Louisville had to do first, Mr. Shumaker decided, was replace the “not very attractive” and decidedly second-tier Cardinal Stadium, which opened in 1957, just after the graduation of Johnny Unitas, Louisville’s greatest football star.

Deon Rogers (43) and Lamar Atkins before a Louisville home game last season. In 2010, a $72 million renovation of Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium added 13,000 seats and rows of lucrative suites.Austin Lassell/The Louisville Cardinal

By the time Mr. Jurich arrived from Colorado State in late 1997, Louisville was in the final stages of building a $63 million, 42,000-seat, state-of-the-art stadium, with naming rights sold to the Papa John’s pizza chain, a prominent Louisville-based business. Mr. Jurich’s task was to put together a better, more watchable football team to go with it. The 1997 team had gone 1-10, finishing last in Conference USA. The university had only five postseason bowl appearances in its history.

Mr. Jurich quickly hired a new coach — John L. Smith, known for his high-scoring, pass-happy offense. “First to 49 points wins,” Mr. Smith liked to joke.

It was fast-break football, made for television. And it was just what ESPN was waiting for.

In the early 2000s, the network, ever expansive, was looking to broaden its college football offerings beyond the traditional Saturday and the increasingly, if grudgingly, accepted Thursday. Most big-name, major-conference universities, though, were not interested in hosting midweek games, given the extensive setup and the disruption to classes and campus life.

What ESPN needed for a new Tuesday night franchise were teams that craved exposure but knew they would not get it on Saturday afternoons flooded with more than 100 games. Conference USA jumped. Before the 2001 season, it signed an eight-year ESPN agreement, reportedly worth about $80 million, that included at least 10 televised games each year, including games on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Universities were not required to participate, and some bristled at the scheduling as sacrilege that took away from the “purity” of the game.

But Louisville, with its national ambitions and with little campus life to disrupt — only about 2,000 of nearly 15,000 undergraduates lived in dormitories — was more than happy to play at midweek.

On Oct. 16, 2001, Southern Mississippi visited Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium for what was billed as the first regular-season college football game on a Tuesday night. Louisville won, 24-14.

John L. Smith, center, Louisville’s coach from 1998 to 2002, introduced a powerful, up-tempo offense that was made for television. Mr. Smith led the Cardinals to a 41-21 record and five bowl games. The season before his arrival, Louisville went 1-10.Andy Lyons/Getty Images

“I think that tonight, with two of our marquee teams playing on national television, it gave our conference very significant national exposure and gave Southern Miss and Louisville great national exposure,” Mike Slive, the Conference USA commissioner at the time, told The Clarion-Ledger, in Jackson, Miss. Mr. Slive is now the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference.

That game was one of five regular-season contests that Louisville played on ESPN or ESPN2 in 2001. The next year, the Cardinals appeared six times during the season, including a Tuesday game, three Thursday games and a Saturday game starting at 9:30 p.m. “They loved putting John L. Smith on,” Mr. Jurich said of the coach, who led the Cardinals to a 41-21 overall record and bowl games in each of his five seasons.

There were inherent challenges in running a football program that rarely played on Saturday. To keep the Cardinals tuned up, Mr. Smith, a believer in regimen, essentially banished the regular calendar and created his own. No matter when his team played, he decreed that the next day would be Sunday, with signs in the locker rooms to reinforce the point.

“It was really crazy, but it was fun and exciting,” Mr. Smith said. “From where we started to where we left, it was well worth it.”

True, alumni grumbled about having to go to the campus on weeknights. “Some of the fans and the press were critical and thought we were violating all the norms,” recalled Mr. Shumaker, who left the university in 2002.

But while the new calendar unsettled some hometown fans, it also won new ones across the country.

“We became America’s team at midweek,” Mr. Jurich said.

That familiarity also created a far wider, and deeper, pool of recruits. “All of a sudden we were able to recruit the Deion Branches and Elvis Dumervils and those types of guys,” Mr. Smith said, referring to two players he coached at Louisville who went on to the N.F.L.

In 1999, Stefan LeFors, a high school quarterback in Louisiana, saw the Cardinals play a wild overtime game against Army on ESPN and decided to send a tape of himself to the Louisville coaches.

“That was my only reason Louisville was on my list,” said Mr. LeFors, who ended up as the starting quarterback under a new coach, Bobby Petrino, who was hired after Mr. Smith left for Michigan State after the 2002 season.

Receiver Andrell Smith, right, helped Louisville defeat North Carolina, 39-34, en route to an 11-2 record last season. The Cardinals were ranked 13th in the final Associated Press poll.Austin Lassell/The Louisville Cardinal

Under Mr. Petrino, the new weeknight tradition continued, and so did the team’s ascent. On Nov. 2, 2006, Louisville fans, wearing black in solidarity, packed Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium for what was then the biggest football game in modern Cardinals history: a Thursday prime-time clash with West Virginia. The Cardinals were undefeated and ranked No. 5 nationally; the Mountaineers were No. 3. Louisville won, 44-34.

A week later, the Cardinals traveled to Rutgers for another Thursday night game. They lost in the closing moments, but by season’s end, the reversal was complete: in less than a decade, Louisville had gone from near-winless obscurity to a 12-1 season, including a conference championship and an Orange Bowl victory.

Without question, ESPN’s investment had paid off. The back-to-back November games still rank among the top 20 in total viewers for a college football game on ESPN. No longer did the network have to entreat schools to play on weeknights.

“As we cleared more homes, bigger conferences saw more dollars and better exposure,” said Loren Matthews, a former ESPN executive who died in March. He added: “Schools would say: ‘We’ll play on any night. Do you want us to start at 9, or do you want us to start at 6?’ ”

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