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Morris: Fans will pay for elite aspirations

THE NEW GRANITE Quarry Park along the banks of the Congaree River in downtown Columbia will ultimately serve as the latest monument to the escalating arms race in college athletics.

Spending what eventually will be $40 million for a new college baseball stadium makes little business sense. But, as Eric Hyman points out, nothing outside football and men's basketball is sound business acumen these days in college athletics.

"If you look at it from a business standpoint, then we'd only have two sports," said Hyman, USC's athletics director and the man charged with raising enough money to cover the new stadium's $1.9 million annual debt service for the next 30 years.

So, while the USC athletics administration and baseball coaching staff ushered members of the media around the new park's grounds on Wednesday, it was easy to overlook the obvious question: Who is going to pay for the most expensive ball park ever built for college baseball?

The answer, of course, is USC fans, who from this point on should not be permitted to complain about the inevitable soaring ticket costs, increased concession prices, seat licenses and parking fees associated with the new park. That is because the price to field one of the nation's elite baseball programs just got steep.

Over the past decade, Ray Tanner has gone about building the most consistently excellent program in the SEC, and one of the best in the nation. Trips to the NCAA Super Regionals seem like an annual affair. Three visits to the College World Series made USC a super power.

To think, Tanner did all this with virtually no facilities. Hitting coach Monte Lee talked Wednesday about how he shares his batting cages at Sarge Frye Field with the grounds crew. Clark Cox, USC's sports turf manager, says the squeegees used to clear water from the Sarge Frye outfield will be thrown away following this season.

Tanner has been recruiting top-level talent for most of the past six years — the life of plans to build a new park — with the promise those players would perform in a top-of-the-line stadium.

"It had a good impact," said Whit Merrifield, a freshman outfielder of the prospect of playing in the new stadium he saw for the first time Wednesday. "There were a lot of different factors, but this was definitely one of them."

Tanner and Hyman are banking on the idea that the stadium will attract better talent and elevate the program.

"I look at it this way," Hyman said. "You look at what we've been able to accomplish with what we have, and now look at what's going to happen here, and you're going to have as good a (stadium) as there is in the country."

There is no doubting that claim. The stadium will have every amenity for coaches, players and fans. Tanner's plush office will overlook the stadium. Players will use four indoor batting cages. Fans will have chairback seats and a picnic area.

That is what you get for $35.6 million — so far — these days. Tom Tingle, who has overseen ballpark designs for 20 years, recently told Baseball America that ballpark costs fall into three categories. For $40-50 million, you get what amounts to a Triple-A level minor-league stadium. A Double-A park will cost you $25-$35 million. A Class A stadium costs between $15 and $20 million.

So, it appears that USC is getting close to a Triple-A stadium. Lehigh Valley, the Class AAA affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies, recently opened a $49.4 million, 10,000-seat stadium in Allentown, Pa. Closer to home, the Greenville Drive spent $14.5 million two years ago to open their beautiful 5,000-seat Class A ballpark.

At the college level, LSU will get a new, $34 million stadium for next season. The University of Texas spent $25.8 million to renovate its stadium, and North Carolina will completely rebuild its stadium at a cost of $17 million. Like USC, none of those powerful baseball programs turns a profit.

"Obviously, through that you're going to be able to generate revenue," Hyman said of operating a new 5,400-seat stadium, "but you won't be able to generate enough to offset the cost of what it is to run the program. That's just college athletics."

Hyman said USC's baseball program has an operating budget this year of $1.2 million. The program will generate $700,000 in revenues, thus an operating deficit of $500,000.

He said the aim for the new stadium is to increase revenues enough to cover the program's operating costs. Then USC only has to deal with the bond debt. That $1.9 million can be offset through fund raising and naming rights for the stadium.

It is all part of a race in college athletics, and in baseball more specifically, that has nothing to do with pitchers' arms. This arms race is about keeping an elite program at an elite level. Hyman and USC are gambling that Gamecock fans are willing to pay that price.