Final Analysis: Crowning Achievement

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

Welcome to “the dark months.” This is what Mick McHugh calls the period between the end of one baseball season in late September and the beginning of the next one in early April.

McHugh owns F.X. McRory’s Steak, Chop & Oyster House, which debuted in Pioneer Square in 1977, the same year the Seattle Mariners were born. If you’re a diehard Seattle sports junkie, you’ve probably quaffed or noshed at McRory’s at least once. If you have visited during the dark months, it was probably on a day when the Seattle Seahawks were playing football.

There are only eight Seahawks home games each NFL season, so the dark months—October through March—are a challenge for establishments like McRory’s that rely on the sports-obsessed public for much of their income. Basketball and hockey are played during the dark months, which is why McHugh probably thinks Chris Hansen is a heavenly combination of messiah, mensch and Merlin.

Hansen is the rich guy from San Francisco who wants to put a basketball/hockey arena near the existing football and baseball stadiums in Seattle. He has spent more than $50 million buying up property nearby. In a recent blog post, McHugh described Hansen’s arena as having “the potential to … make a difference in the lives of not only the business owners in the area … but the staff we will be able to keep on during those quiet times and the additional people we will have to hire.”

In sporting circles, Hansen has already had his halo fitting. His canonization is likely on the fast track because anyone who can bring professional basketball back to Seattle—and maybe a hockey team, too—while footing much of the bill for a new arena is destined to be seated at the right hand of Oprah come Judgment Day.

But on the day in September that Seattle was celebrating the City Council’s tentative agreement over the financing of Hansen Arena, I was moderating a panel discussion about the outlook for the Washington state economy in 2013. Susan Sigl, CEO of the Washington Technology Industry Association, mentioned that our economic future is inexorably linked to our ability to close the high-tech education gap—the yawning chasm between the huge number of available tech jobs in Washington and the small number of graduates qualified to fill them.

It’s an oft-heard refrain, but if we don’t improve education in the so-called STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), it doesn’t really matter if we get a shiny new version of the Seattle Sonics to play in a shiny new arena. Without a successful economy firing on all cylinders, adding one or two more teams to the professional sports landscape is like putting gas in a car whose fuel tank has a hole in it.

And so as I moderated the discussion, I began to wonder: Wouldn’t it be cool if somebody like Chris Hansen, a zillionaire who grew up in Seattle loving the Sonics and who wants to give back to the community he loves, were willing to pony up about $300 million to kick-start a first-class effort to close the tech education gap?

Look, I love sports. But sports is entertainment. It can boost civic identity to a point, but it’s not as if a city lives or dies according to the number of millionaire athletes it’s willing to coddle. Trust me. The city of Seattle and the state of Washington will survive without a pro basketball team. But without enough highly qualified tech graduates to stoke our economic engine, Mick McHugh’s dark months could become an all-year proposition.

JOHN LEVESQUE is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine.

Final Analysis: Flying Higher

Final Analysis: Flying Higher

How a certain local airline could strike a blow for fairer treatment of college athletes.
FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 
Here’s a thought: While Alaska Air Group spends $2.6 billion swallowing up Virgin America, it should wield some of its new clout — Alaska will soon be the nation’s fifth-largest air carrier — on becoming the college athlete’s best friend.
 
Alaska already showers upon the University of Washington nearly $5 million a year for naming rights to the football field at Husky Stadium and the basketball court at Hec Edmundson Pavilion. It also has sponsorship arrangements with athletic programs at the University of Oregon and Oregon State University. It even paints some of its airplanes in the colors of 11 Western universities, including the UW.
 
On the weekend that news of Alaska’s acquisition of Virgin America broke, the UW women’s basketball team was completing its improbable and exhilarating run to the Final Four of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament. It occurred to me that there’s an opportunity here for Alaska CEO Brad Tilden to start lobbying the NCAA on behalf of student-athletes everywhere, but particularly in Alaska Airlines’ own backyard.
 
Alaska’s Husky Stadium agreement — 10 years, $41 million — already earmarks half of the money for scholarships and “student-athlete welfare.” Last year, for the first time, the NCAA started allowing Division I schools to pay athletes a stipend for incidental living expenses — things like late-night snacks, student fees, incidental travel — that aren’t covered by athletic scholarships for tuition, room and board. 
 
The UW’s annual stipend for athletes is $3,085, or roughly $11.40 a day during a nine-month academic year. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough for a couple of cheeseburgers and a chocolate shake when the dining halls are closed.
 
Alaska’s naming-rights money goes into the pot that helps provide those stipends, which the NCAA instituted as a means of closing the gap between what an athletic scholarship provides — tuition, room, board, books and fees — and the “real” cost of attending college.
 
The problem is that this “cost of attendance” stipend has made a  playing field that’s not level even less fair. Some schools pay stipends of more than $5,000, which is totally permissible under the NCAA guidelines. So if you’re a poor kid being recruited by several universities, which school would you choose — the one offering no stipend, the one offering $3,000 or the one offering $5,000?
 
This is where a corporate CEO has the opportunity to say to the NCAA, “We are a major employer who believes in treating its workers equitably. As a huge supporter of our local university’s athletics program, we think it’s time you paid your athletes a little bit more than cheeseburger money — and paid them fairly acros the board.”
 
It doesn’t have to be a quid-pro-quo situation, as in “pay these athletes or we’ll take our sponsorship money elsewhere.” But airlines have become adept at squeezing travelers for every last dime via baggage fees, boarding fees, legroom fees, beverage fees and the like. I imagine an airline executive could be pretty persuasive suggesting the NCAA assess itself a “fairness fee” and pay student-athletes a decent wage from its enormous piggy bank.
 
The NCAA can still call it a stipend if it wants. Regardless, it should finally admit that scholarships are meant to provide an education but don’t begin to acknowledge that an athlete’s contribution to an institution’s bottom line — not to mention its reputation in the media and its perception by the public — deserves considerably more than free tuition. 
 
JOHN LEVESQUE is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine.