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New seating concept could net Cal $250 million

Cal is hoping to sell Equity Seat Rights, a new concept in the world of sports. Unlike a personal seat license, an ESR gives the seat holder ownership for, say, 30 years.

High above Memorial Stadium at the University of California in Berkeley sits a patch of land known as Tightwad Hill. Decades before Cal captured national attention with its Free Speech Movement, fans cheered for the Bears football team from that vantage point. Its main appeal ­ – aside from the spectacular view of the San Francisco Bay – is its price: Free.

But a change is afoot in the stands below. What’s free on the hill may soon be expensive among 3,000 prime seats between the 35-yard lines – possibly costing as much as $225,000 per alum.

Cal is hoping to sell the Endowment Seat Program, commonly known as Equity Seat Rights (ESR), a new concept championed by Stadium Capital Financing Group in Chicago. Unlike a personal seat license, where one pays a few thousand dollars or more for the right to purchase tickets, an ESR gives the seat holder ownership for, say, 30 years. The price of a ticket for an ESR is fixed during that time, while a PSL ticket has no cost ceiling.

These days, most college football fans who are big donors secure top-notch seats, but as years pass they can be trumped by even bigger donors and be forced into different seats. An ESR removes this possibility. Also, the seats can be resold or transferred to children or others when the original owner dies. And 70 percent of the cost of the ESR – which can be paid up front or over a 30-year timetable at Cal – is a federal tax writeoff, since it’s considered a donation to a non-profit.

The first university in the United States to embrace the ESR concept, Cal also touts other advantages of the program, including preferred parking, free food and something unheard-of at a Bears’ game – a cushioned seat with a back rest.

”We’re providing a tangible benefit to the donor,” said Rich Magid, chief operating officer at Stadium Capital Financing Group. “Some donors to universities give a check and never see anything tangible in return.”

Magid pointed out that two tiers of alums are being targeted: the older, more established graduates who can afford either a six-figure one-time payment or up to $15,000 in annual payments to guarantee a seat for 40-50 years, and the younger fans who may fork over $1,000 annually for a seat today and upgrade as they become more successful.

As Carl Stoney, who now already spends thousands a year on two football seats at Memorial Stadium, told the San Francisco Business Times: “I’m interested in it. It strikes me as a pretty creative way to get the money lined up.”

If the Board of Regents approves the plan next March, for Cal the payoff could be immense. Over a 30-year period, the athletic department could reap as much as $250 million which, if invested properly, could be tripled. Rather than fund athletic programs on a crisis basis – going to boosters for $10,000 to help pay a new coach, for instance – Cal’s athletic endowment could enjoy a steady stream of revenue. To pay for improvements at Memorial Stadium, it would not need to beg for help from the city of Berkeley or the state of California, nor would it need to tap public debt.

This weekend, Cal welcomes Stanford and at least 72,000 fans to its aging edifice for what is simply known in the Bay Area as The Game. In 1982, the unbelievable occurred: Cal grabbed a last-second kickoff and, after a slew of laterals, scored a touchdown on the final play to win 25-20.

What may be equally shocking is this could be the last Big Game at the dyed-in-the-wool liberal enclave where fans are more or less equal in the stands, sitting on hard, backless benches. During the 2010 Big Game, well-heeled alums are likely to be resting in comfortable seats – with access to a club room featuring TV replays and Internet connections. Perhaps the biggest advantage: if that year’s game is a yawner, they can click on YouTube to watch Kevin Moen run over a Stanford band member.

That’s a view even the denizens on Tightwad Hill might pay for.