Empowering the Big Game Tradition

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You make the call.

You're an athletic director at a school with a middling program with aspirations to make it big. You feel like you're just around the corner. You have everything in place - except the cash.

You try to explain to students and alumni that with a few facility improvements and a little financial love, your school could join the elite. With a little money, all your non-revenue teams can stop worrying about budget cuts.

The students don't buy it. And after alumni just coughed up more than $50 million to build you a brand-new basketball arena that was delayed a year, their wallets are a little thin.

No one's interested besides this local tech firm, which puts together a pretty attractive proposal. It will provide you with equipment, sponsor a cutting-edge feature for your Web site and fork over some cash - in return for you slapping its name all over your school's defining tradition.

Do you take the deal and clench your teeth or turn it down and tighten your belt?

Do you sell out or go under?

You make the call.

Cal athletic director John Kasser has already made the call, and it was not an easy one.

Cal struck a deal with Cisco Systems this fall that included a six-figure payment, new communications equipment for the press box, a plan to Web-cast tomorrow's Big Game on the Internet - and a limited title sponsorship.

That's right, for the first time in its 108-year history, Cal and Stanford's annual football bash isn't just the Big Game. It is the Big Game - Presented by Cisco Systems.

Around here, that's like Microsoft sponsoring Thanksgiving. The Big Game is Cal's athletic holiday, when students who aren't big football fans can get just as juiced as the ones who spend their fall Saturdays hammered in the student section, when staid professors clap along with the Cal Band in their lectures, when octogenarians who've seen every Big Game since the Wilson administration remember what it is to be a student.

This year, just like any past, it doesn't matter that neither team is going to a bowl, that they have a combined seven wins.

Cal-Stanford doesn't need a storyline. It doesn't require a fancy moniker, like the Civil War or the Apple Cup. It's just Big.

But now it's the Big Game. . . brought to you by the good people at Cisco, who don't know Joe Kapp from John Elway.

We can tolerate that on the other side of campus, where the interior of beautiful Haas Pavilion is replete with corporate banners. It may have been more successful recently, but basketball at Cal doesn't have the same resonance as football. Pete Newell was an icon, Kevin Johnson was wonderful, but where are the Kapps, the Andy Smiths, the Pappy Waldorfs, the Joe Roths, the Kevin Moens - for crying out loud, where is the Play?

I doubt Cisco would be able to tell you.

But when we step back and remove our blue-and-gold-colored glasses, the issue becomes much more complicated.

Cisco is paying Cal six figures, and in college sports, that's not chump change. It could mean the difference between cutting a men's sport and keeping it.

Title IX has put the athletic department in a bind. Cal has to increase funding of women's sports, and with a limited budget. So men's sports have to take the loss. Last November, Kasser asked the students to pay more fees to save men's sports, among other things, but the students rejected his request resoundingly.

That has forced the athletic department to pursue other avenues, and it hasn't done it lightly.

"Every school has to consider (sponsorship deals) unless they want to cut sports or scholarships," said Kevin Reneau, Cal's associate athletic director for communications and marketing. "Reality is reality, and we don't want to be the ones to tell baseball or gymnastics that they are no longer part of the program."

Cal did its best to minimize Cisco's visibility in the deal. The title sponsorship is "limited," meaning that every reference to "Big Game" doesn't legally need "Presented by Cisco Systems" tacked on.

It's a far cry from "The Rose Bowl Presented by AT&T" that we've had to stomach for two years, or the Tostitos commercial that is the Fiesta Bowl. There will be no logo on the field or Cisco-themed halftime show.

But it's still a step in that direction, a continuation of that trend, and Cal officials recognize that.

"Certainly you can say it's a sellout, but it's a far cry from selling out the Big Game," Reneau said. "We can do this, but let's not go further down the road. It won't help either of us to have a big corporation (like Cisco Systems) step in and take over."

But it will certainly help Cal to get some much-needed money. And if you had to choose between selling title sponsorship rights to the Big Game and cutting baseball, would you adulterate the university's greatest tradition or cut one of its most traditional sports?

You make the call.

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