When the GOP debate visits Boulder, Colo. later this month, the public university will roll out the red carpet for the candidates and the television spectacle hoping to cash in on the global media spotlight. The university’s leaders are not alone in investing thousands or even millions of dollars to woo the debates, and to expect a huge surge in exposure in return.
As the debates unfold over the coming year or so, including the Democrats’ first primary debate on Tuesday night in Las Vegas, the made-for-TV events are sure to draw huge audiences and advertising dollars. But, the financial benefits to the sites for 2016 primary and presidential debates are less certain.
Documents released under state open records laws show the University of Colorado-Boulder has agreed with the Republican National Committee and CNBC to shoulder the bulk of the expenses for the Oct. 28 GOP primary debate.
The state university will waive its normal rental fee of $15,000 for use of the 11,000-seat Coors Events Center basketball arena. Only about 1,000 seats will be available for spectators, of which, only 100 will be distributed to university students and officials. The university also will print the tickets and provide parking, free shuttles and a designated protest area.
“We as an institution will get great branding and PR capacity, so we feel that it is a good investment,” said Ryan Huff, a spokesman for Colorado University.
The tiny ticket allotment also drew complaints from student groups, who rallied to obtain more access. They wrote letters, signed petitions and appealed to the presidential candidates, the TV network and the university. In addition to the donated space, the university plans to pay for the debate expenses from a pool of private fundraising dollars and insurance rebates.
“We think it’s a misnomer to advertise it as a debate on a college campus that doesn’t actually involve college students. It doesn’t make any sense for everyone to drive here and lock themselves in an arena,” said Aaron Estevez-Miller, a senior at CU studying economics and international affairs.
Responding to student pleas this week, Colorado’s Chancellor Philip DiStefano said CNBC’s requirements limited space for in-person attendance. He said in return for its investments, the university expects “unprecedented national and international media coverage.”
The value of that media coverage is often overstated, however.
Lynn University, which hosted a 2012 general election presidential debate in Boca Raton, Fla., estimated the event generated a staggering $63.7 million in “earned media.”
That figure is based on the university’s name appearing in news stories around the country. But, it’s an inaccurate accounting, according to Victor Matheson, an economist at Holy Cross University, who studies the financial impact of live events.
“That is a laughable number. I’d say it’s probably inflated by a factor of 20 to 100,” Matheson said. “Ask anyone in the U.S. where one of the 2012 debates was, do you think they’ll say Boca Raton?”
Matheson argued that the real economic impact of visiting presidential nominees and media is hard to debunk, but that money doesn’t benefit the university that hosts the event.
Lynn University estimated the event generated $13.1 million in direct impact, but counted its own $4.5 million investment to host the debate in addition to attendees’ spending on hotels, restaurants and other costs. To give one example: Lynn University estimated that some 4,000 media representatives visited for the debate and spent $2.6 million while in town.
Once a university declares a huge windfall from hosting a debate, the figure spreads and gets repeated by other potential hosts, USA TODAY found.
Representatives from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and Longwood University, both host sites for 2016 general-election season presidential debates, cited the exact same pre-debate projection of “more than $50 million in publicity” issued by Lynn in 2012.
Las Vegas received $4 million from the city’s convention and visitors authority to cover costs of hosting next October’s presidential debate, an event they say will “garner tremendous media exposure for Las Vegas and reinforce its reputation as a place to do business.”
Longwood University in Farmville, Va., plans to invest $3 million for its October 2016 vice presidential debate, paid for with private donations and cash reserves, not tuition or operating funds, said President W. Taylor Reveley. Like in Boulder, however, officials have warned that students likely won’t be able to attend in person.
“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity for our students and it’s an important civic responsibility at a national level,” Reveley said. “Most host institutions see a meaningful increase in applications and alumni engagement.”
Wright State University, a public institution in Dayton, Ohio, will host the presidential debate on Sept. 26 next year. Officials there declined to release information on the debate costs or the university’s bid, citing security concerns.
Washington University in St. Louis will host the second presidential debate on Oct. 9, 2016. That event will cost the university $1.95 million, paid for with “fundraising and cash reserves,” said Julie Hail Flory, a university spokeswoman.
Students can apply to attend the event via a lottery.
The four general election presidential debate host sites in 2016 are chosen separately than the primary debates. The site selections are made by the non-profit Commission on Presidential Debates.
Nearly 50 sites inquired about hosting a 2016 general election debate, and the commission received 16 bids, said Janet Brown, the CPD executive director.
But the vetting and selection process is secret. Still, Brown said the events are highly coveted and worthwhile.
“The fact that multiple universities bid says they believe they get something out of it,” Brown said. “These are historic, exciting events. Some universities have instituted additions to their curriculum around the debate.”
The primary debates are traditionally cheaper affairs, but sites still seek out the events.
Representatives from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation in Simi Valley, Calif. spent about $250,000 on setting up their Sept. 16 GOP debate, said John Heubusch, the group’s executive director.
“Is it worth it? No doubt in my mind it’s worth it,” Heubusch said. “When you get 23 million people watching, that’s a lot of impressions for our organization.”
On Tuesday, the first Democratic primary debate will be hosted in Nevada at the Wynn Las Vegas. Representatives from the casino and hotel resort declined to release details on the financial agreement with CNN.
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