Cal announced last month that it has sold just 64 percent of the 2,902 high-priced seats available in renovated Memorial Stadium.

That figure might come as a surprise to the Regents of the University of California, who were told by a Cal official 31/2 years ago that 65 percent of the seats had been sold.

It might mystify members of the faculty, who were told by a former vice chancellor that Cal would sell 70 percent of the seats by the end of 2009.

It might be a source of confusion for attendees of a 2010 Homecoming event, who were told by athletic director Sandy Barbour that "we've got about two-thirds of them sold at this point."

In reality, the Bears hadn't sold close to two-thirds of the premium seats at the heart of their plan to finance the stadium renovation.

During the early years of the plan, the school counted as sold any seat that had been merely reserved with a nonbinding intent-to-purchase letter.

Even now, tracking sales is tricky because fans pay over time and can drop out of the Endowment Seating Program at any point -- without penalty.

The loose interpretation of the term sold in the early years of the ESP created "vastly inflated" data, according to a review of the stadium financing plan conducted earlier this year by professors at the Haas School of Business.


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The review concluded that "these numbers gave a false sense of confidence to campus leadership and the (Academic) Senate ... that the ESP program was very likely to meet its goals."

One example of data inflation came in September 2009, when Cal officials went before the Regents' committee on grounds and buildings to request approval of the stadium renovation.

According to the minutes of the meeting, Erin Gore, Cal's newly appointed associate vice chancellor for budget planning, told the Regents that the school "has sold 65 percent of the seats" in the ESP.

In fact, no seats had been sold -- they wouldn't be available for selection for two weeks or available for purchase for several months. All Cal had at the time was intent-to-purchase orders.

The Regents approved the financing plan, which required $321 million in UC-issued bonds. Would a more precise update have resulted in the financing plan getting rejected, or tweaked?

Outright rejection seems unlikely given that the Regents had previously ordered the Bears to retrofit the stadium (because of public safety concerns) or find another home.

Cal officials are quick to note that a memo sent to the Regents in advance of the September '09 meeting clearly stated that the school had received "letters of intent" for 65 percent of the ESP seats.

"The material they'd been given made it clear," Barbour said.

This newspaper left messages seeking comment from the seven Regents present at the committee meeting; none were returned.

Asked about her presentation, Gore said: "It was only later that I discovered that the data I was given mixed together confirmed sales and letters of intent. That should not have happened."

There are numerous other examples of data inflation and overly optimistic projections from school officials, including:

  • In an overview of the financing plan written in 2009 for the Academic Senate, then-vice chancellor for finance Nathan Brostrom wrote: "Per current pledges and commitments, (athletics) will have sold 70 percent of the inventory by the end of this calendar year."

  • In a February 2010 letter to the Contra Costa Times, then-assistant athletic director for development Dave Rosselli wrote that "nearly 1,700 of the ESP seats have been sold." (The Bears didn't reach that figure for nearly two years.)

    A review of dozens of stadium-related interviews, memos and reports from 2009-11 found no evidence that Cal engaged in fraud. Internal documents usually specified that sales figures were based on intent-to-purchase orders, but school officials were less specific in their public comments.

    "In the initial stages of the project, the definition of a seat sold was at its broadest," Barbour said. "Now, it's at its narrowest."

    The inflated data did more than create the "false sense of confidence" described in the Haas report.

    "It has caused people to question the credibility of the information we're putting out," said John Wilton, Cal's vice chancellor for finance.

    Hired two years ago, Wilton has implemented a more rigorous system to track ESP sales. He also has insisted on complete transparency when providing figures to the public.

    Detailed quarterly reports, which include sales figures and other stadium-related income, are available on Cal's website. Seats are considered sold only if accounts are up-to-date. If a payment is one week late, the sale is considered to be merely "in progress."

    "There was a cost in credibility," Wilton said, "but I think now we've turned the corner."

    For more on college sports, see Jon Wilner's College Hotline at blogs.mercurynews.com/collegesports. Contact him at jwilner@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5716.

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