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Okay, let's get to the huge story that everybody in college football is discussing right now. Let's talk about Chicago State.
Earlier this month, Laurence Holmes of Chicago's 670 The Score broke the news that Chicago State would conduct a feasibility study about potentially adding D-I football. I'm told that Collegiate Consulting will produce the study.
The common response I saw, both here in Chicago and from my readers, was one of confusion, if not outright disdain. Why on Earth would tiny ol' Chicago State, one of the toughest gigs in all of D-I, want to add a football program? It'd have to double its athletic budget, right? Surely that's impossible?
I had a hunch this news was coming. Chicago State's current media rights contract calls for FloSports to have broadcast rights to football games, and when I spoke to Chicago State AD Elliott Charles about the potential back in September, he didn't dismiss it outright.
But why would Chicago State even want to do this?
Sometimes, schools look at starting new sports because they think they have the geography, resources and infrastructure to immediately compete for championships. That would not be the case at Chicago State, although the school is bullish about the long-term potential of its Chicago location.
I'm told there are two major draws to potentially adding football. One is about enrollment. Even if Chicago State fully funded the maximum number of scholarships allowed in FCS, which is unlikely in the short term, it could still add another 30 to 40 non-athletic scholarship students – students who would pay some level of tuition. That doesn't include students who may decide to enroll at Chicago State to participate in a marching band, work as student trainers, or other positions associated with football. An addition of football would also require the school to add multiple new women's sports, sports that would not give a full scholarship for every athlete on the roster.
For a school that currently only enrolls a few hundred new freshmen every year, potentially adding over a hundred more students could be very significant for the institution, even if those teams don't win games or sell tickets.
The other major reason? Conference stability. After the WAC announced several new additions in Texas and Utah, Chicago State withdrew from the league, and the school is still looking for a new home. Industry sources tell Extra Points that while Chicago State has had conversations with the MEAC, Ohio Valley and Southland about long-term affiliate membership status, no official invite has been submitted and ready to be accepted.
One of the sticking points with all three leagues, I'm told, has been football. All three FCS leagues are looking to shore up their football membership, and Chicago State would become a more attractive candidate if it was completely committed to starting and funding the sport. In fact, multiple industry sources directly familiar with the conversations have told Extra Points that a Southland invite is now considered to be very unlikely, in large part because of concerns about Chicago State's ability and commitment to fully fund FCS football on an aggressive timetable.
So whether Chicago State actually decides to really go through with this is still a bit of an open question. But, as a thought experiment, what would need to happen in order for the school to pull this off? What questions need to be answered?
Where would the team play?
For many schools looking to start an FCS football program, the stadium question is one of the largest obstacles, especially if the school would have to build its own field. But I'm told this would not be expected to be the dealbreaker for a potential Chicago State football team.
Not only is there actually land on campus that could potentially be developed into a small stadium, but Chicago State could also potentially leverage its relationship with SeatGeek, or partner with the City of Chicago, Chicago Public Schools and/or the Chicago Parks District to renovate any of the larger high school stadiums in the area. Gately Stadium, for example, is only about a mile away from campus, and Eckersall Stadium is only about four miles. Those fields likely aren't ready out of the box for FCS football, but rennovating an existing field is much cheaper than building your own.
Sharing a large high school field is not unheard of at the FCS level. Depending on which external partners were willing and able to be involved, Chicago State should have multiple options.
And hey, maybe the Bears actually move to Arlington Heights and Solider Field needs a new tenant. You never know, right?
Outside of a stadium, what are the other big financial questions?
As best as I can tell, there are two big ones.
One would be facilities. Chicago State has a really excellent basketball facility (one that industry sources have told me would be one of the best in the Southland, OVC or MEAC), complete with a modern weight room. But that facility is not large enough to accommodate the weight room and meeting room needs of a football team. The school would almost certainly need to build either a football-specific performance center, or another multi-sport athletic complex.
That would be expensive. One potential way to pay for that would be to, again, partner with the city or state to build a new structure that could be multi-use. The basketball arena, after all, was paid for via a state appropriation, and is used for other purposes. If, hypothetically, a new athletic facility could also be used by community members, perhaps another entity would help pay for it.
Beyond a new building, there are also significant staffing upgrades that come with adding so many new athletes to a department. Looking at various MEAC, Southland and OVC schools in our FOIA directory, the typical spend on just a football coaching staff runs between $900,000 to $1.5 million. Chicago State would also need to hire more compliance offers, sports information officers, physical trainers, and other administrative staff.
That's a big ask for Chicago State. According to the school's FY20 FRS report, adding a million bucks in football coaching salaries would double the department's spending on coaching salaries for all sports. The department reported spending roughly $8 million in total. If the school added football, and then say, women's lacrosse and beach volleyball, it's not hard to see a world where that $8 million would need to become at least $15 million, every year.
It's possible Chicago State may not have to pay for all of that new spending. It isn't uncommon for low-majors to secure deals with local hospitals or physical therapy clinics to provide medical services for free, in exchange for advertising. The school has struggled to secure major corporate sponsorships, but perhaps the prospect of supporting the only D-I football program in the city of Chicago could be enough to bring new names and brands into the fold.
It's hard for me to see a way for Chicago State to get outside parties to pay for all the required new facility and staff spending. But some of it? Sure.
I don't think this is an irrational question. But it's hard for me to see how Chicago State pulls this off without help
There are a lot of potentials or maybes in this story. Part of why you do a feasibility study is to better understand what sort of potential can be realistically unlocked, and on what timetable.
It's hard for me to see how Chicago State is able to pull off any meaningful expansion of athletic department offerings without help from parties outside the university. If some combination of Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Parks Department, the City of Chicago, State of Illinois or Chicago's business and civic community steps up and is prepared to shoulder some of those burdens, then I really think there could be a path to making this work. If Chicago State needs to fundraise this spending primarily from its own alumni and development networks, I don't personally see a pathway.
Whether the city or state should offer funding or in-kind support for Chicago State athletic expansion is another good and important question worthy of exploration, given Chicago's many glaring needs and lack of limitless resources. But in my opinion, that's a different question from whether such support is even possible.
That's why you ask. I don't think there's any harm in asking. When you're trying to rebuild an athletic department at a challenging job, you've got to ask bold questions.
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