So what's in a football feasibility study, anyway?
Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.
Before we get to any other updates, I want to let you know that there’s a pretty good chance this week’s publishing schedule could be a little wonky. Over the weekend, Chicago got hit with a huge snowstorm, leading to daycare cancelations. There’s also a non-trivial chance that Chicago Public Schools could have a bit of labor trouble, as administrators and union leaders argue over school re-opening.
That means there’s a non-trivial chance that Good Spot Publishing HQ will temporarily become Good Spot Unlicensed Pre-K Through First Grade Success Academy. Or Good Spot Chicagoland Shoveling Service. Or Good Spot Look Daddy Just Needs Like, Ten Minutes Of Quiet Time, Okay? You get the idea.
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You know what isn’t free? Starting a college football team.
In fact, it’s really expensive! It also takes a long time, and like anything else involved with higher education, it requires an ungodly amount of paperwork.
One of the first bits of paperwork in that process, or at least, one of the first bits of paperwork that anybody outside the university hears about? The feasibility study.
If your favorite program hasn’t started the process around a feasibility study, chances are, they aren’t particularly serious about starting that program.
But what’s actually in these studies? What do they tell schools? What can they tell fans about what’s actually required to start a football team?
I’ve read a handful of these studies. I’ve got Cleveland State’s from 2009 right here, if you want to read it. You can also read Florida Gulf Coast’s from 2011 right here. The University of Maryland-Eastern Shore’s study from 2012 can be found here. And finally, Winthrop’s study, from 2016, can be read here. There are plenty of others floating out there around the internet. If you have one you’d like to share, my email is [email protected].
These are all interesting as historical documents, as we can go back and look at how accurate some of the projections were, or what an institution’s mission was at a particular moment in time. But they’re also instructive today, as I think these can illustrate exactly what schools really have to consider when they launch football programs, even FCS ones.
It all starts with the master plan. What are you really trying to accomplish?
One of the themes I keep coming back to since I started Extra Points is this idea of really, I mean really examining what exactly schools want their athletic departments to do. Do they primarily exist as tools to improve student enrollment and retention? Are they extensions of the university marketing department? Are they to improve alumni engagement and donations, establish a sense of campus identity, or reach out to the local community in a new way? Are these goals measurable? How will a school know if they’re being successful?
Every one of these studies continuously came back to these questions. Starting a football program is really expensive, and requires a significant athletic department reorganization, one that will typically require new hires in training, development, communications, women’s sports, and more.
If the only goal is “profitability”, or at least becoming financially self-sufficient, then these PDFs would be much smaller documents. Essentially, they would become single-paged documents that read “you should not start a college football program.”
The four schools mentioned above had different institutional goals and needs. FGCU, at the time, was a school already with a five-figure enrollment, and one projected to potentially double in size over the next decade. Winthrop and UMES were smaller public schools trying to grow, and Cleveland State was a larger school, looking to shore up enrollment and establish a more traditional campus experience. Success is going to look different for each school, and each paper tried to tie exactly what college football might mean, or not mean, to a school’s goals.
You have to buy a lot of stuff to play FCS football. Like a stadium. And probably a bunch of other offices too.
I remember when I was a student at American University, one of the (many) reasons the school told students they wouldn’t consider starting a football team was that there was no place to play. The campus sits in a residential and highly developed neighborhood in Washington D.C that would never be able to accommodate a stadium, and no existing campus faculty could be easily converted to an FCS-level football facility. Playing somewhere else across town would make it impossible to attract student and community interest. Geography essentially made football dead on arrival.
That could be true for plenty of other FCS programs. Others might have on-campus, or at least near-campus options that could be converted into a stadium at a more affordable price point. Cleveland State’s study, for example, claimed that their existing soccer field could be remodeled into a 3,000 seat football facility, one good enough for non-scholarship play in the Pioneer league. Such a project, in 2009 dollars, was roughly $10 million. A new stadium for Winthrop projected to be in the same ballpark, roughly $9.5 million.
But Florida Gulf Coast would have needed to build an entirely new facility. Their study, which called for the program to play at the scholarship level, projectedt the costs for a new 15,000 seat stadium, one that could potentially expand to as many as 30,000 seats. That would have cost over $60 million.
A school that could potentially buy, or even rent, a local high school stadium or minor league baseball stadium might have an easier path to starting a football program than one that needs to build an entirely new complex from scratch, especially if that school is located somewhere where real estate or construction costs could be unusually high.
Operational and capital costs include more than just a coaching staff
Depending on existing facilities, a new program might need to build new locker rooms, meeting spaces, press boxes, and other supporting athletic facilities to support a large influx of new athletes. In order to remain compliant with Title IX (or approach compliance), many schools would also need to add new women’s sports, sports that could also require facility renovation or expansion.
At UMES, for example, the study called for renovations to the baseball and softball complex, facilities to support new women’s sports, and new buildings to support all athletes, at roughly $15 million. That’s also about what Florida Gulf Coast projected to spend in additional outdoor field and football support facility costs.
You also have to hire a ton more people. FGCU’s plan mentioned that in addition to football coaches, the athletic department would need to hire ten more full-time staffers, from additional athletic trainers to ticketing personnel to a team secretary. UMES and Winthrop pointed out that both programs would need to spend more than six figures to establish marching bands.
Once you build (and maintain) a stadium, hire a coaching staff, hire a support staff, build all the other buildings, place an order for some bass drums and trumpets…that all adds up in quite a hurry. And that’s to say nothing about all those new travel expenses, additional insurance costs, and more.
So who pays for all this?
This is the tough question, right? Chances are, if you’re looking to start an FCS football program, you’re not a massive state flagship or an AAU research powerhouse.
Do you raise student fees? At Winthrop, the study asked current students if they’d support a new football team, and mostly received positive answers. But once they asked if students would support paying more money in fees to support a team, that number dropped. 50% said they wouldn’t support any fees, and less than 10% indicated they’d pay more than $100 in fees. A $40 hike in fees wouldn’t come close to raising enough money to support football, given Winthrop’s modest enrollment size. Studies at Cleveland State showed a similar breakdown…students weren’t as excited about actually paying for the program.
You’d also need support from donors and local corporations. The UMES study threw cold water on football by pointing out how far behind UMES in fundraising support compared to other MEAC schools, even before adding more expenses from football.
You probably aren’t going to finance this entire operation on the backs of students. Anybody seriously considering this path better have other ways to scare up that money.
You’re not going to make your money back from ticket sales, TV money, or bodybag games, at least, not at the FCS level. Whether all of this is “worth it” then depends on your schedule, your enrollment, and most importantly, your institutional goals.
That’s worth keeping in mind for other programs that might potentially start FCS teams in the near future, like UTRGV, or perhaps others that haven’t hit the public rumor-mill yet.
The near future might be a more challenging time to start a team. Is this a strong environment to fundraise, or take out significant capital expenses? With potential realignment coming at the FCS level, and maybe beyond, can you be sure your program will have a conference home that fits your institutional objectives? Will your institutional objectives change over the next few years, in a post-COVID world?
These aren’t easy questions, and the answers are going to vary a lot from school to school.
The first step to figuring that out? It requires being really honest with yourself, about what you’re trying to accomplish, and what you’re willing to spend to get there.
Sometimes, that ends up in a 100 page PDF.
If your school makes one of those, why not send it our way? I’d love to read it.
As soon as I finish shoveling my street.
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