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I’ve been thinking a lot about this recent story from the Utah Valley University student newspaper, where the paper asked various students if the school should start a football program.
On one hand, it would have made a pretty easy newsletter for me to try and answer that question. And if my readership really wanted me to, I guess I could take an afternoon to try and seriously model out an answer that’s deeper than my knee jerk “no, of course not.”
But I think the more interesting question here isn’t whether a commuter college in Utah should start an FCS team…but how should anybody approach that decision?
I’ve read the feasibility studies. I’ve spent large swaths of my sportswriting career trying to unpack enrollment patterns and recruit distributions and athletic department budgets. But maybe focusing on all of that stuff misses the point a little bit.
So. Let’s say your favorite college is thinking about starting a college football team. What should they consider?
Before you dig into anything else, I’d focus on these questions.
What would success look like at your school?
There are lots of reasons to start a college football program, some of them good, some of them bad, but they’re going to be different from school to school. Before you can even begin to entertain the idea of starting a football team, you’ll need to figure out not just your why, but what accomplishing that why would look like.
Does a successful college football mean your school grew enrollment? If so, what types of students are you hoping to attract, and how many? Is the goal to better engage alumni? If so, what are the outcomes that are tied to engagement that you hope to see? Is it improved media coverage? Better support from local political leaders? An improved student retention rate?
Starting a football program is expensive. It’s going to take a lot of money and a lot of time, which means it also carries a considerable opportunity cost. Any program considering such an endeavor must consider exactly how success will be determined and measured. You wouldn’t accept vague “warm fuzzies” as acceptable currency in any other major campus development, after all.
Can you accomplish your objectives without actually winning a lot of football games?
Everybody wants to win, of course. But the stubborn fact about football games is that in the end, only one team actually gets to win..and at every level of college football, from the NAIA to the FBS, it’s going to be easier to win at some programs than others.
So it’s worth asking…how many of your institutional goals are dependent on the football team being really good? If adding football is just about securing an additional 80 or so male students, well, winning is a bonus, but you should be able to recruit enough tuition-paying athletes to maintain that benchmark, even if you go 3-7 most years. If you define success as hitting certain financial benchmarks—selling a certain number of tickets, growing into a more prestigious conference, etc—then you need to price that into your evaluation and understand that no matter how well you plan, winning football games is never a guarantee.
Is football actually the best tool to accomplish your institutional goals?
Let’s say your goal is to grow male enrollment on campus. You could spend $30 million dollars on starting an FCS-caliber football program….OR you could spend oh, $500,000 on building a robust esports program. Will those programs attract the exact same students? Probably not. But if your only goal is male student enrollment, one may very well offer more bang for your enrollment buck than the other.
Is the goal to create a team-sports focused event that can build campus unity and engage undergraduates? That might be football, but could you get similar results by say, starting a lacrosse program, or a wrestling program, or a soccer team? Is there something specific about your location and your student body that would necessitate football over other potential sports?
Consider whether there are non-athletic endeavors that could potentially improve student recruitment, retention or engagement that are cheaper, or better aligned with the rest of your university.
What are your chances of actually winning a lot of football games?
If you’re considering starting a football team that will compete in D-1, outside of maybe the Pioneer League, chances are, you’re going to need to win some football games. There’s no Flutie Effect for programs that finish in 7th place in the OVC, and marketing and exposure benefits will trail off if the program does not participate in meaningful contests.
So you need to be uncomfortably honest with yourselves about how your program is equipped to actually win games, given your budget, competition level, and institutional makeup. Will your administration let you accept athletes who didn’t get a 32 on their ACT? Are you located in a region with enough high school talent, or will you need to heavily recruit out of state students? Are you likely to get into a competitive conference off the bat, and if so, are you able to spend as much as your peers?
If you have bigger competitive ambitions, it’s probably going to be easier if you’re located in a Dallas suburb as opposed to say, western Massachusetts.
Who is going to pay for everything?
Football isn’t cheap.
If you’re hoping to play at the FCS level, you’re looking at spending upwards of six million dollars, best case scenario, on just your stadium. You’ll need to hire multiple full-time coaches, but also new trainers, new sports information personnel, new compliance officers, and potentially reorganize your entire athletic department org chart. Even if you’re looking at competing at the D-II level or below, you’re looking at millions of dollars in operational costs.
Would that money come from student fees? Direct institutional support? Do you expect to be able to raise much of that money from ticket sales and local corporate donations? Will alumni or boosters increase donations to pay for the needed up-front costs? Can you sustain whatever financial projections you create if the team is terrible for an extended period of time?
If you really take the time to consider all of this, I suspect the answer to “Should we start a football team?” is usually going to be “No.”
Football is fun! But it is enormously expensive, not just in terms of raw dollars and cents, but in organizational attention and capacity. Your athletic administration will be elbow deep in meetings just about football. It will be the only thing your local media will want to cover. It will suck up energy and political capital from your donors, your development team, your faculty, your senior institutional leaders, and nearly everybody else for the next several years.
My suspicion is that in 2021, that energy and money would probably be more efficiently spent across other athletic department initiatives, to say nothing of other institutional priorities. If the main objective is simply to grow enrollment, retention and improve the residential campus experience, other combinations of sport additions and campus programming may provide similar results, at a substantially smaller cost.
Maybe your school ends up being Coastal Carolina. Maybe your institution can build or rent a stadium at a dramatically diminished cost. Maybe you have a donor who will almost single handedly pay for everything. Maybe your campus is right in the middle of a football-mad region that is underserved by other high school, college or professional programs, and there’s a huge market, waiting to be served. It may be worth doing some due diligence, worth the thought experiment. And hey, the decision works out for some schools.
But for every Coastal Carolina, there are a whole lot of not Coastal Carolinas.
But probably not.
If you’re absolutely desperate to cut a ribbon…just build another parking garage.
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