Flocking to Football

Despite sport's hefty cost, colleges continue to add teams amid economic downturn, citing desire to build enrollments or enhance campus culture.
May 20, 2008

There are no two ways about it: College football is expensive. Just how costly depends on the competitive level; big-time programs have major scholarship costs and heftier facilities tabs than do small-college programs, but they often have at least the promise of some revenues on the other side of the ledger.

But at any level, the costs of facilities, equipment, coaches and other things combine to make it an expensive addition to any college's offerings -- the sort of addition that might seem dicier at the time of economic downturn into which higher education now seems to be slipping.

In recent weeks, though, two more institutions, Georgia State University and Hendrix College, in Arkansas, joined the ranks of colleges and universities that have decided to add football teams to their sports programs. The institutions' decisions were in many ways very different: Georgia State's new program will, when it is up and running in 2010, compete in the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division I-AA, offering as many 65 scholarships and being financed (without any use of state funds) mostly by an $85 annual fee approved by the university's students.

Hendrix will become the only Division III football program in Arkansas, and will play against other liberal arts colleges in the region that sponsor nonscholarship programs. The college expects to turn a profit on its program by attracting more paying students who will help it expand its steadily growing student body.

But in both cases, campus officials said that economic conditions were not a factor in their decisions, and that they were confident that the football programs would not in any way damage the institutions' financial situations, which they would have been loathe to do given the downturn.

"If it had been revenue neutral or a loss, we probably wouldn't have done it," said Timothy Cloyd, president of Hendrix.

Turning Georgia State Into a 'Real' University

Given the role of football in the South, it's almost surprising that there's a major public university in Georgia that doesn't have a football team. But Georgia State, which for much of its existence was primarily a commuter institution in downtown Atlanta, has only relatively recently developed the sort of strong presence of traditional-aged undergraduates that typically makes a football program desirable (if not close to mandatory). As recently as the mid-1990s, notes Georgia State's president, Carl V. Patton, the university had no students living on its campus; it now has 2,600, and is planning for hundreds more.

As the university has sought to transform itself into an institution that offers students a "full-rounded college education," Patton says, he and other leaders frequently encounter students (and would-be students) who say they want Georgia State to be a "real" university. "What they mean by 'real' is a university that has successful sports programs, and football is one of the things they want," Patton says.

Georgia State officials have contemplated creating a football program for as long as Patton has been president -- he recalls telling a group of students upon taking the reins in 1992 that he did not believe Georgia State would take the field "in my lifetime" -- but discussions began in earnest in 2005, when a feasibility study found widespread support for the idea among alumni, students and staff. The 2007 hiring of Dan Reeves, a former National Football League coach, as a consultant ramped things up further, and last fall, a student committee and then an administrative panel approved an $85 a year increase in the student athletic fee. (Patton notes that the students also approved an additional student activities fee this year, to provide for more concerts and other entertainment.)

Having a program that competes at the NCAA Division I-AA level (which the NCAA now calls its Football Championship Subdivision, as opposed to the Football Bowl Subdivision, where the biggest and costliest programs compete) is no small financial commitment; a study released by the NCAA this spring shows that just 5 of the 118 Division I-AA football programs generated positive net revenue, and that the average net loss for the 113 money-losing programs was about $1.3 million.

Patton notes that Georgia State will not use any state funds in operating its football program; the students fees (which, he says, befitting the president of a university in Atlanta, will cost the average student “less than a can of Coke a day”) and additional donor support will cover the program’s costs, which are greatly contained by the fact that Georgia State is not planning to build a stadium, playing its games in the nearby Georgia Dome.

“Our folks here see this for the positive reasons, in that it’s going to add student life on the campus,” Patton says. “The economics of this has not been a major factor.” He dismisses the idea that turning to donors or students for money for the football program will in any way diminish their interest in or capacity to coughing up money for other purposes down the road, even if an economic downturn requires other fee increases or need for heightened donations.

He adds: “We don't make decisions based on the stock ticker.”

Fitting Football Into the Culture at Hendrix

The colleges that have most commonly added football programs in recent years are not institutions aiming for the upper reaches of the NCAA’s Division I, but smaller liberal arts colleges seeking either to expand their male enrollments or, in some cases, survive, by adding programs that might attract paying students at the nonscholarship Division III level.

Hendrix College, in Conway, Ark., certainly isn’t in the former category, but it doesn’t fall neatly into the latter one, either. The liberal arts college is only moderately selective, accepting about 70 to 75 percent of students who apply, but it is in growth mode, having grown to about 1,300 students in the last few years and aiming at 1,500.

Under Cloyd, the president, the institution has been seeking to add programs of various sorts that will “increase our market footprint given the increased competition we’re expecting down the road,” he says. Many of the colleges in its athletics conference, the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference, play football, including its most recent addition, Birmingham-Southern College, which joined the Division III league after abandoning the bright (but expensive) lights of Division I. But Cloyd didn’t really plan to consider adding football until it became clear that to accommodate the construction of its new 135-acre academic village, it would need to move an indoor tennis facility and field house that is now on that site to another part of campus.

“We realized that if we were ever going to add football, now was the time to consider it,” says Cloyd. “The economies of scale of building a large enough field house [to accommodate 100 extra football players] in one fell swoop is much better than going back and trying to retrofit something.”

As conversations unfolded about the possibility of adding the sport, Cloyd and other administrators and professors were intrigued by the prospect of adding an extracurricular activity that might be appealing to significant numbers of potential students. (About a quarter of Hendrix's students already play intercollegiate sports.) It helped that a financial impact study showed that number of tuition-paying students who would enroll at Hendrix for the change to continue to play football after high school would more than cover the annual costs of staging the program, Cloyd says. (The creation of the program is contingent on raising external funds to cover the extra costs, pegged at several million dollars, of expanding the field house for football.)

But serious concerns remained, most notably that football might significantly alter the culture at a college, like Hendrix, that sees itself as progressive in the model of Oberlin and Grinnell. (The institution lacks fraternities and sororities, which makes it a relative rarity in the South.) “We wanted to be sure that we did not re-create the cultural hegemony of high school Southern football, which can be a very negative experience in a small campus,” says Cloyd.

Hendrix commissioned a study by George Dehne & Associates that surveyed 6,000 high school football players with academic records comparable to those of the college’s typical students to solicit their views on questions (from the National Survey of Student Engagement) on such subjects as academic environment, diversity and tolerance. The survey found little difference between the potential pool of football players and Hendrix’s current students, and concluded that they were comparable academically, too.

“We made a firm commitment to not compromise our academic profile and also to recruit prospectives who would fit with our culture,” Cloyd says. “After looking at it in detail, we came to the conclusion that we could do that.”

Many institutions set out with such goals and then find themselves compromising down the road, in pursuit of more victories or, in times of financial need, just more warm bodies. Cloyd acknowledges that “the test, obviously, will be maintaining the academic profile of our student body … and ensuring the integration of the entire program with the total culture of the campus.” The “big danger,” he says, is “creating this separation of intercollegiate athletics from the academic programs…. We have to look at outcomes, in assessment, and be open and transparent with that data.”

“How we do it has to reflect the culture of the place.”


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top