It was built, but they didn’t come.
Since 2009, the University of Akron has spent $4.3 million a year paying off its football stadium. In all, the venture will cost the university more than $60 million. The stadium, which replaced a decades-old facility located off campus, seats 27,000 fans. On average, about 9,000 show up.
That’s the lowest attendance in all of the Football Bowl Subdivision, the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s top football league.
The barren stadium is one of several reasons that some faculty members and students at Akron say they are fed up with the amount of money being spent on the university’s struggling football team at a time when the institution is facing a $60 million budget shortfall. In response to the deficit, tuition and fees have been raised. More than 200 staff positions will be cut over the next three years. Employee health care and other benefits will be renegotiated.
In addition, the baseball team will be cut. The football program, however, is safe.
“It’s not been on the table,” Lawrence Burns, vice president of advancement for the university, said. “And it will not be on the table any time in the foreseeable future.”
That the baseball program was eliminated so soon after increasing student fees and tuition prompted anger from many students, who decried the move as unfair. The university spends about $700,000 a year on the baseball team. The university spends $8 million each year subsidizing the football program, and sees little financial return on the investment.
While football attendance is low, critics, such as members of the university’s Faculty Senate, are not urging administrators to cut the program -- at least not yet. They acknowledge that football is beloved in the state of Ohio and say it has a place at the university. Rather, they’re suggesting that the program drop a level, from the FBS to the Football Championship Subdivision, formerly known as Division I-AA. Officials with the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors have made the same recommendation.
The move would preserve the team, they say, and save money. FCS teams provide 63 full scholarships, rather than 85, and the level of overall spending would theoretically decrease, as the pressures of the athletic arms race lessen as one moves farther from the top Division I programs.
“The university is in a fiscal crunch, and we’ve looked long and hard at all the places we can save money,” William Rich, Faculty Senate chair, said. “There are serious cuts happening to erase this $60 million deficit. But that fact of the matter is that intercollegiate athletics is a significant part of the budget, and the largest part of that is football.”
The university said last week that it could not say how much of the football program’s budget comes from student fees. In January, the university released a general breakdown of how the fees are spent after students demanded more transparency. At the time, students were charged $428 in general service fees each semester. About $400 of the fee goes toward athletics, and football is by far the most expensive sport at Akron.
While Terry Bowden, Akron’s head football coach, is among the highest-paid coaches in the Mid-American Conference, the team hasn’t had a winning season since 2005. It’s only enjoyed seven winning seasons since joining the FBS in 1987. The average salary for faculty members at Akron is $112,500 for full professors, $83,400 for associate professors, $70,300 for assistant professors and $53,700 for instructors. Bowden makes about $400,000 a season.
Burns said that the university is not considering the proposal to drop to the FCS or any other lower division.
“We have a beautiful world-class facility that is relatively new, and so we’re very committed to maximizing the use of that,” he said. “We also feel that the football team and the MAC conference have a strong relationship with ESPN, which is a wonderful way for the University of Akron to be on that national stage, and is an opportunity to continue to expand the brand of the university.”
Without an FBS football team, Akron would have to leave the MAC. The conference’s broadcast deal with ESPN is a lucrative one, paying the league’s 13 institution $100 million over 13 years. That amounts to about $670,000 per year per college. But the exposure the deal provides to Akron -- and the effect of that exposure -- is up for debate.
According to several studies published over the last decade, little research exists to support the idea that the success of an athletic program at an institution the size and sector of Akron influences fund-raising, college choice or the number of applicants.
In one study, published in the Journal of Sport in 2014, students at MAC institutions were asked to note where athletics ranked as a funding priority and as a factor in college choice. Only 3 percent of respondents stated that it was “extremely important,” while 73 percent stated it was “unimportant” or “extremely unimportant.”
David Ridpath, one of the study’s authors and a professor of sports administration at Ohio University, said it’s rare for an institution to enjoy those kinds of benefits outside of the so-called Power Five conferences, the wealthiest Division I leagues, of which the MAC is not a member.
“At the end of the day, people in Ohio want to watch Ohio State and the Cleveland Browns, not the University of Akron,” Ridpath said. “They need to play at a level they can afford and sustain, or not do it at all. Otherwise, there will be a point of no return where they will have to drop the program completely. I know building that stadium, they thought that the gates would open and the people would show up, but that didn’t happen.”
Rich, the Faculty Senate chair, said he thinks the high price tag of the football stadium is preventing Akron’s Board of Trustees from considering his proposal, as it would be seen as admitting that the board should not have approved the facility. (Last month, Akron’s new president, Scott Scarborough, did offer such an admission, telling the Akron Beacon Journal that he “would not have built that stadium.”)
“It’s difficult for people to make the decision to invest $60 million in building a new stadium, and then acknowledge that it was a mistake,” Rich said. “But sometimes that’s what responsible adults have to do when they make a mistake. They acknowledge it and take steps to fix it.”
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