Like a lot of midsize or newer public universities with grand ambitions, Florida Atlantic University has eyed big-time college sports as one tool in its path to a higher profile and, it hopes, better students and more money. Florida Atlantic’s football program moved into Division I-A, the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s top competitive level, just last year, becoming the third university in Florida alone to make that move in the last five years (the others are Florida International University and the University of South Florida.)
The latest step in Florida Atlantic’s sports campaign -- building a stadium on the campus as part of a larger housing and retail complex -- is designed to dovetail with the university’s larger goal of transforming itself from a commuter school to a residential campus. Although the university’s trustees scaled back the plans this week because of concerns about costs and other factors, favoring a 30,000-seat open-air stadium over a 40,000-seat dome, the project is still expected to cost the institution $78.4 million, with an annual debt service of $8.6 million over the next 30 years. University officials say it will be self-sustaining, and that the payoffs, in various ways, will be large.
“Athletics creates a more vibrant environment,” said Terry Mohajir, associate athletics director. “There’s been a great deal of research on that.”
“When we first brought this idea in, it was about enhancing the whole campus,” said the athletics director, Craig Angelos.
Critics have questioned why a university that has been averaging 9,000 fans a game this year needs a stadium three or four times that size. Angelos said that the current stadium’s location, 15 miles away from Florida Atlantic’s campus in Fort Lauderdale, deters students from attending games. Angelos added that while the university met the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s requirement last year that Division I-A teams sell at least 15,000 tickets per game, that task will be much easier with a bigger, better stadium because it can sell corporate and bulk tickets to drive sales even further. “You have to have a first rate stadium,” he said.
More broadly, experts on college sports finances question the university’s underlying premise that spending on big-time programs will drive either profits or more or better students in Florida Atlantic’s direction.
Building expensive stadiums – especially at institutions that are new to the big time and still unproven – is “loony from top to bottom,” said Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College and author of Unpaid Professionals: Commercialism and Conflict in Big-time College Sports. Stadiums do little to attract new students, have little impact on the local economy and are a poor use of land. Institutions that think large stadiums will dramatically raise their overall status “are really chasing the holy grail,” he said.
In fact, a report  released by the NCAA in 2005 found that, between 1993 and 2003, every $1 spent on Division I-A men’s football or basketball netted only $1 in revenue. From this data, the study concluded that spending on sports over a 10-year period had no effect on revenue. The study also reported that additional expenditures on football and basketball had no measurable effect on other indicators such as alumni giving.
However, the analysis did suggest a possible weak presence of an “arms race” among institutions spending money on sports, especially in areas such as capital expenditures like stadium building and expansion.
Roy Levow, president of the Florida Atlantic Faculty Senate, said that the stadium project made sense because the revenue generated by other parts of the stadium project are expected to underwrite the debt from the stadium. But he did not seem certain about what might happen if the revenue generating portions of the complex failed to service the debt or pay for operating costs. “This is a projected budget that needs more review and analysis.”
Levow said he had been won over by the fact that the stadium would have other benefits. “A good athletics program attracts good students,” he said.
Sports facilities are more likely to be a draw for students (other than football players themselves) if they serve club and intramural sports as well as intercollegiate teams, said Peter Roby, director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society. “If it’s done for general population use then it can have merit,” he said, adding: “There is a fear that you fool yourself into delusions of grandeur and ‘if you build it, they will come.’ We know that is not the case when you look at school that elevate themselves to a I- A level.”
Angelos said that the university has been well aware that a football stadium alone will not be enough to transform the campus. “But our holistic approach with parking, dorms, retail, and recreational activities will accomplish that goal.”