Tackling the Football Question at UNCC

Over its 61-year history, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC) has never had an intercollegiate football team, but right now there is a strong push to create one. If UNCC goes ahead with this idea, it’s going to face a lot of costs and a lot of problems.

Collegiate football is an expensive undertaking even if the competition is in one of the lower divisions of the National Collegiate Athletic Association and playing in the top is very expensive.

Last year, UNCC’s chancellor appointed a committee to study the feasibility of starting a football program. The committee turned to the Lee Institute, a Charlotte-based non-profit consulting firm, to crunch the numbers. Its report calculated that having a football team in NCAA Division I-AA (a step below the top level) would cost $6.7 million per year in 2012, with that figure rising to $8.8 million by 2016 when UNCC would enter Division I-A. Additionally, UNCC would have to spend upwards of $3 million per year on women’s sports due to federal “gender equity” regulations.

Among the costs would be:

  • A stadium seating at least 30,000.
  • Coaching staff.
  • Financial aid for players.
  • Insurance and medical costs.
  • Equipment and uniforms.
  • Recruiting trips.
  • Team travel, hotels, and meals.
  • Marching band.

Adding football would double the university’s athletic spending. That is a lot of money that can’t be spent on other things that have a direct connection with the university’s educational mission.

The study advocates raising the money to cover the cost by increasing student fees by $300. Fees are already quite high at UNCC, having increased from $1,160 per student in 2003-04 to $1630 per student today – a 40% increase. That leads to the question, “Why make students who have little or no interest in intercollegiate football pay for it?”

We’re told by the feasibility study that football increases school spirit and pride and “captures the competitive spirit of America.” Perhaps so, but are such intangibles worth the increase in mandatory fees? An added cost of $300 to attend UNCC is not pocket change for many families.

The study also defends the proposal by claiming, “football would help increase the public perception that UNC Charlotte is a great institution.” But certainly participating in top-level football is neither necessary for sufficient for that public perception. The University of Chicago hasn’t had intercollegiate football in 60 years, but is no doubt regarded as a great institution. Conversely, there are football powers like Florida State whose reputations probably suffer precisely because of their persistent gridiron success.

And why is it so important to try manipulating public perceptions? UNCC isn’t a restaurant chain or a movie.

Another problem that few people have thought about is that of recruiting good players. I asked Murray Sperber, former professor at Indiana University and author of the revealing book Beer and Circus (which I reviewed here) to comment on this aspect of the question and he said, “Charlotte, in a basketball region, would have trouble getting blue chippers. Since Duke, Chapel Hill, and NC State all lose in football, how will Charlotte do it from the bottom of a rather thin food chain? How will it get players from football-rich states like Georgia and Florida? It will hire a coach who will go into those states and recruit guys who can play but are so marginal socially and academically that the ACC and Big East won’t touch them. How will the resulting scandals help Charlotte?”

That’s an observation worth pondering.

Having a poor or even mediocre football team is apt to lead to empty stands and negative publicity, but that’s the almost inevitable result if the school recruits players who are at least within shouting distance of the average academic ability of the student body.

On the other hand, if the coach has a free hand to recruit top prospects success is still not assured but scandals become likely.

The allure of big-time football has been too much for some schools to resist. Throughout its history, the State University of New York at Buffalo (now just called the University of Buffalo, or UB) played in the low-key NCAA Division III. No prestige, but little cost. Then in 1990, the administration, egged on by the athletic department, decided to move up.

UB spent eight seasons in Division I-AA, a notch below the big-time and then reached the pinnacle, Division I-A, by obtaining membership in the Mid-American Conference in 1999. University president William Greiner said that the reason for going into big-time sports was that they make “a major contribution to the total quality of student life and the visibility of your institution.”

Buffalo’s athletic director, Bob Arkeilpane, added, “Not having big-time college athletics at Buffalo meant there was a quality of life element that was missing here.”

Those sentiments sound a lot like the rhetoric in favor of starting football at UNCC.

After six losing seasons, in 2005 the university commissioned a report from nationally recognized sports consultant Gene Corrigan on what it needed to do to become successful. Endorsing Corrigan’s report, the school’s new president John Simpson said, “Building a high-quality, highly competitive athletics program is integral to our success and progress as a leading university community.”

One of the recommendations was to hire a new director of athletics and UB promptly undertook such a search. Corrigan also said that the school needed to put more financial resources into its athletics program. With state financial support tightening, that meant scraping up more private donations for sports and raising student fees.

Buffalo has had a little more success in the Mid-American Conference over the last couple of seasons, but it’s hard to see that student life is any better than at non-football schools. It’s also hard to see how being an also-ran in a low-luster conference does much for the school’s visibility and reputation.

Another school whose experience is worth looking at is Boston University. BU had been in the Atlantic 10 Conference (UNCC’s basketball conference), but decided to drop football after the 1997 season. Competing in football had cost the university nearly $3 million per year and officials could not see any justification for continuing it. Somehow, BU remains a “leading university community” despite the absence of intercollegiate football.

Apparently, neither the people who undertook the feasibility study, nor those on the committee that reviewed the study and unanimously voted to recommend that football be added examined the negative possibilities. Some schools have had unhappy experiences with big-time sports. And as Smith College economics professor Andrew Zimbalist observed in his book Unpaid Professionals (see my review here), college sports often wind up costing more than people expect and delivering less.

Before UNCC goes ahead with the football plan, the very least the administration should do is to get a second opinion from an independent economist or consulting firm who would question not only the financial numbers, but also the assumptions about the intangible benefits of having a football team.

George C. Leef is the vice president for research at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh.