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Scoring Big With New Football Teams

In an era when many schools are dropping team sports, a growing number are bucking the trend by taking to the gridiron.
University Business, March 2012
Anna Maria College football players on the field
Strength in numbers: The three-year-old football team at Anna Maria College has boosted enrollment and revenues.

The University of Texas at San Antonio campus is dominated by modern cream-colored buildings with dark red tile roofs and acres of parking lots, testimony to 40 years of serving largely as a commuter school for students from the surrounding area.

But last fall, it was also hard to miss the rectangular color posters attached to almost every lamppost—showing alternately a running back clutching a football, a tight end leaping for a pass reception, close-ups of a marching band, and enthusiastic fans doing the Wave. The pictures represented a low-key advertisement of a big-time endeavor: the first year of a brand new football team aiming to compete among the sport’s Division I elite.

Across the country in Paxton, Massachusetts, meanwhile, anyone turning onto the main drive of much smaller Anna Maria College gets the message that football has come to that campus, thanks to the sprawling new field and gleaming bleachers immediately visible to the right.

And while administrators and coaches at Anna Maria have more modest ambitions for their three-year-old, Division III football team than their counterparts at UTSA, the two schools belong to an expanding phalanx of colleges launching football teams during tough economic times—and realizing considerable returns on their investment, from higher institutional profiles and greater school spirit to new streams of revenue.

Over the past three years, according to the National Football Foundation, 19 new college football teams have taken the field at all levels of competition, including Georgia State University, Lamar University (Texas), and Old Dominion University (Va.). More than a dozen schools will be adding intercollegiate football in the coming three seasons, among them Mercer University (Ga.), The University of New Orleans, and The University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

“Football’s popularity has never been greater,” notes National Football Foundation President and CEO Steven Hatchell. “And the fact that so many schools are embracing it is a testament that more college administrators see the value of the sport to the student’s overall educational experience.”

UTSA’s Fast Track

Adding football, say administrators at The University of Texas at San Antonio, was a natural in a state where the nation’s top 25 rankings routinely feature such heavyweights as Baylor, Texas A&M, and The University of Texas at Austin. UTSA Athletic Director Lynn Hickey recalls her job interview 12 years ago with school President Ricardo Romo. “He asked, ‘Should we have football?’ and I said, ‘No sir, it would be cost prohibitive.’ But after being here for a year—living in this culture—I knew I had said the wrong thing.”

“San Antonio is the seventh largest city in America. We didn’t have a major college football program or a pro football team,” explains Romo. “What I’ve heard from folks on the streets is, ‘We’ve been waiting for a football program. We’ve been starved.’”

During their first season at San  Antonio’s Alamodome (right), The University of Texas at San Antonio’s Roadrunners averaged more than 40,000 fans a game.Romo also sees the new football team burnishing UTSA’s status as one of seven schools identified by the state as Tier I universities, which have access to a $600 million state fund for expanding research facilities and personnel. “We’re attracting really good scholars. We now have a $3 million endowed chair in medicinal chemistry, and we’ve got three or four outstanding scholars in the field,” he reports. “The vision is to be Tier I in everything, including Tier I in football.”

Along those lines, UTSA hired longtime college football coach Larry Coker, who led the University of Miami (Fla.) to a national championship in the 2001-02 season. And while UTSA’s new team debuted in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division IAA) as part of the Southland Conference, it will advance to the Western Athletic Conference and the more competitive Bowl Championship Subdivision (nee Division IA) next season, playing the likes of Louisiana Tech University and the University of Hawaii.

USTA already boasts a big league home field, San Antonio’s indoor Alamodome, to which more than 56,000 fans flocked for the opening game last September. “It’s a focal point and a source of pride for the university and the city,” Coker says of his new team, nicknamed the Roadrunners.

The Roadrunners finished their inaugural season with a 4-6 won-lost record. But Director of Athletics Lynn Hickey concedes that in the not-too-distant future, USTA’s football teams will be judged on more than how they play the game. “We’re doing this big time,” she emphasizes. “Won-lost records will be important eventually, and that’s going to be a pressure we’ll have to handle.”

Big-Time Expenses

Aspirations of big-time football success come with greater costs than increased pressure. Hickey’s sports budget has soared to more than $14 million annually—almost 12 times greater than when she arrived 12 years ago—in great part due to football and the two women’s sports, golf and soccer, added to maintain a gender balance under Title IX regulations.  Moving up to the BCS next season also means increasing the past year’s 60 athletic scholarships to 85.

Any funding for the intercollegiate teams comes from increased student activity fees, ticket revenues, and private donations, says Romo. And while the $425 million university budget endured a $12 million cut this academic year, he continues, “We have different buckets that our money comes out of. There’s not a single dollar coming out of academics for football. We’re one of the few schools that had merit raises for faculty this year.”

Hickey is hoping the new team will do more than hold its own financially. “It costs money for football, but for the first time [at UTSA] a sport can make money,” she says, noting that 12,000 season tickets were sold. To compare, she says, the University of Houston, which finished with a 13-1 record the past season and among the Top 25 in national college football polls, sold 7,000.

Hickey adds that UTSA realized more than $1 million in ticket sales in its first season, with an average home attendance of more than 40,000. Annual student activity fees for the school’s 31,000 students, meanwhile, add up to more than $13 million and are rising over a five-year period through 2013.

“We had the largest turnout for a student election in the Texas University system, and the fee increase passed overwhelmingly,” Hickey says.

UTSA Faculty Senate President Carola Wenk says faculty opinions about football there were initially split. But that has changed for the better. “When I arrived here in 2004, the running joke was that everyone was walking around in the t-shirts of other schools. Now everyone has a UTSA t-shirt. We’ve had an immense increase in school spirit, and in the city as well. My personal banker is saying ‘Go, Roadrunners!’”

“Our value has risen so much because of adding football,” says Hickey. “It brings the other 16 sports with it. We never had a marching band. Now we’ve got 220 kids in beautiful band uniforms.”

UTSA’s athletic department is also building long-term good will by giving away tickets to local children who one day may become USTA undergrads. Romo recalls one recent encounter with a 12-year-old girl and her parents. “The father said that they didn’t know about the college before we started the football team.”

The Division III Advantage

Philip Dubois, chancellor of The University of North Carolina, Charlotte, which is in the process of forming a football program to launch next year, says he’s not expecting the team to make money for the school. “There are perhaps only 20 schools in the entire country that make a profit on football.”

That’s 20 Division I[ital.] schools, Anna Maria College President Jack Calareso might say in response. For Calareso, adding a football team three years ago at this small school less than an hour outside of Boston has meant increasing revenues substantially, but not by the usual means employed by Division I and Division II football-playing institutions.

‘Here’s the simple math. Figure you have a hundred students who wouldn’t have come here otherwise. Our net tuition revenue averages $15,000 per student. Football generates $1.5 million a year in revenue that we would have never had.’ —Jack Calareso, Anna Maria College

“When the Board approved our strategic plan in 2007, it called for enrollment growth,” Calareso points out. “How do you grow enrollment? By starting programs.”

Thanks in part to several new graduate programs, Anna Maria’s total student population has risen since then from 900 to more than 1,600. That growth spurt includes 400 additional undergraduates, of whom at least 100 are football players. As a Division III school, Anna Maria does not offer athletic scholarships, although many of its athletes receive other forms of financial aid.

“At the Division III nonscholarship level, enrollment growth means revenue,” Calareso points out. “Here’s the simple math. Figure you have a hundred students who wouldn’t have come here otherwise. Our net tuition revenue averages $15,000 per student. Football generates $1.5 million a year in revenue that we would have never had.”

The football program has funded technology, the library, and new faculty positions, Calareso continues. “The people who took the time to understand the metrics understood that the return on investment was extraordinary. While other schools have been freezing salaries and cutting things, we’ve been giving raises."

Funding Football

The University of North Carolina at Charlotte

  • Student fees: A dedicated “football fee” will rise incrementally from $50 in 2011-12 to $200 by 2014-15.
  • Ticket sales and seat licenses: Seat licenses cost up to $2,500 each for the right to buy tickets in choice locations.
  • Private donations

The University of Texas at San Antonio

  • Student fees: The annual student activity fees are rising from $17 to $20 per credit hour over a five-year period through 2013.
  • Ticket sales: More than $1 million in tickets were sold in the opening season.
  • Private donations

Anna Maria converted the grassy expanse near the college entrance to a football field, installed light towers, and added a shiny set of metal bleachers that seat 1,000, although attendance at games has reached as high as 2,500 on Parents Weekend. As with most Division III athletic events, admission is free.

The extreme makeover cost $2 million, the initial supplies and equipment for the new team ran another $110,000, and the annual operating costs come to $255,000, investments that have reaped other kinds of returns, Anna Maria’s administrators insist.

“Many times athletics is the foremost way that students and parents hear about a college,” says Executive Vice President Mary Lou Retelle, who notes that applications continue to rise. “And there’s nothing like a football game on a Saturday afternoon, to see tailgaters out here, a marching band, and all the hoopla. Nothing beats it.”

“At our very first home game,” adds Vice President for Student Affairs Andrew Klein, “a senior came up to me and said, ‘Thanks for bringing football to us.’”

The only order of business that remained was winning a game, which Anna Maria took two-and-a-half years to accomplish, with a 35-33 victory over rival Becker College in November.

Ron Schachter is a Boston-based writer who covers sports for National Public Radio.