The Jacksonville State University Softball team kicked off their 2020 season this past weekend with a road trip east to compete in the Kennesaw State Phyllis Rafter Memorial Classic in Kennesaw, Georgia. Seven seniors left the team last season, presenting an opportunity for several younger players to make an impression for the new season.
The University of Alabama at Birmingham made national headlines a few months ago when the school announced last December it was shutting down its football program. The timing seemed odd as UAB just days earlier had just wrapped up its most successful season on the gridiron in a decade under first-year head coach Bill Clark. While moral and fan support climbed near an all-time high, the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees, who govern over The Capstone in Tuscaloosa as well as its sister schools in Birmingham (UAB) and Huntsville (UAH), decided it was financially unfeasible to continue the still young 24-year-old program.
UAB became the first school that competes in college athletics’ top division (FBS) to drop the sport of football since the University of the Pacific did so in 1995.
The university claimed the decision came as it expected to have to spend $50 million over the next five years to maintain the program with the addition of new National Collegiate Athletic Association financial requirements. Reports to the Department of Education state that UAB spent over $7 million annually on the sport of football alone, and only landed in the black when subsidies from the university were included. In reality, not a single sport, men or women, made a profit without included subsidies. (figure 1)
But this isn’t uncommon; most athletic departments at universities require added subsidies to break even. The most recent report by the NCAA states that only 20 athletic departments that compete in the FBS level of football (such as UAB) generate more revenue than expenses and require no subsidies to operate in the black. The report did not specify which schools in particular those 20 were but it can be speculated that they are the traditional athletic powerhouses such as Alabama, Texas and Michigan. In UAB’s own conference, only four other institutions reported better finances.
UAB’s move has added fire to the arguments of financial experts and media personnel who claim collegiate sports, football in particular, are becoming harder and harder to support in these economic times. While some are predicting UAB to be just the first of several schools to have to close the doors on football because it’s too tough for smaller schools in smaller conferences to support, the trend is actually moving in the opposite direction.
The fact is football is as popular as ever among colleges and universities and between 2008 and 2016, 59 universities are planning to or have started new football programs (figure 2)from the ground up. Some of those schools are already competing at the highest level of NCAA competition.
When the NCAA split its members into divisions in 1978 (FBS, FCS, Div. II, Div. III) to level the playing fields so small private institutions with 1,200 students enrolled didn’t have to fight for championships against the University of Texas or Alabama, there were 484 institutions with football programs. Today, that number has increased to 657 programs at last count, and growing each year for the foreseeable future. (figure 3)
Yes, financially, very few of these schools see direct return from ticket or merchandise sales on game day. However, all of these small schools see positive influences in other areas persuading them to begin these football programs. Of the 59 newest programs since 2008, 33 of those are located in the Southeast and Texas, the area of the country best known as a hotbed for the sport. This report looks at how and why the schools in this particular region are beginning these programs.
Leading the Southeast in this recent trend of bringing new programs to life is the state of Georgia where eight different schools have made the decision to start competing in the region’s most popular sport. One of those schools is located in the city of Kennesaw just 30 miles Northwest of Atlanta and is home to the third-largest university in the state, Kennesaw State.
KSU will play its first-ever football game this fall on September 3when it plays East Tennessee State, another program that will also be in its first season after bringing back a program that had previously been disbanded. While the Owls will officially go down as having started football in 2015, Director of Athletics, Vaughn Williams, speaks about the process of beginning the football program which has been underway for more than a decade.
“There was a feasibility study down in 2004 and another in 2009,” said Williams. “Vince Dooley (former legendary football coach and athletic director at the University of Georgia) was appointed the chair of the 34-member committee. I think his experienced helped us tremendously in going forward.”
As the committee found football would be a positive addition to Kennesaw State’s athletics, Williams laid out the initial three phases that had to be passed before anything happened. The students would have to vote on a $100 football fee to be added to their tuition, the athletic department would need to raise capital and investors as it estimated football would require $5-10 million just to get off the ground and the Board of Regents would then have to give its final approval.
“The students passed the vote on the football fee, we were very lucky in getting Fifth/Third Bank to come on as a corporate sponsor with a deal of $5 million in which we have named our stadium after and that really gave us the funding to go forward with our business plan.”
Williams added that the final step of making a case to the Board of Regents was made much easier having already had a stadium on campus that women’s soccer used. He cited having to build a stadium was one of the biggest concerns for the University of North Carolina at Charlotte when it began football in 2013.
The trend of gaining corporate sponsors for naming right services is likely to continue, or potentially grow, as schools have found it’s a simple way to eliminate a large portion of the financial burden.
Just over a hundred miles down Interstate 75 in Georgia from Kennesaw is Macomb, home to Mercer University, another of the recent start-ups. Considering their proximity and the fact Mercer also competes in the FCS division like Kennesaw State, it is likely these two schools will become quite familiar with each other.
While Kennesaw sold its stadium naming rights from the start to help fund the program, the Bears recently made the same decision two years after their first game in 2013. On February 26, Mercer announced its two-year-old 10,000-seat stadium , home to football and lacrosse, had been renamed Five Star Stadium after the Five Star Automotive Group gave a multi-million dollar donation to the program. The specific amount wasn’t disclosed, but Mercer’s official press release stated that the donation was, “the largest-ever for Mercer athletics and one of the largest in the University’s history.” A donation the school may not have seen without its football program.
Even with big sponsors and large donations to help get the program up and running, the early days of a program are often very rough. Few know this more than Kennesaw State’s Director of Football Operations, Jay Bailey, who joined the KSU staff from Georgia State University in Atlanta where he had helped the Panthers start their program from the ground up in 2010.
“Our first football offices were up in a bank while our permanent space was being constructed,” said Bailey thinking back to the earliest days of the Kennesaw program. “We leased a weight room facility for $300,000 initially and brought in portable trailer units to use for medical staffs at practice. We just did what we had to in order to get by.”
As DFO, Bailey has overseen much of the behind the scenes work at KSU, more than what he says he was involved in at Georgia State while a part of the equipment staff. “Obviously I came aboard once the staff was getting put together so I didn’t see much of the exploratory committee and that phase, but from this point we’ve put together a formula of how to do things the right way. You have to have a plan from the start and understand how it will impact your program and school.”
As is often the case, financials play a key role in Bailey’s work. “We understand football will drive this athletic department, as with any college football program. Recently we’ve rebranded, updated our logo, (figure 4) and licensing for those products is up over 100% from a year ago. Football requires a lot of financial commitment; just your staff alone is about eleven people, that’s three times the size of basketball. To hold our first practice cost $250,000 just for first-time purchases such as uniforms, equipment and trainers’ supplies. From that time to this year it’s been about another $200,000 as we prepare for our first season.”
As for the impact for the school, Bailey says Kennesaw State’s situation is much better having had a set plan in place from the beginning and knowing what role the program will play.
“I’ve seen two totally different situations, here our program is adding an atmosphere to our campus and the community like Cobb County and surrounding areas are supportive and local businesses are buying in. At Georgia State, we were in downtown Atlanta, there’s not much of a college atmosphere playing in the dome in front of 8,000 people in an 80,000-seat stadium. In my opinion Georgia State didn’t have a set plan when it started and when it hit those early struggles that are inevitably going to happen, it panicked and decided getting bigger was the solution and that probably wasn’t the best plan.”
In 2013, Georgia State moved up from the FCS division of NCAA competition to the top level of FBS. In their past two years since the move the Panthers have won only one of their 24 total games. “Having seen that situation, I can say from experience just how much better Kennesaw’s situation is.”
Craig Haley writes for The Sports Network online and as the Executive Director of FCS coverage has followed many of these schools from their early years. “Football galvanizes a campus and the surrounding community for the most part, especially in the South, where football reigns,” says Haley. “The schools that have added football in the last five, six years couldn’t deny the interest on campus and some are just too big to not have football.”
This was the case when the University of South Alabama in Mobile decided to start a football program prior to 2010. “Students really rallied around the idea of starting a football team in 2006, 2007 and drew up a referendum to increase student fees and that’s really what started our move,” said Daniel McCarthy, the Associate Athletic Director for Internal Affairs at South Alabama.
Whether a school is still yet to play its first game, such as Kennesaw State, or it has been on the field for a few years, such as Georgia State, all can look at USA’s steady gains as a blueprint of future success.
“In December of 2007 the Board of Trustees approved the program,” says McCarthy, “and we just took little steps from there until we put on helmets for the first time for spring practices in 2009.”
In the fall of 2009 the Jaguars played a seven-game schedule against mostly non-scholarship schools. USA won every game and continued going undefeated in 2010 in a 10-game schedule that included slightly tougher competition. In 2011, the Jaguars were a full member of Division 1-FCS football and for the first time played a schedule against mostly other division I competition finishing 6-4. By 2013, South Alabama, a university with nearly 20,000 enrolled located in the large market of Mobile, moved up to FBS. This past season, the Jaguars became bowl-eligible in just their fifth year of competition breaking the previous record for youngest program ever to make a bowl game. They beat Bowling Green State University in a nationally televised game.
The Jaguars are the example that most envision when they aspire to start a new program, build from the ground up, and put together a competitive team that can represent your university to a larger audience.
While USA has been able be successful in its young stage, McCarthy says the school still faces the challenge of fighting for brand recognition. An issue many southern schools face overshadowed by Southeastern Conference powerhouses that dominate the landscape.
“For a while there look at where the national champion was from: Baton Rough (LSU), Tuscaloosa (Alabama), Auburn, and Tallahassee (Florida State). It made a ring around Mobile, propelling all these programs we’re competing against for fans into the spotlight.”
Even if the football program draws extra money from the university, the common response from most schools is that a college football program enhances the college atmosphere and experience and has a chance to become an invaluable marketing resource.
In an interview with AL.com relating to UAB cutting its football program, Western Kentucky University President, Gary Ransdell, disagreed with the decision citing he can’t replace that type of exposure saying, “I wish there was a chemistry or accounting or music section in every paper in every newsstand every day. But what we do know is there is a sport section and it’s my responsibility to make sure my university is in the news for the right reasons and we continue to build a brand in ways that makes us attractive for students, faculty and staff.”
“It’s been fun,” says McCarthy at USA. “I remember at the beginning looking across the parking lot on game day and seeing various tents from other schools just because that’s the tailgating tent those people had, now you look out and its South Alabama tents everywhere. I enjoy seeing our logo out there, getting to see it on ESPN. We’re still fairly young, I think it’ll be interesting in two to three years to see if our program sparks an increase in applications to the school after our bowl appearance.”
There remains no one single answer or reason, so the rationale for adding football varies at each institution. Smaller colleges often cite increasing enrollment and addressing gender imbalances while larger universities may point to the role of football in raising the institution’s profile and its ability to attract research grants. At any level, almost all mention creating a more vibrant on-campus community and connecting with alumni.
No matter what, it seems as if the dollar signs, no matter how many or how high, can be overcome if a university and athletic department fully invest in the commitment and put together a clear and concise plan of what they expect to get out of it.
“I believe there’s a place for football at every level, not just at the top,” said Kennesaw State Athletic Director, Vaughn Williams. “Football will add to the environment and experience for our students. We’ll have a fun game day, not 90,000 people, but that’s who we are. We just bought a live owl for the university and had it at the opening day for baseball and the lines to see it were amazingly long, and that has everything to do with what we’re doing. It’s for the students, alumni, fans and the memories of a college experience. That’s what it’s all about.”