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Plan to Add Football at Cleveland State Will be Tough to Tackle
When retiring Cleveland State University President Michael Schwartz floated the “How about a football team?” idea this week, it was like piling work on the secretary’s desk at 5 p.m. on a Friday as the boss walks out the door.
So much to do. So little time.
Schwartz wants some kind of report from his yet-unnamed committee of advisers by next spring – before he hangs up his tassel for good in July.
The assignment comes with a proviso: Football must be self-supporting; it can’t rob funding from other programs.
Aside from that, they’re working with a blank canvas, although CSU Athletic Director Lee Reed acknowledged that some facts are pretty clear.
Fact one: No new CSU football stadium
“I don’t see building a stadium,” Reed said.
Not that there’s much room for one near campus anyway. The natural fit would be Cleveland Browns Stadium, although that could be an expensive proposition.
Fees to play on the lakefront are negotiated – there’s no set rental rate. But Home Team Marketing, for instance, which stages high school charity games at Browns Stadium, paid the Browns $72,783 to rent the place and cover other expenses for game day in 2006; and $68,598 in 2007.
Likewise, Georgia State University in downtown Atlanta will play its home games at the Georgia Dome – home of the NFL’s Falcons – in 2010 when it launches a football program that will compete in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision, formerly Division I-AA. The school expects to pay $60,000 to $70,000 per game in rent, but building a new stadium wasn’t even considered.
“There’s no place to put it,” said Allison George, an associate sports information director. “We’re landlocked.”
So finding a home field for CSU, preferably affordable and close to campus, will have to be explored.
Fact two: College football is expensive
Aside from the Ohio States of the world – with 100,000-seat stadiums, pricey tickets and expensive luxury boxes, and where bowl appearances and lucrative television contracts rake in millions – most football programs don’t make money.
At the University of Cincinnati, for example, it costs about $9 million to run a big-time football program as a member of the Big East Conference. About a third goes for coaches’ salaries and support staff, and $2.5 million is spent on scholarships. The program loses about $2 million per year.
At the University of Akron, the current football budget for the Mid-American Conference program is $4.7 million. Almost half of that expense – $2.1 million – is for scholarships. The rest goes for coaches’ salaries and operations, such as travel to road games and for recruiting.
“It is difficult to have some success if it’s not funded appropriately,” said Akron’s Athletic Director Mack Rhoades, “to hire competitive coaches, to be able to recruit like you need to.”
Georgia State not only hired former NFL player and head coach Dan Reeves as a consultant, but it is paying former NFL player and head coach Bill Curry $350,000 per year to coach its new football team.
The school increased student athletic fees $85 per semester – which will generate $5.5 million per year – to help cover the cost. The university also is counting on donations, corporate sponsorships and gate revenues.
Fact three: Starting from nothing is quite difficult
Football is expensive enough just to operate. But starting a program from scratch is a huge undertaking.
“The up-front cost is enormous,” Rhoades said.
Xavier University in Cincinnati, which had a football team until 1973, has weighed reviving the program from time to time. But economics get in the way. The school would have to build a training room, weight room, buy equipment and carve out a practice field. And that’s on top of operating expenses.
“It’s not a conversation that makes a whole lot of sense for Xavier to engage in right now,” said Athletic Director Mike Bobinski, because the college is building a business school and involved in other campus development. Instead, a few years ago the Catholic university initiated a club team, which plays at a local high school and usually draws a few thousand fans.
Fact four: D-I non-scholarship idea tops the list
Given Schwartz’s financially “self-sustaining” requirement, CSU will focus on the Division I non-scholarship model, Reed said. A program without scholarships cuts the expense considerably – maybe half the cost of running a Football Championship Subdivision program.
You’ll find that template in the Pioneer Football League, the nation’s only non-scholarship Division I conference. The 16-year-old PFL, with such teams as Dayton, Butler, Valparaiso, Drake and Campbell University, expands to 10 teams next season with the addition of Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Crowds range from about 2,000 to 6,000 fans per game.
Campbell, a small private Baptist college near Raleigh, N.C., spent $6 million on a new 3,500-seat stadium, practice fields, locker room and training room. The Fighting Camels returned to the football field this fall for the first time since folding the program in 1950 because of the Korean War. Campbell’s operating budget for football is between $700,000 and $800,000 per year.
The downside is that, with so few teams, the conference schedule requires travel from coast to coast, which increases expenses. As the league adds more teams, the hope is to split the conference into more economical regional divisions, said Pioneer League Commissioner Patty Viverito.
Geographically and financially, Cleveland State may have more in common with state-funded city universities such as Akron and Cincinnati. But on the football field, the Vikings likely would pursue some version of the private-school playbook. In basketball and other sports, CSU, Butler and Valpo already are members of the Horizon League.
At Campbell, which costs $28,000 per year to attend, a portion of tuition and fees for each of the 100-plus players is siphoned off for football. Athletic Director Stan Williamson said income more than covers operating costs.
Fact five: Basketball is king at Cleveland State
CSU is and always will be basketball first, Reed said. The Vikings men’s team, under coach Gary Waters, is favored to win the Horizon League after going 21-13 last season and earning a bid to the National Invitation Tournament.
But football, to boost enrollment and enhance the college experience, is at least worth investigating.
“The excitement and energy it’s brought to our campus, it’s priceless,” said Campbell’s Williamson, “How do you put a value on that?”
Plan to add football at Cleveland State will be tough to tackle
by Bill Lubinger, The Cleveland Plain Dealer