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Opinion: Football at Cleveland State? Wrong Idea
A football team for Cleveland State?
Talk about the wrong idea for the wrong time at the wrong place.
CSU President Michael Schwartz floated the concept of football, along with changing the name of school to the University of Cleveland. The new name doesn’t exactly seem inspiring, at least to this CSU graduate. But at least it would not cost as much as football, which is an outrageously expensive proposition.
Recent conversations with Kent State Athletic Director Laing Kennedy and University of Akron Athletic Director Mack Rhoades contained the same themes: This is a very difficult environment for fund-raising, with the stock market sagging and the economy quaking.
“It’s challenging enough to take over almost any existing football program, but to start it from scratch, I’m not sure I’d want to do that,” said Kennedy.
He said the one exception would be at a school “where it’s the only show in town, like Louisiana-Lafayette, and the community is embraces it.”
That’s not Cleveland, where Ohio State football rules on fall Saturdays, and the National Football League’s Cleveland Browns are like high church to some people on Sundays.
Both football teams gobble up an elephant’s share of media coverage.
One of the keys to the success of CSU is keeping tuition as affordable as possible. Many of the students today are the same as I was in the mid-1970s, working a couple of part-time jobs while trying to earn a degree.
They don’t need any more expenses, such as higher activity fees to subsidize a football team in a city where we have to fight to keep every business and every job.
Akron’s Rhoades said his football budget for 2008 is about $4.7 million. That breaks down to about $2.1 million in football scholarships, the rest in coaches’ salaries, travel and other expenses, including moving into a new stadium in 2009.
The Zips expect the football program to bring in about $1.5 million, meaning it’s at a $3.2 million deficit. In 2006, Akron was at a $3.3 million deficit, according to records filed with the U.S. Department of Education.
In 2006, Kent State’s football program had a $1.5 million deficit. Other years, it’s more.
Remember that the Zips and Flashes already are in the Mid-American Conference. They have stadiums, excellent practice facilities and a real foundation of a football program. They also have struggled to win in the MAC, and to draw fans in the overwhelming football shadows of Browns and Buckeyes.
Schwartz mentioned he would want the football program to “be self-supporting.”
That’s like buying lottery tickets to hope to pay the mortgage.
Most MAC football programs run close to $2 million in the red in some seasons. Kennedy said football buys publicity in terms of free media coverage. If successful, it does bring in donations. But it’s not a money-maker at most major schools.
“You have to have a lot of major funding in place to cover the first five years before you even play a game,” said Akron’s Rhoades. “No matter how you look at it, starting a football program at a place like Cleveland State would be very expensive. Where do you practice? Where do you play? What kind of locker rooms and weight rooms do you have?”
CSU would have to start at the Football Championship Subdivision level, which used to be called Division I-AA, in order to keep its Division I status in all the other sports. That means 65 scholarships and a budget of about $2.5 million, which is what Youngstown State pays for its FCS program.
Want to try the big time?
Western Kentucky moved up from the FCS to the Football Bowl Subdivision, which includes the Big Ten and the MAC and used to be called Division I-A. It raised the football budget from $2.4 million in 2006 to $4.6 million in 2008, with projections of $5.8 million by 2012. Western Kentucky plays in the Sun Belt Conference and just finished building a $50 million stadium. It also increased student activity fees $70 per semester to help play for it.
According to USA Today, the most recent 11 schools to make that step up have run average annual deficits of $1.7 million.
CSU has a real star in Athletic Director Lee Reed, who led the Vikings to the McCafferty Trophy for having the Horizon League’s top overall athletic program covering 19 sports last school year. Kent’s Kennedy believes Reed made a “tremendous hire” in men’s basketball coach Gary Waters and said CSU could become a significant basketball power.
“Right now, the Horizon League may be in the top-10 conferences in the country, and I believe Cleveland State is the best team in the Horizon,” said Kennedy, who is a member of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament selection committee.
Reed is very aware of the cost of trying to have a big-time football team, adding that it’s not on Cleveland State’s radar screen. But he did mention a model such as the Pioneer League, with schools such as Dayton, Butler and Davidson that play non-scholarship football with budgets in the $500,000-$750,000 range.
If Cleveland State does want football, this is the only model that makes any sense.
The obvious move is not to football, but to continue upgrading basketball. The men won 21 games and made the National Invitation Tournament in Waters’ second season. The women, led by coach Kate Peterson Abiad, stunned the Horizon League by winning the 2008 conference tournament and earning an NCAA bid.
For CSU, basketball has the potential to be a winner on the court at a much more reasonable cost – just the opposite of what a football program would mean to Cleveland State.