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Football Arms Race Engulfs the CAA
Conference revels in rising stature, but costs prompt two of its programs to fold.
William & Mary will play Villanova on Friday night in the division I-AA football semifinals, with the winner becoming the sixth Colonial Athletic Association team in seven years to reach the national championship game. The bid will serve as further evidence that the CAA has established itself as the preeminent conference in the country at its level.
Yet the success comes just eight days after Hofstra dropped its football program, becoming the second CAA school to discontinue football in as many weeks (Northeastern dropped football Nov. 23). Although the impetus for the two schools was different, both were byproducts of the increasing costs associated with maintaining college football teams – even in college football’s second tier.
The two contrasting fates come at a critical time for the conference, with the dominance at the top and the desertions at the bottom threatening to create a landscape of haves and have nots.
“That can be a concern; it’s a concern in every league, and it’s a concern in virtually every sport,” CAA Commissioner Tom Yeager said. “Can it become a have and a have not [situation]? Yeah. Is there an arms race? I mean, you see it in the ACC and the SEC. Has it trickled down somewhat? I’m sure.”
Although Northeastern struggled in the CAA and needed to upgrade its facilities just to square itself with the competition, Hofstra had experienced success, making the division I-AA playoffs five times. The school will save an estimated $4.5 million by eliminating football. The money will be reallocated to non-athletic areas at the university.
“The cost of the football program, now and in the future, far exceeds the return possible from an FCS program, which does not generate significant national interest,” Hofstra President Stuart Rabinowitz said in a statement. FCS stands for Football Championship Subdivision, the official name for division I-AA football.
The situation counters that of James Madison, which is investing $62 million to upgrade its football facilities. The Dukes won the national championship in 2004, and Coach Mickey Matthews said that the increased interest in the program calls for an upgrade in facilities.
“The reason we’re putting up facilities is because of the demand,” Matthews said. “There are students who are leaving JMU who were football fans while students here. It’s not like what it was 15 years ago.”
William & Mary recently built an $11 million, 30,000-square-foot facility for football that has served as a key recruiting tool and allowed to Tribe to keep pace with its competition. Richmond will open a $25 million on-campus stadium next season.
Yeager acknowledged the proliferation of new facilities, although he said it’s no different than all facilities at all schools – both in athletics and academics. It is an issue that concerns New Hampshire Athletic Director Marty Scarano, whose department includes a football program with a rich tradition and strong institutional commitment. Yet the program lacks the facilities of some of the conference’s other top teams, and Scarano is engaged in discussions for upgrades.
“I don’t think you have to have a $100 million facility to be successful,” Scarano said. “But all that being said, it’s still important. We need to upgrade our facilities for this reason alone – we need to sustain what we’ve accomplished. None of us here are diluted into thinking that we can stay on this trajectory unless we do something with the facilities.”
There is another concern for Scarano about the evolving CAA. With Hofstra and Northeastern gone, a conference that had a symmetric geographical divide between North and South has now shifted.
Old Dominion football will join the CAA in 2011 and Georgia State arrives in 2012, additions that will continue to draw the conference toward the south. This affects the cost of travel – gone are some easy bus trips, in their place are more flights – and the geographical footprint of the conference.
“That’s my biggest concern,” Scarano said, who said it’s not just Old Dominion and Georgia State, but the potential that exists with schools such as George Mason or Charlotte, neither of which currently play football. “It’s more of a demographic and types of schools as it is location. Those schools are all 25,000 enrollments and higher. And they have all that power that comes to bear with student fees.”
To that point, Yeager said the disparity in the size of the schools might be the most pressing issue for the CAA’s future. And it ties all the issues together – the economics, the geography and the ability to build facilities.
What remains indisputable, though, is that Yeager will awake Saturday morning with another CAA program in the national championship game. And it will be the fifth different school, which is a testament to the conference’s depth during a time when questions could soon emerge about its sustainability.
“We got to find a way to gather up all FCS football to do the best we can and put values on people’s commitments that are maybe different, but equally shared,” Scarano said. “If the FCS goes the way of the BCS, and you slice off the top 20 percent of FCS, it’ll be the demise of it. They’ll just cut off their nose to spite their face, I think. If the Delawares, and the Montanas, and the JMUs, the [Appalachian] States – and you can name maybe seven, eight schools – if they decide their brand of football is completely different than the UNHs, well, who are they going to play with in the future, then?”
Football arms race engulfs the CAA
By Zach Berman, The Washington Post