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FCS Teams like Monmouth Struggle with Cost of Fielding Successful Programs
Her office computer faces Kessler Field, so each day Marilyn McNeil, Monmouth University’s director of athletics, can observe the needs of her football program.
During fall practice, the scholarship-deprived Hawks file into a 16-year-old stadium which needs renovations and is “absolutely not a good facility,” McNeil said. The nearly $2 million football budget needs an influx of money, but “we’re struggling to get revenue out of ticket sales and to get a following,” she said.
The Hawks won or shared the Northeast Conference title three times this decade, but without a modernized stadium, McNeil believes the school fails to attract sought-after recruits.
Without a fully funded scholarship program, the school fails to sign them.
“I think football is hurting,” she said about recruiting.
The dilemma at Monmouth underscores the challenges facing Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division 1-AA) teams across the country, challenges brought on by the convergence of escalating costs and the nation’s struggling economy.
Friday night in Chattoonaga, Tenn., perennial powers Montana and Villanova will vie for the FCS Championship on ESPN2 at 8 p.m. In West Long Branch, McNeil will hunt for solutions, a common circumstance for her colleagues. In the past month, two members of the hyper-competitive Colonial Athletic Association, Northeastern and Hofstra, eliminated football.
Interviews with multiple FCS-level athletic directors reveal a tapestry of necessities for a successful program: Proper coaching, facilities that attract student-athletes and enough money for scholarships and expenses.
This comes with a price tag for a school like Monmouth, where half the football budget is eaten up by the cost of its 30 scholarships. FCS schools must confront their expenses without the benefit of the lucrative television contracts or the cash-laden bowl payouts that aid Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division 1-A) teams.
“It’s unfortunately not quite as easy to try to develop and to nurture successful programs as what it may seem on the surface,” said Jeff Bourne, director of athletics at James Madison, which won the FCS title in 2004 and reached the playoffs in three of the past four seasons. “It is a process and it’s very integrated.”
To be competitive, these officials say, a university must make a commitment to provide these things.
And that commitment is expensive.
No sport strains an athletic department budget like football, if only because of body count. FBS programs are allowed 85 scholarships. FCS teams can have 63. That means more equipment to purchase, more mouths to feed and more bodies to fit onto a bus or airplane.
And the price of scholarships rises almost every year.
Rutgers’ football budget is $19.7 million, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Equity in Athletics database. In stark contrast but still a big-ticket budget item, Stony Brook spends about $2.3 million a year on football, athletic director Jim Fiore said. Stony Brook is able to fund 63 scholarships because state-school tuition is cheaper than the cost at private schools like Monmouth.
“We can do it in a relatively cheaper fashion because we’re a select public institution,” said Fiore, whose Seawolves shared the Big South Conference title this fall.
The expenses come before facilities, part of the lifeblood of recruiting. James Madison funneled $62 million into refurbishing its Bridgeforth Stadium. Last year, William and Mary opened the $11 million Jimmye Laycock Football Center.
“Just looking at the economic times, I definitely know it’s a challenge for institutions,” said Bernard Muir, the athletic director at Delaware.
At Monmouth, the Hawks finished 5-6 this season. McNeil wants about 10 more scholarships.
“We do need to get just a bit more skill on the team,” McNeil said. “And you can only do that with scholarships.”
That means more money — a full scholarship costs about $36,000 a year, according to an athletic department spokesman. The department already slashed 5 percent from their operating budget this year, McNeil said. There was a hiring freeze. The school stopped paying to send coaches to development conferences.
The need for renovation is obvious. But behind Kessler is a softball stadium that McNeil believes needs new bathrooms and bleachers. The soccer stadium must be fixed up. And there is the $57-million Multipurpose Activity Center, which was the focal point of fundraising for years before the arena opening in the fall.
The athletic department maintains a strategic plan to eventually add scholarships and fix the fields. Cutting football isn’t an option. McNeil understands the ripple effect. She still fields call from alums furious about the school cutting swimming decades ago.
But further growth remains in the distance. Inside her office, McNeil smiled. For now, Kessler Field will stay the same.
“If someone gave us a significant gift, that changes pretty quickly,” she said. “I think it could be done by next fall.”
“Nobody’s left me an envelope under my door.”
Football Championship Subdivision teams like Monmouth struggle with cost of fielding successful programs
By Andy McCullough/The Newark Star-Ledger (NJ)