September 28, 2020

Cover Story

College Football Blitz

With six schools now fielding Division 1 Bowl Subdivision teams, Florida has become a major battleground in the college football arms race. But does it pay to play?

Mike Vogel | 11/1/2007

UCF freshmen
UCF freshmen Eric Lynch and Chelsey Martin prepare for the Knight’s home opener. [Photo: Cynthia Barnett]
Why all the hurry to block and tackle? In part, the arms race reflects the dynamics of university growth. Once upon a time in Florida, there were two traditional universities, UF and FSU, and a gaggle of commuter schools. But the commuter schools have mushroomed into mammoth institutions with 25,000 or more students, growing campuses and heightened academic aspirations. Presidents, students and alumni are quick to believe their sports programs — particularly football programs — need to have comparable heft.

“This is Florida, and football is very popular,” says Betty Castor, the former USF president who pushed hard for the Bulls’ football program and launched it in 1997. “The alumni especially wanted an expansion of athletics — there was a lot of pressure for USF to look like a ‘regular’ university.”

Castor cites another factor that’s goosing the arms race: No governmental brakes. She believes the Board of Regents, the statewide governance body that rode herd on all campus projects until the Legislature abolished it in 2001, would never have approved three new stadiums. When she was lobbying for a football program at USF, Castor says, “The Regents were very tough with us, and I hated it every day, but in hindsight, it was a very good thing that they made sure our program was fiscally responsible.”

More exposure, more money

The real lifeblood for the football frenzy, however, is money from television and bowl appearances. A 1984 U.S. Supreme Court case eliminated the power of the NCAA to decide who appears how often in televised games. The court decision, coupled with the rise of cable TV, led to conferences making their own deals with networks. More televised games and more bowl games have translated into more exposure and money, particularly for the small conferences. It also led to the creation of the big-bucks Bowl Championship Series — the ultimate goal today for both 19-year-old running backs and graying university presidents.

Bowls distribute revenue to a team’s conference, not to the team directly. The conference distributes the amount received among all teams in the conference. The revenue figure represents the net revenue received by the conference for all bowl appearances by its teams.
Source: National Collegiate Athletic Association

Bowl revenue to participating teams and conferences increased 20% to $217.6 million in the past four years. The financial stakes for individual schools — particularly smaller schools — can be considerable. When Boise State, from the Western Athletic Conference, broke into the BCS last year with an undefeated season, it brought itself an extra $4.2 million in BCS revenue after its win in the Fiesta Bowl.

Stanford University sports economist Roger Noll says there’s “no real chance” of a windfall like that for most new Bowl Subdivision hopefuls. But just as RC Cola doesn’t have to overtake Coca-Cola to be profitable, university presidents eye the pots of TV and bowl money and believe that they’ve got a chance to at least break even on big-time football.

Their calculus: Fielding a fledgling Bowl Subdivision team costs around $3 million a year, not counting a stadium [“The Cash Flow”]. To move up from Division 1-AA (now called the Championship Subdivision), a university has to add 44 more scholarships — 22 for football and a compensatory 22 in women’s sports under Title IX, the federal law prohibiting gender discrimination by educational institutions. A new program can hire a coaching staff for less than $1 million. Operating expenses range from $150 helmets to the $80,000 needed to charter a plane to fly 130 players, staff and others to an away game.

On the revenue side, a little state and institutional money flows directly into athletic programs to fund women’s sports and other costs, but it doesn’t pay much of the overall bill. Schools shift institutional money subtly into football in other ways — in how the president spends his time, for example, along with paying stadium light bills and granting out-of-state tuition waivers.

And they turn to other revenue sources. Young programs like FAU’s may have to settle for a discount on their cleats rather than getting free equipment and apparel worth $2.1 million from Nike — as FSU does, for example. But smaller football programs as well as established ones count heavily on sums from boosters. FAU, for example, will get $601,000 from supporters this year.

And, of course, programs need money from ticket sales, conference TV packages and shares of bowl appearance money from other conference teams invited to post-season play. Programs also need the compulsory athletic fees charged to students by the credit hour — a point of contention to some who say it amounts to using tuition money to fund football at a time when overall state support for higher education is so meager.

FAU, for example, charges the second-highest athletic fees in the State University System, at $13.75 per credit hour, while UF charges the lowest, at $1.90 an hour. FAU President Frank Brogan says fee figures alone are misleading. His students get free tickets. UF, by contrast, charges its students $70 for season tickets to watch the Gators play in the Swamp.

Tags: North Central, Education

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