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Money Ball: Football programs help small private colleges in Florida

Athletic programs, particularly football, are helping small private colleges in Florida at a time of challenge. The schools are basically turning coaches into admissions officers — it’s all about boosting enrollment, not ticket sales.

The football field at tiny Warner University in Central Florida is a far cry from the stadiums at Florida’s major college football powers. No lights. No locker rooms or bathrooms. No stands. The team uses the field only for practice. It plays its games at the local high school, typically drawing around 500. Warner’s president, David Hoag, says he’d be happy to have an on-campus field. “I just need $3 million,” he says. “If you know anybody, let me know.”

Even if he had a new field, Hoag wouldn’t be looking for big revenue from sales of tickets, merchandise or broadcast rights. Small schools like Warner get little or no revenue from operating sports teams. For them, the role of intercollegiate sports is to boost enrollment by attracting tuition-paying recruits, who represent a net financial plus even after allowing for scholarships and the cost of fielding the teams.

In terms of sheer volume — this fall, Warner will have 140 football players among a student body of fewer than 1,250 — there’s no sport comparable to football. “If we did not have athletics, we would be hurting,” Hoag says. “Football does get money for your institution.”

Since 2011 in Florida, Warner and six other colleges have added football programs. Aside from the University of West Florida in Pensacola, which added NCAA Division II football in 2016, all the schools are small, private colleges with limited athletic scholarships. The state’s newest team, Keiser University’s Seahawks, kicks off its first season in August in West Palm Beach.

College football programs at big Division I schools provide plenty of visibility but typically lose money. Understanding why football works at the small schools means understanding their finances. Unlike their well-endowed private counterparts or big, publicly funded state universities, small schools depend on tuition to survive. At Warner, for example, tuition funds 95% of the budget.

Warner’s tuition is approximately $21,000. Room and board is another $7,000 to $8,000. The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, the alternative to the NCAA that many of Florida’s small colleges belong to, allows schools to offer the equivalent of 24 fullrides in football.

But schools can spread that allotment among more than 24 players — offering a full-ride for one student, a minor scholarship for another. If coaches hit their targets for recruitment and tuition — net revenue per player — “it will begin to pay for itself,” Hoag says.

It behooves Warner coaches to find smart players. Hoag doesn’t count student athletes who qualify for academic merit aid against the coach’s athletic scholarship allotment. With Warner’s 140-player football roster, the tuition revenue after scholarships works out to $1.8 million. Even after paying for coaches and other support, “you still have a very good return number,” Hoag says. “Football has been good for Warner. So have all the other sports.”

It’s a good deal for students too, he says. After accounting for an athletic scholarship and state and federal grants, a student getting the average athletic discount has to pay out of pocket only about $3,000 for tuition, plus room and board. Overall, the net price for all first-year undergrads in 2015-16, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, was $17,309 for tuition, room, board, fees, books and personal expenses.

A place to go

The schools don’t have to go far to find eager players in Florida, a football hotbed. In the last 10 years, the number of high schools in Florida fielding boys’ football teams has increased 18%, according to the Florida High School Athletic Association. The number of male participants increased 21% to a record 43,515 in 2016-17. (Over the same span, the number of Florida girls playing on boys’ football teams grew to 66 from just three.) “It’s the love of the game,” says Warner head coach Rod Shafer.

The state produces far more Division I players than the state’s Division I schools can take, along with a large number of talented, hard-working players who aren’t Division I caliber but still want to play. “Kids that are great athletes get passed over. They have to have a place to go,” says Shafer. Football programs at small colleges in Florida give them places to play where family can see them.

All the attention paid to football-related head injuries hasn’t deterred the growth in small-college football. Steve Hatchell, a former executive director of the Orange Bowl and now CEO of the National Football Foundation in Irving, Texas, says that publicity regarding NFL players with head injuries shouldn’t “govern all of football.” He hears regularly from college presidents interested in starting football programs.

Using athletic scholarships to boost overall tuition revenue dovetails with a general trend in higher education to offer more merit awards to prospective students to boost enrollment, making up in volume what the colleges lose per student. Hoag arrived at Warner in 2016, three years after the school started its football program, with a playbook written by Antioch College President Jeffrey Docking titled “Crisis in Higher Education: A Plan to Save Small Liberal Arts Colleges in America.” A chronicle of how Docking helped turn around two colleges, it advocates enrollment growth — with accountability — as the path to sustainability via investing in athletics and campus life because that’s what draws students.

“This is a strategy to make yourself more financially viable,” Hoag says. “If you do the strategy right, it does work.”

Hoag invested in creating a cheerleading team, marching band, a ranch rodeo team and clay-shooting team. An April day finds him in nearby Haines City with the shooting team at a community fundraiser. Warner also has a bass fishing tournament team. “Today’s kids like to be involved in activities,” Hoag says. He’s beefed up some academics — including a new ag building and majors in hospitality and tourism management and criminal justice — and trimmed others.

“We can’t afford to have small majors that are undersubscribed,” Hoag says. He also implemented accountability, holding coaches to targets for how many roster slots they need to fill at how much of a discount off tuition. His target for sports is a 38% to 40% overall discount.

Football brings racial diversity to small colleges and, important to their survival, male students. When male enrollment at a school drops below 40%, applications from both men and women begin to wither, according to a 2016 report by the Wall Street Journal. From 2009 to 2012, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the percentage of undergraduate enrollment at Warner that was female ranged between 55% and 60%. Since football launched in 2013, the school’s male undergrad enrollment has been above 50%. It’s currently 55%.

Warner, like other small faith-based schools, has to look for a particular type of player. With twice weekly chapel for students, Bible study and “spiritual formation” credits, Warner isn’t going to attract students looking for a party school. Athletic director John Dunlap talks about the school’s “Christ-centered” mission. The athletic facilities are meager compared to many high school facilities, but Warner has other attractions. Shafer touts the benefits of playing for a small, faith-based college — playing time, for one — the enduring friendships, the atmosphere.

“They come here, and they’re not going to get lost in the shuffle,” says Shafer, who in his youth spent two years as starting quarterback for public Wayne State University in Michigan before transferring to private Christian school Taylor University in Indiana.

Sports seem to help students stay on track to graduate. The group identification and the desire of freshmen and sophomores to return for their chance to start as juniors and seniors helps retention, always an issue in higher education. Hoag says that 73% of last month’s traditional graduates were student athletes, a better graduation rate than non-athletes.

The campus this summer is seeing a flurry of construction. From the hulk of an old dorm battered by Hurricane Irma, Warner is shaping a 12,000-sq.-ft. athletic training center with a locker room. It is finishing an ag building and is renovating its bookstore and baseball stadium. Meanwhile, it’s adding 46 dorm beds.

“We had all-time record enrollment. I don’t even have one empty bed. I’m trying to figure out where I put everybody,” Hoag says.

Personal Touch

On busy U.S. 27 in Lake Wales in the heart of Florida agriculture lands, Warner will have only about 1,250 students this fall, smaller than most urban high schools. The women at the student center help desk know the students by name. Affiliated with the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana), the college reports that some 60% of students receive Pell grants for low-income students. A similar percentage are the first in their families to go to college. The top three majors are business, exercise science and sport and agriculture, one of only three universities in Florida with an ag major. The ag program, thanks to requiring 500 hours of internships, has a 100% placement rate for grads.


Football has raised UWF’s profile in peninsular Florida and outside the state, says Joffery Gaymon, vice president of enrollment and student affairs. That’s important exposure for an institution where 58% of students come from Northwest Florida. UWF made it to the Division II national championship game in 2017; although it lost, the school’s playoff run and games were carried on an ESPN channel. Free ads for the school were part of the package. “That stuff you can’t put a price on,” Gaymon says.

Pride — and Diversity

Ave Maria University, the Catholic university in the new town of Ave Maria in Collier County, added football in 2011 because benefactor Tom Monaghan, founder of Domino’s and former owner of the Detroit Tigers, wanted robust athletics.

Robust doesn’t mean major. The University of Florida is considering spending some $130 million for a new baseball stadium and a 130,000-sq.-ft. football support building. Ave Maria recently built a multi-sport artificial turf field and bleachers that seat 1,000. Cost: $1.2 million. “It’s a lot of money to us,” says President Jim Towey.

Football creates vibrancy, pride and helps with male enrollment, marketing and diversity, Towey says. “One of the things I love about football is it adds diversity from a faith standpoint,” Towey says. The campus is 80% Catholic. “We think if you’re surrounded by people who pray like you … you’re not going to grow much,” he says.

Players — and Employers

Keiser, a private university based in West Palm Beach, starts playing football in August. Its residential campus, acquired in 2015 when Keiser took over struggling Northwood University, now has 950 students. “We’re not Alabama. We’re not Michigan. We don’t plan to be,” says founder Art Keiser. One calculation in starting the football program: Keiser recalls talking to CEOs while traveling to the Olympics one year and hearing how they favor hiring former small-college football players because of their self-discipline and teamwork. “That’s the thing that clinched it for me,” Keiser says


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