by Mike Vogel
Updated 8 yearss ago
KNIGHT GAME: The University of Central Florida Knights played their first game in the school’s new on-campus stadium this season. Richard Lapchick, who holds an endowed chair at UCF and directs the university’s Sports Business Management program, was skeptical that UCF could compete successfully in Division 1-A in a state with so many top football teams. He now says, “I must admit it’s the very best thing to happen to the university from a student morale point of view. There was a spirit on campus I hadn’t seen before.” [Photo: University of Central Florida]
The sun hasn’t risen yet on the September morning of the University of Central Florida’s first football game in its new stadium, but already students and alumni are setting up hundreds of canopies along an expansive green mall at the center of campus. They lug chairs and charcoal, boom boxes and beer coolers. By 11 a.m., steaks and burgers are sizzling on grills. Kids who’ve painted themselves in the school colors are dripping sweaty streaks of black and gold.
At the new, $55-million Bright House Networks Stadium nearby, UCF officials have planned a string of “tradition-building” events leading up to the game between UCF’s Knights and the University of Texas Longhorns. But most students reject the packaged pep to start their own tailgate traditions. Passing up the opportunity to learn the fight song from UCF’s cheerleaders, they stick around the mall, sucking down Monster energy drinks and Natural Light, listening to a deafening remix of Usher’s “Yeah,” and tossing small, gold footballs.
The revelers say this display of school spirit at UCF’s sprawling, suburban campus east of Orlando is unprecedented. “This is all the stadium,” says Allison Freeman, a 19-year-old sophomore from Naples. “I’ve never seen this many people on campus at one time.” As a freshman, Freeman says, she never went to any UCF football games, which had been played at the Citrus Bowl 15 miles away. This year, she plans to attend every game at the new 45,000-seat stadium on campus. “We feel like we’re a real university,” she says.
The University of Florida Gators are the only school in the state — and one of only about 25 nationally — whose football program makes enough money to keep the whole athletic budget in the black. [Photo: University of Florida]
Exactly the point, say UCF officials. To them — and to officials at other ambitious state schools, such as Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton and Florida International University in Miami — feeling like a real university these days requires a big-time football program.
How Florida Became a Football Mecca
Multimedia: FAU Football, the Next USF?
Documents: Contracts of Head Coaches
And one after another, Florida public universities have piled into an arms race in which they raise and spend millions to chase wins, prestige and money on the gridiron. UCF jumped to the NCAA’s top tier, the Bowl Subdivision (formerly known as Division 1-A), in 1996. The University of South Florida didn’t even have a football program until 1997 but now competes in the Big East Conference and cracked the top 10 national rankings early this season. Florida Atlantic, which joined Division 1-A in 2005 and plays in the Sun Belt Conference, beat a Big Ten team, Minnesota, earlier this fall. Florida International joined Division 1-A in 2006. Meanwhile, both FIU and FAU are right behind UCF with plans for multimillion-dollar stadiums on campus.
There is little question that big-time football makes many students, alumni and faculty feel good about their schools. The arms race also reflects the legitimate aspirations of up-and-coming universities to have all the amenities that long-established schools like the University of Florida and Florida State have enjoyed. But it also highlights an uncomfortable truth: While four of Florida’s six Bowl Subdivision football programs pay for themselves, the state’s public universities are pouring huge amounts of time and effort into building programs and stadiums at a time when academic programs at the schools remain weak — and state funding for higher education overall lags far behind the schools’ growth. The state may have at least two teams among the nation’s top 10 football programs, but it lacks a single university with similar academic rankings.
UCF freshmen Eric Lynch and Chelsey Martin prepare for the Knight’s home opener. [Photo: Cynthia Barnett]
“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.
A lot on the line: Young programs like FAU’s may only get discounts on their equipment and apparel from companies like Nike, while established Bowl Subdivision programs may get millions in free goods. [Photo: JC Ridley]
Some young programs generate income by accepting money to play in so-called “slaughter bowl” or “body bag” games against major conference teams looking for an easy win. FAU’s football team, playing seven of 12 games away from home, will net $750,000 from “guarantees” this season, fully a quarter of the team’s $3-million annual cost.
While four of six Bowl Subdivision football programs in Florida generate a profit, UF is the only Florida school among about 25 nationally whose football program contributes enough to put the school’s overall athletic budget in the black. “I’m still not comfortable with how much athletics has,” says UF President Bernie Machen. “But at least I can tell you there’s no money going to athletics that could otherwise be utilized to support academics.”
That’s little consolation for UF Professor Jack Davis, a historian, disheartened knowing that assistant coaches make five times more money than professors and “to see the money going to the stadium when 30 faculty in the history department share one printer.” The faculty count in the history department is down about 20% — a result of budget cuts and a hiring freeze in UF’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “Can you imagine the outcry if the coaching staff were down 20%?” Davis asks. “The Gator Nation would never let it happen.”
Davis, who teaches a popular course on the history of sports, isn’t opposed to intercollegiate athletics but says, “When you make athletics the vehicle of school spirit, you end up sidelining academics.”
Playing home games in a stadium 10 miles from campus hasn’t hurt the University of South Florida Bulls, who were ranked No.5 nationally in early October. USF’s football program made a profit of more than $2 million last year. [Photo: J. Meric]
There are other questions about what the schools will realize from all the time and effort they pour into football. Research shows that major sport success can drive up admission application numbers, but all Florida universities, including those without football, have seen growth in applications and rising quality of students — simply because of the state’s growing population and limited slots.
Evidence that success at sports improves fund raising overall is mixed at best. Nationally, only 25% of donors to athletics also give to academics, a figure that holds true at UF as well. The university ranks fourth in the nation in donations to athletics, but 83rd in the ranks of overall alumni giving.
Both Machen and Castor question whether up-and-coming schools might serve themselves better by focusing more on academics instead of stadium construction. Castor points out that USF has grown into a top-10 team while playing in Raymond James Stadium, which is 10 miles from campus.
Machen also acknowledges that football’s tailgating traditions contribute to students abusing alcohol — a problem he’s been battling for his entire tenure. Indeed, at UCF’s first home game, open containers were abundant on the mall, and several students sported the T-shirt slogan, “Win or Lose, Knights Still Booze.”
*Graduation success rate isn’t the same as graduation rate. The former adjusts the rate to account for players transferring in and also those in good academic standing transferring out. Schools say it’s a better indicator of academic performance. The federally tracked graduation rate, which examines only the percentage of freshmen who graduate within six years, is usually lower.
Source: NCAA for 2005-06, the most recent study available
Football backers answer the concerns in several ways. Even without a Boise State-like windfall, a team that does modestly well can realize enough revenue from football to cover the cost of low- and no-revenue sports such as tennis and volleyball. That’s especially true in Florida, where state law allows collegiate teams to keep the sales tax on tickets to fund women’s sports. The ticket surcharge alone amounted to $930,000 at Florida State in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2006, equal to a tenth of the cost of women’s sports — or more than enough alone to fund women’s golf and tennis.
A very few universities can even point to money that sports programs have generated for academics. UF’s Athletic Association, for example, donated $6 million this fall to the university to support several academic programs threatened by budget cuts; the Athletic Association has transferred $40 million to the academic enterprise since 1990. FSU’s library got a $250,000 donation from the team’s 2006 Orange Bowl appearance.
As for the effort going into new stadiums, schools without their own stadiums ask why they shouldn’t have the same amenities that UF and FSU have enjoyed for years. Particularly, they say, since they don’t use public money or tuition fees. UCF officials say they raised $29 million in private donations for their new stadium, including $15 million from Bright House for naming rights. They plan to pay the balance of the $55-million construction bill via ticket and concession sales, revenue from suites and club seat leases, donations, corporate sponsorships and advertising. FIU is taking a similar approach to the $31-million first phase of a stadium project that’s expected to open for the 2008 season, and likewise FAU with its $62-million facility, slated to open in 2010.
GAME PLAN: State cuts in university operational spending are frustrating and hard on the teaching mission, says FAU President Frank Brogan (left), but “it’s harder for athletics because they don’t receive operational money from the state. They just can’t sit and pout because they didn’t get enough money handed to them by the state of Florida. They actually have to go out and make theirs.” [Photo: JC Ridley]
The schools also say the cost-income equation doesn’t reflect the intangible benefits of football — what FSU’s Lee Hinkle, vice president for university relations, calls the “sense of being” that comes with sports. Hinkle, whose department oversees the alumni organization and also its academic foundation and athletic fund-raising Seminole Boosters, says sports help market FSU to the high school students, professors and donors the university wants to attract.
“You don’t have ABC or NBC coming to your campus and wanting to publicize your recruitment of National Merit Scholars,” Hinkle says. “Having sports is a way to pique people’s interest and get them interested in the university. Once they’re at the front door, you can bring them in.”
Many students reflect that view. “I do find it curious why, having won a basketball championship and football championship, we have such a high faculty-to-student ratio,” says 23-year-old Daniel Hanser, a UF student from West Palm Beach. “But athletics is incredibly important to me: My first memory as a child is literally Emmitt Smith running touchdowns on Florida Field.”
On a roll
Cheering on the home team in Tallahassee [Photo: Florida State University]
College football appears to have plenty of momentum to expand further. “The right way to think of college football is it’s professional football in the 1960s and ’70s,” says Noll, the Stanford’s sports economist. “There’s no sign sports will do anything but get more popular. The only real serious issue here is how long it’s going to last. In regard to professional sports, people started to ask how long is this going to last in the 1960s. Fifty years later, it’s still going.”
For the moment, however, it doesn’t appear that Florida’s football epidemic will become a pandemic. The state schools without football — the University of North Florida, Florida Gulf Coast University, the University of West Florida and New College — say they have no plans to get in the game. UWF Athletic Director Todd Davis says school officials have discussed adding a football program but don’t expect to start one anytime soon.
“As you will find out,” he says, “the expense to develop a sport such as football can be astronomical, while maintaining it has its own challenges.”