Football Is Forever: The Money-Losing Drug These Schools Can’t Quit
Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t let go.
The business model of college football, long a financial boon to universities, is breaking down. A weeklong look at the pressures of rising costs, falling revenue and what, if anything, universities can do about it. Read the rest of the series here.
For the University of Massachusetts Amherst, moving into the top echelon of college football looked a lot like going pro.
Robert Holub, then the university's chancellor, announced the change at the 68,000-seat Gillette Stadium, 90 miles east of campus. Just like the NFL’s New England Patriots, the Minutemen would play at Gillette, selling more tickets to make up for the increased costs of big-time football. “We promise national excellence and prominence to the citizens of the Commonwealth,” Holub said in April 2011.
Five years later, the school’s plan appears, at best, naively optimistic. The projected revenue has failed to materialize, and the athletic department now relies on more financial support from the university than it did before its football team joined the Football Bowl Subdivision. Fewer than 15,000 fans on average attended UMass home games this season. The Minutemen no longer belong to a conference and won’t play a single game at Gillette in 2017.
“I see nothing changing in terms of the financial viability, the attendance or the conference opportunity,” said Max Page, a UMass architecture professor who co-chaired the faculty senate’s Ad Hoc Committee on FBS Football in 2014. “It’s going to continue to drain money from the core mission of the university. And there’s no end in sight. How many years do we do this?”
Quite possibly forever. Once a school fields a top-division football team, it’s nearly impossible to reverse the commitment. UMass is one of 10 schools to join the FBS since 2009, and most are struggling financially. In theory, they have alternatives—drop down to the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), known until 2006 as Division I-AA, or cut football entirely. Neither is a panacea, as the University of Idaho and the University of Alabama at Birmingham are learning.
On December 2, 2014, UAB president Ray Watts told Blazers football players and coaches that football no longer made financial sense for the school. The program was ending. The meeting started off tense and went downhill. Players cried, pleaded and insulted Watts, telling him this would be the worst decision of his life. Some walked out, and eventually Watts did the same. After he made a public statement, Watts faced an angry mob outside the stadium. A police escort accompanied him to his car.
The alumni reaction was stronger yet. Watts got hate mail and threats. But he also got money. In the six months after the school announced the decision to cut football, alumni gave $17.2 million earmarked for the revival of the team. It was enough to cover five years of operating expenses, plus the reinstatement of the bowling and rifle teams. Since that initial influx, donors have contributed another $25 million, largely to cover the cost of a new football program. The $42 million raised in the past two years is more than the total in the entire history of UAB athletics, according to Athletic Director Mark Ingram.
Jim Livengood, who spent 28 years as a Division I athletic director, was part of the consulting group that advised UAB on its finances. The school made the right decision, he says, and the response from the community and alumni proves it. “Football is part of the culture in that state and that city,” Livengood said. “It was in the fiber of Birmingham, and you saw that in the initial response.”
UAB could have kept its team but dropped down to the FCS, a lower, and potentially less costly, level. That was unheard of—in college football, divisional moves had only gone up—until this year, when Idaho announced it would move down. University President Chuck Staben made the decision after the Vandals were voted out of the Sun Belt Conference in March. Facing a future of rising costs, scheduling difficulties, diminished recruiting and high travel bills, Staben decided his school would give up the chase.
“While the move is not a financial cure-all, it does insulate us from a spending arms race among FBS schools,” Staben said recently in a presentation to the Knight Commission, a D.C.-based group that advocates for academics in the commercialized world of college athletics. He noted that Idaho could try to join the Mountain West—home of Boise State, San Diego State and University of Hawaii—but that those schools outspend the Vandals two-to-one.
As in Birmingham, the alumni were not pleased. Some promised they’d never attend another Idaho football game; others said worse. Donations to the athletic department dropped about 25 percent—a little more than the $500,000 Staben had expected—even as overall giving to the university was rising dramatically.
To those, including UMass’s Holub, who contend that top-division football is a requirement for national prominence, Staben offers this alternative: “I happen to think our university can define excellence on our own terms.”
Even if few schools follow Idaho’s lead, there’s growing consensus that FBS football isn’t a silver bullet for school finances.
“Schools think, ‘If we can just be FBS, everything will be different,’ but unless you can remain successful and adapt in a number of different ways, the answer is absolutely not,” said Livengood.
At UMass, an ad-hoc committee documented the financial impact of the Minutemen’s move to the FBS. It found that the costs outstripped the university’s projections, and students and taxpayers had paid an additional $2.1 million to support athletics between 2012 and 2014.
The committee wasn’t renewed. In April, nearly five years to the day after Holub announced the move to the FBS, the faculty senate proposed a nonbinding motion to either cut football entirely or move back down to the lower division. According to the meeting minutes, one professor called the FBS experiment a “fool’s errand,” where the “deck is stacked against programs like UMass’s.” Another said his grandson, an incoming freshman, would owe an extra $6,000 in student debt because of support the school gave to the athletic deficit.
Others argued against the resolution. One professor noted that the school would have the same systemic financial problems even without a big-time college football program. Another pointed out that “football is a tradition on this campus” with particular resonance for African-American students and alumni. Students from the football team, student government and the marching band encouraged the faculty to vote against the motion.
Athletic Director Ryan Bamford, who was hired in 2015, restated his commitment to the sport. “It instills pride in those on campus and in those who have an affinity for the University of Massachusetts,” he said. “It would be a mistake to tell you we even want to have this conversation.”
The resolution failed by a vote of 26 to 14.