JUST A MILE southwest of Monroe Park, a handful of burly guys in black helmets and recently purchased shoulder pads pick themselves up off the dirt. It's just before dusk on a balmy September evening, and Virginia Commonwealth University's head football coach, Alfonso Bell, barks words of encouragement.
"Attaway defense," he yells, pleased with the team's progress during a light scrimmage at the 15-yard-line. It has no game to prepare for — Longwood University in Farmville canceled Saturday's contest — and the players must share Petronius Jones Park with a group of students playing Frisbee golf, but it doesn't much matter to them.
VCU football is here. Finally.
For years, the idea of football at the university has been nothing more than a punch line. The student bookstore sells T-shirts that chide: "VCU Rams Football. Still Undefeated." The university has seemed to relish its status as nonfootball school. It used to run print advertisements featuring a deflated football, boasting its rising academic prowess "without ever fielding a football team."
But as the school grew — it's now the second-largest public university in the state — calls for football intensified. The recent success of the men's basketball program, especially after the university opened the Siegel Center in 1999, added more pressure to consider the gridiron. Unlike basketball, a free-flowing sport with fewer players and many more games per season, football is more of an event. Teams are larger, with hundreds of players in shoulder pads and helmets, giving them the aura of gladiators. Games involve complex, warlike strategizing, which engenders a fandom with nationalistic qualities. For a university trying to shed its image as a commuter school, football seems the logical next step in VCU's growth.
Despite widespread interest among students and alumni, however, football is expensive and requires access to a stadium, or land to build one — things that VCU lacks. And football requires a university administration committed to overcoming those obstacles. The idea of starting a football program also was repeatedly rebuffed by a recalcitrant former president, Eugene Trani.
But since Trani's retirement in 2009, the football debate is back.
For the first time in years, VCU has a club football program up and running. The team played its first game Sept. 10 (it lost to Radford University, 19-18). The roster is filled with 35 students and university employees, and they play their home games at Thomas Jefferson High School.
"They're excited because this is the first time VCU has had a team in something like 30 years," says Coach Bell, explaining that while most are happy just to be playing again, others see a larger purpose. "They want to make it successful so it becomes another successful VCU sport."
The club team may be as close as VCU gets to NCAA-sanctioned football for a while, but it creates hope. New university President Michael Rao has said he's open to the possibility of starting a football program, but only if and when the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to build one from the ground up can be secured. To date, they haven't.
When asked if the university will conduct a feasibility study on starting a team, the university's athletic director, Norwood Teague, speaks in uncertainties. "We're going to do it," he says, "but I'm not sure when that will be."
Yet the idea remains on the table, an option to be picked up just in case the stars, and the donor dollars, align.
But is VCU ready for football? And a more practical question: In this time of fiscal austerity, does starting a football program at the university make sense?
FOUR YEARS, two months and 23 days. That's how long it took Old Dominion University from the time its board of visitors voted to bring back its long-dormant football program in 2005 to play its first game on Sept. 6, 2009.
The school spent more than $30 million to improve and build its facilities and practice fields, with a little less than $24 million of that dedicated to renovating the team's 20,000-seat, on-campus home at Foreman Field. To help pay the cost, student fees were raised to nearly $10 per credit hour. Much of the rest was donated by alumni and other friends of the university.
In its third season, the Monarch football team continually plays before sellout crowds. Season tickets have sold out in each of the last three seasons. Membership in the Old Dominion booster club has doubled, school officials say.
For the decision makers at VCU, the idea that ODU's apparent success could be replicated is tempting. Both schools compete in the Colonial Athletic Association, which is widely considered one of the leading divisions in the Football Championship Subdivision, formerly known as Division I-AA. Norfolk and Richmond are similar, boasting upwards of 200,000 residents, and enrollment at both schools tracks more than 20,000.
In VCU's case, enrollment tops out at 32,000, making it the largest public university in the state with no football team. So why does ODU have a team and VCU doesn't?
VCU graduate Rich Radford, who's been covering ODU football for the Virginian-Pilot since that 2005 board announcement, says the Norfolk school had the benefit of a motivated fan base and a willing partner in former university President Roseann Runte.
In addition, the school launched a successful fundraising campaign before the economy tanked, he says. And Old Dominion had the all-important advantage of an on-campus field to renovate into a new football stadium. VCU doesn't.
There are other reasons as well, most of them related to dusty economic concepts such as cost versus value, and whether VCU is willing to take the financial risk.
First and 10: The Bottom Line
COLLEGE FOOTBALL IS widely thought of as big business — and it is.
A soon-to-be-published study by College of the Holy Cross professor Victor Matheson finds that average athletic department revenue at college football's elite schools is about $10 million. These are the Alabamas and the Southern Californias, the universities that traditionally compete for the Bowl Championship Series' national title, their games broadcast on national television and ESPN, which allows the schools to secure lucrative broadcasting contracts.
But for schools not in that top tier, the tangible financial benefits of collegiate football are difficult to pin down. For most universities football often is a drag on their bottom lines.
"At some small colleges like VCU, you have your eyes in the sky envisioning huge crowds like you see at the schools in the ACC [Atlantic Coast Conference]," Matheson says. "But the idea that these programs are a moneymaker. ... It's just not the case."
Matheson says that data from his most recent study shows that outside the six Bowl Championship Series conferences, football invariably loses money.
Teague estimates that the annual operating budget for a football program would fall somewhere between $8 million and $10 million. And that doesn't include the startup costs. "Just to get it up and going might cost $100 million," Teague says. That's donor money that VCU most likely must secure before moving forward.
Indeed, the built-in costs of college football are considerable. Besides infrastructure costs, there's the expense of coaching staff salaries and player scholarships, all of which generally represent more of an expense to universities than basketball, the only other revenue-generating sport.
On average, basketball requires far less in the way of participants, coaches, trainers and other budget-taxing items. According to the latest U.S. Department of Education disclosure documents, there were 98 student participants in Old Dominion football as of the first game of the 2009-'10 football season. Compare that with 14 participants for the men's basketball team.
In total, football cost ODU $4.4 million in its inaugural season. The price tag for men's basketball was a steal by comparison at $2.3 million.
There's another side to that coin, however. An examination of the numbers shows that, at least at ODU, the rate of return on football far outpaces men's basketball. By the end of that first season, ODU football generated $5.7 million for the university. The men's basketball team brought in $2.3 million in the same year.
Still, according to Matheson's research, many college football programs don't generate enough dollars to cover their bills. Outside of the big six conferences, football programs operate at an average loss of about $1.5 million.
To make up the difference, most of the smaller universities increase student fees and rely on alumni donations and government subsidies.
Given the sluggishness of the economy and the tightening of university budgets across the state, it's easy to see why that might give the decision makers at VCU pause.
"I don't really think that anyone believes [football] would be a windfall as far as athletics are concerned," Teague says. "If anything, what you make on football is going to go back into funding the program itself."
A football program couldn't be paid for in ticket sales alone, Teague acknowledges. "And there's no school in the history of Virginia that's gone to the state and asked for money for football," he says.
State law prohibits funding intercollegiate sports altogether. That leaves Rao and the university Board of Visitors to determine not if they can raise enough money to develop a football program, but how much money the university can stand to lose.
Second and 10: No Gain
IT'S WIDELY ASSUMED that successful programs motivate donors. The reality is that it's a mixed bag, Matheson says. For college football's big boys, he says, there are small increases in alumni donations associated with "going to a bowl game, winning a bowl game and being consistently successful in big-time bowl games."
But sports economists say that donor giving is, for universities not in one of the bowl conferences, one of the pitfalls of maintaining a football program. In a zero-sum game, alumni are asked to pick up the financial slack, diverting donations that otherwise might have gone to pay for other university projects.
There are instances of alumni and other donors stepping up for a football program. The University of Richmond began fundraising for its planned on-campus stadium in 2003. Seven years and $20 million in donations later, the Spiders played their first game in the rechristened E. Claiborne Robins Stadium in 2010.
Stephen Shapiro, a professor of sports management at ODU, says that donations to the university's athletic booster club have steadily increased since the program's inaugural year. According to its latest Internal Revenue Service filings, in 2009 the nonprofit Old Dominion Athletic Foundation took in nearly $3.5 million in donations.
Third and Long: Home Field Advantage
PERHAPS THE BIGGEST obstacle for the university is where the team would play.
In March VCU stepped into a very public fracas over the fate of City Stadium. The facility has been underused since the University of Richmond moved to its new campus stadium last year. At City Hall, discussion of the stadium's future has hit a lull. City Councilman E. Martin Jewell, whose district includes the stadium, says he's still in talks to initiate a study that would determine its "highest and best use."
The university has expressed an interest in acquiring the facility, which sits on 16 acres in a prime location near Byrd Park, bounded by Interstate 195, the Downtown Expressway and Powhite Parkway — even if it never pulls the trigger to start a football program.
"Even if we get the stadium, it's not a guarantee that we get football," Teague says. "We could use City Stadium for a multitude of uses."
Regardless of why the university ultimately expressed interest in taking over the property, City Stadium would require "major upgrades," Teague says. But the larger question remains: Could the university launch a successful football program at a facility that's about two miles from academic campus?
Richmond's athletic director, Jim Miller, can't provide specific numbers, but he says that alumni giving to the athletic department has increased significantly since the Spiders moved into their new stadium a year ago.
"Our season tickets sales have gone from 1,700 to over 4,000 yearly," he says. "We had a 40-percent increase in booster club membership with the new stadium, and it's been because we're back on the campus. It gives our alumni a place to meet and our students can just walk on over to the game."
Indeed, having an on-campus site, rather than an off-campus home, for football is widely considered a boon for universities. On-campus facilities provide a platform to advertise the success of the university, and offer an unprecedented opportunity to connect with prospective students and alumni alike.
For VCU, the dilemma of where the team would play is critical: Given the school's size and number of alumni living in the area, some people say City Stadium wouldn't be much of an obstacle.
But opinions vary. "Unless VCU finds a way to get a stadium on their campus, they are setting themselves up for failure," says Radford, the sports reporter. "They would be picking up exactly where UR left off."
School officials won't say whether building a stadium from the ground up is an option. But it's difficult to envision the university acquiring a parcel of land nearer to campus with a footprint large enough to accommodate a football stadium. VCU lacks options, making City Stadium inextricably tied to VCU football's future.
"It's a pretty big factor," Teague says. "There hasn't been an athletic program in the past 10 years that has started a football program that hasn't already had a stadium in which to play."
Fourth and Inches: Going For It
HERE'S WHY THE idea persists.
Last year Cole Ransom, 20, and James Tait, 22, both juniors, were sitting around reliving high-school glory days when they came up with an idea to revive VCU student club football.
This is their inaugural season. They say the team, with its 35 players and all-volunteer staff of coaches, wasn't started with the idea to could build interest for an NCAA-sanctioned football program at VCU. "We just wanted to find a way to play football again," Tait says.
But would VCU students support an official collegiate program? In 2008, the Student Government Association posed the question to students in an online poll, and 73 percent supported bringing football to campus. But only 39 percent supported raising student fees to pay for it.
Still, the very idea seems to excite the players on the club team. "Every guy on our team would love to see that happen," Tait says.
Richmond doesn't have a reputation as being a football town. But neither did Norfolk prior to ODU reviving football.
"For the most part, I think the majority of politicians and citizens think it's a very positive idea, and support it financially," Teague says.
Sources close to the VCU Board of Visitors say there's not a groundswell of support for developing a program, only members who are open to discussing it.
Make no mistake, there are benefits to VCU starting a program. If anything, the university has a winning basketball tradition. But because basketball is usually played on weekdays and in the evenings, teams are limited in their ability to unite fans. Most in the industry agree that football, unlike anything else, unites alumni and students. And football teams are the ultimate on-campus amenity. For a school looking to raise its academic profile, to increase its reputation as a teaching and research institution — all goals of President Rao — football could be the key.
Most studies show that sports programs, especially successful ones, contribute to an increase in awareness of a university. When programs win at a high level, invariably there's an increase in student applications, sports economists say. That increase doesn't necessarily translate into more qualified students enrolling. But in the competition for funding and brains, awareness can be currency.
In that regard, the university already may have a workhorse athletic program. Its men's basketball team's extended run through the NCAA basketball tournament — and its first appearance in the Final Four in the spring — created an untold amount of brand awareness for the university. It's yet to be determined what impact the run ultimately had.
What it also has done is slow down discussions of football. "The basketball team's success of late," Teague says — "it's dominated our thinking so much in the last six months that a lot of the football program stuff has taken a back seat. Whatever happens, you just don't want it to be a detractor."
But the potential is there. And the longer VCU chooses to wait, the longer that potential goes untapped. "More than anything," Teague says, "if we do it, we want to do it right." S
Correction: In earlier print and online versions of this story, we incorrectly reported that VCU is the largest public university in the state. George Mason University is now the state's largest university, with about 33,000 students.