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The Kickoff

Long a well-worn joke, Virginia Commonwealth University may soon give Rams football a serious look. But is it worth the financial risk?



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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."

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