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April 10, 2001

Sobering Real World Problems Bring USA Out of its Football Pipe Dream

by Tom Brennan

After two lukewarm studies, costing nearly $100,000, and three years of hysterical football hype, fanned mainly by The Mobile Register, the Athletic Council of USA met on April 2, 2001and voted unanimously to let the hot air out of the football balloon that so many football balloonists had hoped would take USA soaring into the heady atmosphere of Big-Time Athletics.

Specifically, the Council made up of 21 members, including 7 faculty, 1 dean, 8 administrators, 2 alumni, and 3 students voted, with only three members absent, unanimously in favor of a five-part resolution proposed by Dr. Richmond Brown, the Chair of the Faculty Senate’s Ad Hoc Committee on Football and a member of the Athletic Council. In addition, President Moulton and 3 members of the Board of Trustees--Mayer Mitchell, Larry Striplin, and Jack Brunson--voted with the Council in favor of the resolution. Essentially the resolution ruled out all consideration of Division I scholarship Football for USA until a "more propitious time in the future" when "fundraising efforts suggest greater opportunities." In effect, the resolution says that if fundraising efforts prove largely futile, the time will never be propitious for Division I scholarship football. The resolution reads as follows:

  1. The Athletic Council supports the continuation of Club Football at USA, and asks that up to $75,000 of the monies generated annually by the recently approved student athletic fee be reserved for club football. The Council also endorses the beginning of fundraising efforts for the purpose of supporting possible future competition at a higher level.
  2. The Athletic Council encourages the University, when and where possible, to enhance campus recreation and intramural sports opportunities for current and future USA students.
  3. The Athletic Council encourages the initiation of fundraising efforts to upgrade the new track and field complex to include lighting and spectator seating appropriate for track and field events and for [Club] football competition.
  4. The Athletic Council recommends that at the end of the 2002 club football season, if the success of the club football program and the initial fundraising efforts suggest greater opportunities, the University explore the feasibility of upgrading the club football program to Division I-AA, non-scholarship status, and seek appropriate conference affiliation (such as the football-only Pioneer League); and pending a thorough survey of student opinion and a favorable vote of the SGA, that student Athletic fees be raised to an amount sufficient to cover the anticipated expenses of Division I-AA non-scholarship football and any program additions needed to remain in compliance with gender equity requirements.
  5. The Athletic Council recommends that the Board of Trustees defer consideration of Division I scholarship football until a more propitious time in the future.

Division I scholarship football was the Holy Grail sought after by its partisans, but item 5 above indicates what was foremost in the mind of the Council. The time now is definitely not propitious for big-time Division I Football or even for Division I-AA. Moreover, item 4 makes clear that any steps toward "greater opportunities" depend on successful fundraising from external sources, which as the Carr Report stated is "the key to the entire effort." Any solid case for football demands of those making it that their demands are backed up with the evidence that football will be self-supporting. That is, they will have to show, without a shadow of a doubt, there is ample money from external sources to fund the endeavor now and into the future. In short, they cannot expect, in any way to rely on funds from the state’s annual fiscal allotment to USA. That means, too, that Club football will be paid for by students through their athletic fees. Moreover, those fees will eventually have to pay for projected expenses of approximately $1.7 million to upgrade USA’s track and field complex to include lighting and 5000 seats for track and field events and Club football. In the meantime, games will be played in the afternoon and fans will sit on the grass.

The State of Alabama’s current funding crisis affecting all levels of education, has proved to be the sobering shock USA and Mobile needed to bring back to their right minds those inclined to think having football at USA and embarking upon big-time athletics is merely a matter of letting unrestrained desires for instant gratification drive priorities at USA. What should be patently clear to everyone concerned, except John Cameron of The Mobile Register, is that as long as USA depends on greedily and fiercely contested, fluctuating state revenues for the better part of its budget needs, its financial stability is hooked to a sick mule about to drop dead from trying to pull too many needy wagons. The state’s system of taxation is not just antiquated but has reached the point where it can no longer adequately support the state’s real education needs, of which football is not one. Of course, somehow, the Alabama’s tax system could be miraculously reformed to provide more than enough money for all concerned. But don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen. Those who can’t live without football, will have to go out and beat the bushes for the money or be satisfied with club football at USA. Do you hear that John?

Faced with proration, ranging from 6 to 12 percent, the prospects for grandiose football frivolities at USA are simply no longer on the table. Besides that table is cluttered with other more pressing problems. The dispute with the USA Foundation persists. A major decision looms regarding the fate of Prime Health (and a possible switch to Blue Cross). The Athletic Department’s persistent shortfalls, the current one being $300,000 (not including gender equity related expenses), also do not bode well. To raise $400,000 to handle these problems, the university decided to take the money out of the hide of the students by boosting the student Athletic fee. The SGA has allocated $75,000 from these fees for Club football. Also, USA has ambitious new projects on the drawing board: a cancer institute, a university transit system, technology enhancements, library expansion, and so forth. Each of these should have priority over football. Before the Council voted, President Gordon Moulton and Chair of the Board of Trustees, Jack Brunson, both reiterated that if football, at whatever level, is to fly at USA, it will have to fly by paying its own way, that is, no public money will be available to pay for it. Now if Moulton can convince the USA Foundation that no Foundation money will be available for football, he will have taken a giant step toward resolving that dispute.

Item 4 in the Council’s resolution, states unequivocally that "greater opportunities" for football depend on the success of Club football and on "fundraising efforts." Club football has been a pretty big hit with students and student enthusiasm will no doubt increase. So, as the first football study, the Carr Report, emphatically indicated, the future of football at USA hinges on fundraising and on revenues related to football sales (seating, concessions and so forth). The second report done by Convention, Sports, and Leisure, Inc. (CSL) was supposed to resolve doubts about the sufficiency of donor revenues and sales revenues. It has not done so. It concluded that USA could probably sell 8,640 season tickets—roughly 5000 more than the Carr Report projected—attract 1,400 donors willing to pay $300 a year for seating rights, induce 620 individual and corporate purchasers of premium seating, and lease 9 private suites. In addition, CSL sampled 286 USA students who are apparently willing to tax themselves $25-$75 per semester in football fees. But just how realistic these figures are is hard to say. Compared to cities where universities recently implemented football, Mobile ranks last in corporate base, average household income, average entertainment spending, average sports spending, and market size. Also, USA and Mobile are well below average in these same areas in comparison to future football playing Sun Belt schools. Besides projections of greater revenues than the Carr Report from concessions sales, contributions and donor seating, premium seating, and student fees, their figures are bloated to include $600,000 in revenue from sale of premium seating that does not exist. When that amount is deducted, then projected annual losses are more than a million dollars. Both the assumed premium seating and luxury boxes would require extensive renovations of Ladd-Peebles Stadium, an expense the report assumes the City would handle.

Although the CSL Report suggests that USA football fundraising will not likely affect other university fundraising efforts, the fact is that USA has never had a strong or systematic program of external fundraising, even among alumni. Indeed, the alumni response to CSL’s survey on football was tepid. USA has been frustrated in its on-going search for a development director and recent efforts to appoint an A&S associate dean of external relations also failed. At Athletic Council meeting, trustee Striplin urged that in order for fundraising to succeed, it’s necessary to hire a person who can rally local support for football. Paul Griffin, Director of Athletics at the University of South Florida, stated, while presenting his segment of the Carr Report, "financial support usually only follows the emotional bond developed between the program and those who will build the foundation" (IIIl-11). This "emotional bond" is especially crucial in the Greater Mobile Area because fan loyalty has long been preempted by Auburn and Alabama and a glut of televised collegiate and professional games. People won’t give money unless they feel strongly tied emotionally to the program. But that raises the question: where will the money come from to pay the salary of the cheerleader rallying local support? Since it can’t come from public money, it has to come from donor money, but donor money is not likely to be forthcoming without the cheerleader creating the emotional bond. It will be interesting to see if or how this Catch-22 will be overcome. At the Council’s meeting several names of prospective fundraisers were mentioned, including Joe Gottfried’s brother Mike, but Jack Brunson said there are no plans at this time to hire a big-name fundraiser.

Besides documenting the limitations of the local market and the USA student and alumni base (there are 11,700 students and 45,000 alumni), the report also documents an appalling lack of alumni support. According to Hal Williams, there are only 300 members of the Jaguar Athletic Club, roughly one-tenth of whom are alumni. Also, it’s not clear whether the CSL Report takes into consideration the urban nature of USA or the heavily non-traditional elements of the USA student body—65% are female, and 55% are 26 years of age or older.

But most important, the CSL Report is curiously silent about the existence of major donors in the Greater Mobile Area. After seeking to determine if there were 40 major donors willing to give $50,000 or more, CSL apparently concluded that that was a fool’s errand and that the only way to know how much donor money can be garnered with any certainty is to conduct an actual fund raising drive. Doubtless, there are at the very least 40 people in Mobile with deep enough pockets, but as I said in my Harbinger article on the Carr Report: "It is not enough to count the birds in the bush. Those birds are not birds in hand until they’ve been handed over as signed checks." Before USF started its Division I program, it spent five years, from 1992 to1997, raising one-time gifts totaling $5.5million. So USA can expect at least five years devoted to an intensive fund-raising campaign before the groundwork capital is in hand, assuming, of course, that the campaign is successful. However, as USA trustee Pat Linsay pointed out today’s market is not the same as the one USF started with in 1992. The "threshold requirement" for USA could be as much as $15 million, or as trustee Larry Striplin kept insisting at the Council meeting, it could be $20 million. No wonder the CSL researchers gave up searching for donors in Mobile since 100 donors and not 40 is a more realistic number. In any event, it’s totally unrealistic to think USA can move from Club football to Division I-AA in two years.

CSL also identifies more than 1500 corporations in Mobile, but it should be borne in mind that Mobile now has few or no significant corporate headquarters. Notable losses in recent years include Delchamps, Morrison’s and QMS. It should also be kept in mind that much of the economic data in the CSL Report is taken from an earlier and economically healthier year. The December closing of IP, for example, is not reflected.

In any case, aside from the problem of major donors, there is the problem of support from the City of Mobile. Mayor Dow has repeatedly assured all and sundry that the City of Mobile would do everything in its power to assist in the creation of a football program at USA. Forget about Dow burbling enthusiastically. The City’s cupboard is bare too; tax-revenue shortfalls make it difficult for Mobile to meet existing financial obligations—the new museum of history is nearly $800,000 over budget; the expansion of the art museum requires multi-millions of dollars; two new libraries are under construction; Ladd-Peebles parking lot requires $4 million; the Wal-Mart Supercenter parking lot requires nearly a million dollars; and city employees expect raises. With these burdens is it likely that the City will fund renovation of Ladd-Peebles stadium to make it suitable for USA’s football ambitions. It has already reneged on a pledge of $500,000 toward the cost of renovating USA’s track. Overshadowing everything, of course, are the looming effects of proration, which will no doubt affect next year’s budget as well. Will the Mayor and Council be willing to funnel funds into USA’s fledgling football initiatives while twiddling their thumbs as the public school system is flushed down the toilet for lack of sufficient money from the state?

The USA Board of Trustees will meet on May 4, and vote on the resolution passed unanimously by the Athletic Council. In its discussion of that resolution Board members should examine closely the salient findings of both the Carr Report and the CSL Report. In particular, the Board should examine closely the willingness of students to tax themselves so substantially to pay for football, since such fee increases might hamper future enrollments. And it should let the problem of finding a big-name fundraiser and funds to pay that person devolve on to the shoulders of the Alumni Association. It’s time vociferous alumni stepped up and put their money where their mouth is instead of letting students enrolled at USA tax themselves so steeply.


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