The excitement is palpable as Old Dominion University prepares to take the field for its first football game in nearly 70 years. Eager fans snatched up the 13,794 season tickets, while corporations and community leaders shelled out $20,000 to $24,000 apiece for the 24 hospitality suites. The university expects a sellout crowd of nearly 19,800 for the Sept. 5 opener against Chowan University, as well as for each of the six other home games this season.
For a school whose previous attempt at restarting football in the late 1980s fell short of the goal, all signs are pointing to a win this time around. That is unless one considers profits.
Despite sellout crowds and hefty concession and merchandise sales, it’s doubtful that football will be a moneymaking venture for the Norfolk university. Money amassed from ticket sales, donations to the ODU Intercollegiate Foundation and student fee increases funded the $24.8 million renovation of Foreman Field at SB Ballard Stadium and will subsidize the sport’s $2.5 million to $3 million budget. But it won’t be enough to turn a profit when ODU starts playing a conference schedule in 2011.
A member of the Colonial Athletic Association, ODU will play in the Football Championship Subdivision, where teams generally do not make money for their schools. “The popular notion is that intercollegiate football makes a lot of money,” says Christopher Newport University President Paul S. Trible Jr., who was instrumental in starting the school’s football team and chairs the NCAA’s Division III President’s Council. “That’s absolutely false. It loses a lot of money, but it makes contributions in a lot of other areas.”
In the long run, those contributions may supersede outright monetary gains. In the case of CNU, benefits such as additional student applications, alumni donations and community support — along with increased regional and national visibility — represent the school’s true profits.
Now entering its ninth season of play in the NCAA Division III’s USA South Athletic Conference, the school has seen student applications increase more than 800 percent over the past decade. Officials attribute part of that spike to football. “We don’t do it for the money,” explains Trible. “We do it for the energy, enthusiasm and school spirit.”
ODU has been cashing in on football fans’ school spirit as potential donors learn not only about the team but also the university’s educational programs. “It’s piqued the interest of lots of people and has resulted in substantial philanthropic activities,” says ODU President John R. Broderick. “It certainly provides a synergy for the campus and the alumni base which ultimately helps us with admissions.”
ODU students and alumni clamored for a football team for decades. “Thirty-nine years ago when I became athletic director, the first question I got was, “When are you going to start football?’ ” says university Athletic Director James Jarrett. “That question has been routinely repeated over the years with students, faculty and people in the community. My answer has always been that we would love to have a football program, and we will have football when we can afford football.”
Jarrett says fan support generated funds for football. “Despite the economy, money has been coming in to the intercollegiate athletic program, and season ticket money has not fallen off,” he notes. “We’re not talking about individuals spending millions of dollars to do this.” Season tickets are $120.
Many people, though, were surprised when tickets sold so rapidly. “It’s very difficult for a lot of people to believe that here’s a school that will be playing its first season in September, and it is ensured of sellouts in the first season,” notes Broderick. He’s counting on spectators to take a closer look at their alma mater, which has undergone extensive growth over the past decade. “Football is going to increase engagement between the university and its alumni. They’re going to be astonished not only at what Foreman Field looks like, but also our new engineering and computational sciences building and our new residence halls.”
James Madison University, which added football in 1972, has recorded sellout crowds in its 15,500-seat stadium the past five years. The Dukes won the Division 1-AA (now Football Championship Subdivision) title in 2004. “There’s nothing else that we’re drawing those numbers to,” says Gary Michael, sports media relations director. “It brings people on campus and lets them see your other programs.”
Shenandoah University in Winchester tells a similar story. The 3,000-student university reinstated its nonscholarship football program in 2000 after a more-than-20-year absence. “It really changed the whole culture of our campus,” says Scott Musa, assistant athletic director for athletic communications. “Suddenly in the fall there’s a reason for students to stick around.” The team, which plays in the USA South Conference, won the conference championship in 2002 and 2003 and appeared in the NCAA playoffs in 2004.
Football also brought more males to Shenandoah. Men now make up 40 percent of its student body, up from 35 percent before the football program began. “That’s a huge influx to our bottom line,” observes Musa. “It helps balance out our student enrollment.”
It also helps spread the school’s name beyond the Shenandoah Valley. Shenandoah was prominently featured in a 2006 article in The New York Times describing how smaller colleges use football to attract male students. “You cannot put a price on the front page of The New York Times,” says Musa. “That’s huge.”
Visions of regional and national publicity frequently drive schools’ quest for football teams. “What it has done for us eclipsed the ability to make money at this early juncture. It’s been highly successful,” says Howard Schnellenberger, head football coach at Florida Atlantic University, which played its first game in 2001. FAU was the first team in the Sun Belt Conference to earn consecutive bowl victories and the only team in the state to win bowl games in 2007 and 2008. “It’s brought a lot of school spirit and is an invigorating force with the university,” he adds.
Football also put FAU on the map. “The university has been introduced to the nation, if not the world, by being on satellite TV so many times,” Schnellenberger says. “Before we started a football team, if you asked someone in Louisville, Ky., or even Tampa where FAU is, you would get many responses that it must be a correspondence school because it doesn’t have a campus.”
Now fans know that FAU’s main campus is in Boca Raton. Admissions applications have skyrocketed, with 13,500 potential students jockeying for 2,500 spots this year. Some applicants also vie for nonscholarship spots on the football team. Two hundred of them tried out for the inaugural season. “That’s 200 kids who never would have enrolled at Florida Atlantic,” says Schnellenberger.
For Schnellenberger, who coached the University of Miami to its first national championship, football is in a class by itself. “It’s a lot bigger than whether it breaks even, makes money or loses money,” he says. “There’s nothing in college that draws like football. It’s the only thing that brings alumni back to campus in droves. It’s a self-sustaining thing that transcends generations.”
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