We commend Winthrop University’s new president, Jayne Marie Comstock, for her willingness to tackle the question of whether the school should attempt to develop a football program. But she no doubt already is aware that this emotionally charged issue will be hard to resolve.
Comstock, after delivering her opening address last week, announced that she hopes to answer the “football question” during her first year in office. She said the question needs an answer as soon as possible.
That could be because she is eager to pursue a football program or because she wants to put the question behind her so fans will quit quizzing her about it. Either way, she will have to take a hard look at the pros and cons.
An Eagle football team has been a dream of a contingent of alumni and fans practically since the school went coed in the early 1970s. Comstock raised the ante last week by promising that a marching band would be included in any football program.
But selling Winthrop officials – including former President Anthony DiGiorgio – on the concept has been fruitless to date. DiGiorgio, in what might have been his own attempt to lay the issue to rest, created a special task force in 2007 to study the feasibility of a Winthrop football team.
His conclusion? The university could not begin to think about football until it could be assured of significant and continuous private financial support.
The task force report estimated that first-year start-up costs would total more than $18 million, with $16.6 million going for an 8,000-seat stadium and field house. But the truly daunting cost would be annual operational expenses totaling more than $2.4 million, including the cost of coaches and support personnel, scholarships and other recurring expenses.
By contrast, Winthrop fields teams in 17 other sports with an annual athletic budget of $4.4 million. Operational costs are covered by $400 per semester student athletic fees.
But the economic environment might have changed in the past six years. Perhaps a better argument could be made for football at Winthrop, and a growing body of alumni might be willing to step up and pay the estimated $2 million a year or more it would take to sustain the program.
Fans make a persuasive argument that football could increase student spirit and enhance the university’s aura as an athletic school. It also could help entice students who now leave town every weekend to stick around for Saturday’s game.
There is little doubt that successful football programs have the potential to raise a school’s profile. Football could help make Winthrop more of a familiar name both in the state and region.
Also, South Carolina, particularly the Upstate, is football country. Winthrop could draw players from excellent football programs at local and area high schools.
Winthrop might not be able to attract the top players from those schools but it could snag their backups. And that could make Winthrop a contender in a league consisting of teams much the same size.
But, in addition to the high start-up costs, there might be other drawbacks to developing a football program. For one, the university would have to ensure that it can meet the requirements of Title IX, the federal law that ensures equal opportunity for men and women in school athletics, which would increase costs.
Those dreaming of an Eagle football team envision a popular winning team. But what if the Eagles of the gridiron are perennial losers? After all, when building a team from scratch, a winning record could be years down the road, and students might lose interest in a losing team.
Winthrop already has trouble filling the stands for its basketball and baseball teams most seasons. Football is not necessarily exempt from the fickleness of fans.
Ultimately, though, cost is likely to be the make-or-break issue. And the university has a number of important priorities that could use the money.
DiGiorgio declared in 2007 that, if the university decided to mount a football program, it was “not something we’re going to do on the cheap. And it’s not something we’re going to go into hock for.”
Comstock, however, said: “If we decide, as a community, that football is right for Winthrop, then it would be my job to raise the money to launch the program.”