Winthrop tackles football question

adouglas@heraldonline.comDecember 7, 2013 

FILE. Winthrop president Dr. Jayne Marie Comstock at a pep rally.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

— While Winthrop University leaders say there’s still a big “if” and a question mark on the idea of starting a football team, some progress has been made in determining whether such a program would be viable.

When President Jayne Marie Comstock took the helm at Winthrop earlier this year, she pledged to fully vet the football question. She said if campus stakeholders determined the new team would be good for the school, she’d be responsible for raising money to pay for its startup.

When she updated the Board of Trustees last week on Winthrop’s study of football, she stressed that it’s still a preliminary discussion and there are plenty of questions about whether football would be right for the university.

Comstock, whose first day as Winthrop’s president was July 1, has said she would like to have “the football question” resolved by the end of her first year.

Recently, Winthrop instructed its regular athletic facilities consultant to evaluate Rock Hill schools’ District Three Stadium on Cherry Road, where local high school football teams play.

Supporters of a new Eagles football team often point to that stadium as a possible low-cost venue to host college football in the early years of Winthrop’s program.

The consultant’s report will give university leaders an idea of how much work would need to be done to the stadium to bring it up to standards for collegiate football, Comstock said.

The consultant also recently toured the Winthrop Farm and Winthrop Lake area near the university’s athletic complex on Eden Terrace to see what space would be available for football practice fields and training facilities.

Before Comstock’s arrival, Winthrop studied the possibility of starting a football team, but funding for the program has been a major sticking point.

In 2007, a research group estimated an initial price tag of $18 million to start football at Winthrop. That analysis included $11.5 million to build an 8,000-seat stadium.

The group found that every year of operation would cost the university about $2.4 million.

That same study showed that Winthrop could expect to bring in $500,000 in revenue each season. More than $840,000 was noted in the cost as paying for scholarships for a 53-member football team.

Last week, Comstock told board members that the only option on the table right now is a non-scholarship football team with a marching band.

It’s expected that a marching band would cost about $40,000 annually.

Adding to local sports tourism

But the cost of football is not necessarily the most significant piece of the pigskin puzzle, Comstock has said.

While finances and fundraising are important factors, she believes consideration of Winthrop’s campus culture and potential community support would be crucial.

Particularly, she said, it’s important to figure out how a Winthrop football team would fit into Rock Hill’s and York County’s push for sports tourism.

In Rock Hill, visiting athletic teams and their fans are big business. City officials estimate that sports tourism rakes in nearly $18 million each year in “direct economic impact,” meaning business from hotel bookings, restaurant and gasoline sales.

The city also collects a 2 percent hospitality tax on restaurant food and drinks – a portion of which comes from Rock Hill visitors.

In the past two years, that tax has brought in more than $4 million annually. Rock Hill spends that money on upgrading and building new parks, recreation and tourism facilities and supporting infrastructure.

Principal attractions in the city are Cherry Park, the Manchester Meadows soccer complex and the developing Rock Hill Outdoor Center at Riverwalk, which includes competitive cycling venues. Each of those facilities has hosted at least one national tournament or competition in recent years.

Comstock told trustees last week that it could be beneficial for the city or York County to help Winthrop invest in its football program, if the team could add to the area’s sports offerings and tourism industry.

But a Winthrop football team benefiting Rock Hill’s goals isn’t the only way Comstock and others intend to continue a partnership between the university and the city.

Rock Hill and Winthrop’s success are “linked,” Comstock said.

Plans for Knowledge Park – the redevelopment of the old Bleachery site in the city’s textile corridor – specifically showcase that partnership, she said.

Textile corridor plan will help college expand

While major construction has yet to start, developers are in the process of planning for economic development under Rock Hill’s concept of Knowledge Park. The high-tech jobs strategy calls for redeveloping several properties, including the site of the old Rock Hill Printing & Finishing Co., commonly called the Bleachery.

Winthrop leaders also have said they want to plan university growth to extend to the city’s former textile area.

That growth could include building more student housing, a campus resource center designed specifically for older university students and an active-adult senior living facility tied to Winthrop’s activities and academic life.

Rock Hill’s push to revitalize its downtown area and build Knowledge Park also is expected to attract more restaurants and retail shops to the area between Main Street and the Winthrop campus.

More stores and downtown destinations likely would play a big role in helping Winthrop retain students and employees, Comstock said.

Many people in the campus community want to identify themselves as living in Rock Hill, she said, not in “south Charlotte.”

Earlier this year, Comstock told Winthrop staff and faculty members that she has a goal to gradually increase enrollment – currently about 6,000 – by 1,000 students.

She also wants to bump up the university’s 73 percent student retention rate between freshman and sophomore years – to at least 82 percent by 2018.

A business boom in and around downtown Rock Hill, Comstock said, “is part of what is going to help us attract and retain students” and faculty.

Part of Winthrop’s preliminary discussions about football include athletic staff members’ researching the effect of new football teams started at other universities recently.

Winthrop Athletic Director Tom Hickman has said he’s not ready to share his opinion about football, but he’s looking into how new programs affect other college sports, student interest and enrollment, and university finances.

Just up Interstate 77, Winthrop has one example to consider: UNC Charlotte’s new 49ers football team.

The 49ers wrapped up their first season last month with a 5-6 record. The team’s six home games attracted an average of 15,540 fans and all but two games sold out, according to the school’s athletic website.

UNCC borrowed nearly $40 million to build its football field house and stadium, which is named for Carolina Panthers owner and founder Jerry Richardson. He made a $10 million donation to the school and created a scholarship fund for a 49ers football player in honor of his son, Jon Richardson, who died earlier this year after a long battle with cancer.

The university raised student fees to help pay for the new team and supporting facilities.

Winthrop board members have not discussed publicly whether they’d support borrowing money or raising student fees to pay for an Eagles football squad.

Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068

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