Study offers pros, cons of football at Winthrop

Campus-wide meeting scheduled to talk football

adouglas@heraldonline.comMarch 2, 2014 

— While Winthrop University’s leaders are still tiptoeing toward the notion of starting a football team, the prospect of Eagle football already has one first just around the corner.

President Jamie Comstock is setting out to officially gauge the opinions of the campus and the community on the issue. She has scheduled a March 13 campus-wide, town-hall-style meeting to talk football –– the first meeting of its kind for the university.

In Comstock’s first few weeks in office last year, she informally “polled” faculty and staff members about football. The “yes” and “no” votes were nearly split.

Over the weekend, Winthrop’s Board of Trustees read a preliminary cost and benefit analysis.

Now, armed with some dollar figures and more information, Comstock will ask the football question again –– this time to see whether university stakeholders believe a football squad could benefit Winthrop’s campus culture.

“And, I have a feeling we may need to have more than one (campus-wide meeting),” she said Sunday.

With the help of graduate students and Winthrop faculty, athletic department officials researched for months the financial pros and cons of collegiate football. On Sunday, Athletic Director Tom Hickman unveiled his initial report.

He found that nearly $11 million will be needed for new facilities and that football will cost nearly $1.5 million annually, even without giving players scholarships.

The recent study isn’t Winthrop’s first look at the finances of football. Officials concluded in 2007 that start-up costs for the program would be about $18 million. That figure included building a new stadium.

If Winthrop chooses football, Hickman said, it makes sense that the team would use –– at least for the first few years –– Rock Hill School District Three’s stadium on South Cherry Road. Winthrop could rent the stadium for six home games each season for nearly $14,000.

As trustees absorbed Hickman’s report, he stressed that the process of starting football or even discussing football “is not a sprint –– it’s a marathon.” And Comstock reminded the group that “there’s a lot of emotion around whether Winthrop should have football.”

Winthrop officials are proceeding with caution on the football idea for good reason: if leaders elect to move forward, the university will need to pull in major donations to support the team. And the university might have to borrow millions to pay for new football support facilities.

If Winthrop fields a football team, Hickman’s research shows there’s a good chance that the university will see more applications and an increase in student enrollment.

Preliminary calculations in Hickman’s report indicate that if Winthrop can raise $6 million in donations and then borrow $5 million for football, the school would need 364 new students to help pay back the debt through student fees. If only $3 million is raised, the school would need 575 new students to pay down the football debt.

Whether football happens or not, Comstock said, she’s actively working to grow Winthrop’s enrollment. She wants to gradually build the school’s student population by 1,000 over the next decade.

“If we went in this direction (to add football), it could be part of the strategy for enrollment growth,” she said.

Boosting enrollment numbers also boosts the bottom line.

A team of non-scholarship football players would bring in about $1.7 million in “enrollment revenue,” according to Winthrop’s recent study. If athletes were given scholarships, the gain would be about $504,000.

Winthrop could expect around $100,000 from ticket sales and “game guarantees” if it starts a non-scholarship program, Hickman said. The college could see up to $500,000 from those two streams if it chose to start a program offering scholarships.

Collegiate teams use "game guarantees" to invite other, smaller and usually lower-ranked teams to play. The agreement gives the more competitive home team some assurance of winning and gives a boost to the opposing team's athletic department budget.

Ticket sales are generally higher for football teams with scholarship athletes because there's a higher “perceived competitive quality,” Hickman said. And, game guarantees are higher when playing at a more competitive level.

With any style football team, Hickman's research shows that adding a marching band at Winthrop would likely attract some new students and net the university nearly $880,000 from tuition costs and fees. Start-up costs for the band would be around $170,000, and annual operations would run about $182,000.

Like adding a football team, Hickman said, adding a marching band would probably expand Winthrop’s reach and attract new students looking for the chance to play in a college band.

Winthrop Board of Trustee members did not vote Sunday on the question of football but plan to hold more discussion in May. Several trustees said more study is needed, such as an analysis of the economic impact for the local area. The results could help convince local officials to help Winthrop start its program.

Senior student Chris Aubrie is happy just to see football being vetted –– especially in such a “transparent” way, he said. Aubrie is Winthrop’s elected student government leader, and he joined the trustees at their meeting Sunday.

After the board’s discussion, Comstock’s office sent a campus-wide email with information about the football study and provided students and employees with the same report Hickman gave trustees.

Comstock’s efforts to truly engage the Winthrop community, Aubrie said, have not gone unnoticed. And, as “a numbers guy,” he said he appreciated seeing the breakdown of football costs and benefits.

Others students will like the detailed information too, he said, but there’s no consensus about football that he’s seen on campus. Some are “pro” football, some aren’t, and many are still undecided.

“I haven’t seen a majority either way,” Aubrie said. “To see the mixture of student response, I’m shocked.”

Anna Douglas 803-329-4068

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