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Students, fans want it, but who's going to foot the bill?

It took less than 24 hours after Winthrop University's announcement that it was exploring donor support for a football program for the bloggers at WinthropFans.com to start arguing about the best places to tailgate.

But talk of gameday grilling at Winthrop Lake will never amount to more than chatter unless the university can answer the most pressing question: Who will pay for the pigskin?

Winthrop President Anthony DiGiorgio said last week more than $18 million will be needed for the initial cost of a new stadium and field house, scholarships and staffing. It will cost another $2 million each year after ticket and game revenues to maintain the Division I program. He said all that will have to come from private donors, not tax dollars or tuition hikes.

Are the pockets deep enough?

Most Winthrop fans agree football is an exciting idea, but many wonder if Rock Hill's pockets are actually deep enough to fork over the needed donations.

"I've had several indications from people that they'd be willing to support football," said Joe Versen, president of the Eagle Club, a Winthrop booster organization. "The purpose of this whole thing is to see who wants to walk the talk."

Mickey Beckham, a local fundraising guru who has led financial campaigns for football programs at Furman University, the University of South Florida and Benedict College, said Winthrop has a chance to succeed.

"It can happen, but the biggest obstacle will be the start-up costs," said Beckham, vice president of development at Clinton Junior College. "You can't even think about this unless you have corporate and individual support."

Large donations a challenge

Beckham said Winthrop will need a multimillion dollar boost from a large donor to get things rolling.

"That will have to come from the biggest donors they've ever had," he said.

Beckham said large donations will be a challenge because of Winthrop's small-town location, without a large corporate presence, and its traditional alumni base of teachers.

"But the one thing they've got going in their favor is we live in the fastest-growing county in the Upstate and people love football," Beckham said.

He said once the school raises the start-up cash, money for scholarships likely will follow. Beckham estimates the school will need a large core of individuals each pledging $10,000 annually just to fund the needed scholarships.

Sharen DuBard, a Winthrop booster and director of the Eagle Club, wonders if there's enough local support to tackle football. She said Winthrop still hasn't fully funded scholarships for its current programs.

While football is widely considered the most popular sport in America, raising money for 53 football scholarships will be a tall order, she said.

"Alums get excited because of the success of our current programs and want to know what's next, and everybody loves football in the South," she said. "I think it would be great if someone wanted to step up, and that's a big step up, but we need to focus on funding all our current programs first."

So far, no one has publicly pledged a major donation, Winthrop officials said. Athletic department officials said most feedback has been from alumni wanting to know more.

Some thought the announcement meant the Eagles would be playing top-tier football with big schools such as Clemson or the University of South Carolina. But a Winthrop football program would play in Division I Championship Subdivision (formerly known as Division I-AA) with the likes of Wofford, Furman and The Citadel.

Brien Lewis, acting director of the Winthrop University Foundation, the school's fundraising arm, said no plans have been made for formal fundraisers. He said the school hasn't put a timeline on football and doesn't have any expectations.

"The question has been put out there, and now we're just in a listening mode," he said.

The nonprofit foundation raked in $3.5 million in 2005, according to its recent tax records. Since 2001, the foundation has averaged about $3.08 million in private donations annually. The largest one-time gift to the school's athletics was a $1.5 million donation two years ago for expansion at Winthrop Ballpark. That anonymous gift is a fraction of what is needed for football.

Corporate support

While Beckham believes individual boosters need to make up the bulk of football donations every year, corporate sponsors will need to play a significant role.

Comporium Communications, one of the largest corporate sponsors of Winthrop athletics, said last week it's too early to pledge a specific level of support.

"We haven't really had time to digest it yet," company spokesman Paul Kutz said. He noted that Comporium is a major advertiser at multiple Winthrop sporting events, an upper-level member of the Eagle Club and a donor to other campus programs.

"We will be keeping an eye on it because we're always interested in anything Winthrop is involved in," Kutz said. "It's a treasure in this community."

Brian Simmons, general manager of Carolina Mazda, said his auto dealership is ready to jump on the football-funding bandwagon. "We're definitely a member of that group. Absolutely," Simmons said.

Simmons said in addition to his company's upper-level membership in the Eagle Club and its advertising contract with the school, Carolina Mazda provides Winthrop's baseball program with several vehicles. He said that he would support football monetarily because it would bring more exposure and traffic to Winthrop and to the community.

Follow the leader

Winthrop needs to look no further than its rival in Conway, at the campus of Coastal Carolina University, for an example of starting football from scratch.

CCU Athletic Director Warren Koegel said the Chanticleers began their program in a similar fashion in 2000. School officials presented a price tag and a plan to alumni and the community and asked for support. By 2004, Coastal was playing football.

One major difference, however, was the funding. Koegel said Coastal paid for its $11.8 million football stadium with a combination of money from a state bond, school reserve funds and private donations.

"When we first started, there were skeptics in some corners and excitement in others," he said. "Once we started the construction and people saw it was a reality, the fundraising increased dramatically."

DiGiorgio, however, has said he won't build the program on faith alone. He wants to know if the private donations are available before the school commits to building.

"It's not something we're going to do on the cheap," he said last week. "And it's not something we're going to go into hock for."

Other priorities

On the academic side of campus, football has been a hot topic all week. Jason Silverman, a Winthrop history professor for 24 years, said the mood is mixed with excitement and skepticism.

While many faculty and students are excited about football potentially changing Winthrop from a suitcase college to a thriving atmosphere on weekends, he said, they also question if the money is available.

Silverman, a former chairman of Winthrop's faculty conference, noted that many faculty members are more interested in seeing the construction of a new library -- still waiting on state funding -- than a football stadium.

A survey in the October "Chronicle for Higher Education" reports donations to colleges have flat-lined in recent years, but the percentage of those gifts earmarked for athletics has grown from 14.7 percent in 1998 to 26 percent in 2006.

Although DiGiorgio promises football won't preempt other projects, Silverman, who played football at the University of Virginia, wonders if football might swallow up donors who may have otherwise considered giving to academics.

"Any faculty I've spoken to wants to see more than the sign for a future library," Silverman said. "In theory, a football program would be great, and I would be for anything that helps build a sense of community. But I just don't see 16 million bucks coming out of Rock Hill."

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