Winthrop trustees: Football discussion continues despite president’s firing

Winthrop University trustees say they will continue to explore whether the school should add a football team despite last month’s firing of the university’s president, who was leading an inquiry into the pros and cons of football.

Board of Trustees Chairwoman Kathy Bigham told The Herald last week that trustees have pressing matters to consider related to President Jamie Comstock Williamson’s June dismissal, but the question of football hasn’t been forgotten. Bigham said the board could discuss the possibility after students start classes next month.

Winthrop officials are waiting on an economic impact study before renewing discussion of a future Eagle football squad. A group of four Winthrop students seeking master’s degrees in business administration are researching the possible economic gains.

Management professor Steven Frankforter assigned the research after university officials said they needed more information about how a Winthrop football program could help Rock Hill’s economy and the surrounding area. The students are completing the project as one of the final components of earning their degrees.

Together, the students have more than 20 years of business experience, Frankforter said. And, they have strong roots in the York County area.

Winthrop officials have already measured what they think it will cost the school to add football and the revenue expected from the program. The economic study by Frankforter’s students seeks to estimate local sales tax collections and other economic indicators that would be directly attributed to Winthrop football.

Those research areas include estimating game-day business in Rock Hill stemming from hotel stays, restaurant meals, and merchandise and gasoline sales.

Frankforter says the students’ research will be complete in early August and presented to Winthrop officials. The study will give decision-makers a “ballpark estimate” of the potential economic impact.

Trustees last talked in-depth about the football possibility at a February meeting, when Athletic Director Tom Hickman shared projected cost and profit revenues. They also heard an update from school administrators in May.

The board has not yet set a timeline for deciding whether Winthrop will start football, although Williamson had set a goal to have an answer by August.

In March, Hickman and Williamson took some football facts to the campus in a town-hall style meeting attended by nearly 100 people.

Officials predict Winthrop would need about $11 million to invest in new football facilities. The school would rake in some money from ticket sales and game-day guarantees.

The biggest boost expected from a football program, officials say, would come from enrolling more students excited about the sport and elevating the university’s name recognition. Winthrop could also expect sizable gains from tuition by enrolling students interested in a marching band.

Many university officials say adding a marching band would be a campus expectation if leaders decide to start a football team.

It’s likely Winthrop would need to borrow money for new football facilities in addition to soliciting private donations to start the program, officials have said.

Since Williamson acknowledged the lingering “football question” last August during her opening address to faculty and staff members, Winthrop officials have cautioned that the campus discussion about football is preliminary. Board members have said the talks so far are “if” – not “when” – Winthrop launches football.

Hickman and most Winthrop trustees have shied away from publicly stating their personal opinion about whether the school should invest in football. But, one trustee has said he’s wholeheartedly behind putting Eagles on the gridiron.

Board member Don Long, of Lake Wylie, says adding football at Winthrop could be a “significant advantage” for the school. He hopes other trustees and university leaders will back Eagle football if this year’s inquiry into the sport shows that the program could be successful and benefit Winthrop.

Winthrop, he said, needs to grow its student enrollment after nearly a decade of stagnant numbers. Adding a football team, Long said, has been an effective enrollment tool for many other schools.

In her first year as president, Williamson told trustees and Winthrop employees that she set an aggressive goal to grow enrollment by 1,000 students over five years. Many trustees have supported that plan.

Hickman’s football study showed that Winthrop could expect nearly $1.7 million in new “enrollment revenue” if the school starts a team. Additionally, he and others project a marching band would net Winthrop about $880,000 from student tuition fees.

Long said many students and families view football as an essential part of a collegiate experience. While the football question may not dominate community conversations about Winthrop, he said he thinks football could positively affect the university in several ways.

At two recent trustee meetings, Long has presented “prototypes” of football helmets with the Winthrop logo. One was a gift to Williamson early in her presidency.

Still, Long says he thinks board members’ opinions about Winthrop football is “mixed.” And, trustees are cautious about making a decision until they’ve studied the question thoroughly.

Though the board will need to focus on important, timely issues as it soon begins a search for a new president, Long says he feels trustees remain “open to the idea” of football.