College Sports

FANTASY FOOTBALL no more?

The Bookworm in Rock Hill sells T-shirts that read "Winthrop Football." The university is looking into whether there is enough support from private financial donors to start a football program.
The Bookworm in Rock Hill sells T-shirts that read "Winthrop Football." The university is looking into whether there is enough support from private financial donors to start a football program.

For years, the question has simmered under the surface of the Winthrop University athletic program, but the school's now ready to at least talk about football.

Provided, of course, someone else is willing to pay for it.

Winthrop president Anthony DiGiorgio said Tuesday he's ready to explore adding the big-ticket item to the athletic budget, but only if sufficient funding comes in from private donors.

He estimated a need for $16.6 million in capital expenses -- mostly for a new stadium -- along with another $1.7 million in start-up costs -- staffing and equipment -- and about $2.4 million in annual operational costs -- scholarships and coaching salaries.

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

He also said football would have to fit into the overall fabric of the university's long-term vision.

DiGiorgio made public his intentions to explore potential funding in a mass e-mail sent to students and faculty Tuesday. He stressed in a meeting with The Herald that he's not interested in this becoming a referendum on the sport itself.

That can come later. He wants to find out if the money's coming first, because if the funding isn't there, he's not pursuing it.

"Please know that no decision on this matter is imminent, nor has a time frame for such a decision been targeted," he said in his memo. "The only thing that has been determined is that moving any further in this regard would require substantial private investment support, and so it is time to bring potential donor bases into the conversation -- if, indeed, they exist.

"Then, and only then, will we know if it is feasible to move forward with further consideration of this option."

Winthrop fields teams in 17 sports with an annual athletic budget of $4.4 million. Each team competes at a championship level in the Big South Conference. The operational costs for those sports are covered by a $400 per semester student athletics fee.

Adding football would require the school to explore further opportunities for women's sports to maintain compliance with federal Title IX regulations, but DiGiorgio and athletics director Tom Hickman said those questions are premature.

Even if football isn't added, Winthrop already is looking into adding more opportunities for women as part of the school's long-term vision, DiGiorgio and Hickman said.

They insist their motive in going public with the football question is only to determine interest in financing football.

"Often, I get the comment, 'I'd be willing to help.' You get that," DiGiorgio said. "But we've never formalized that, set a target or addressed that.

"This gives people who have said that the opportunity to express whether or not they want to do it. Then, we can simply read the tea leaves if there's substantial interest in that or not."

The school has quietly explored the issue with a 10-member committee, chaired by Hickman. The group also consulted with retired Elon athletic director Alan White, who oversaw a similar building program in that school's move from NAIA to NCAA status. The full committee has met five times, Hickman said.

Rock Hill Mayor Doug Echols, who sat on the committee, is commissioner of the nine-school South Atlantic Conference, an NCAA Division II conference that includes Newberry College and Lenoir-Rhyne College in North Carolina. From 1982-1989, he was associate director of athletics and coliseum manager at Winthrop.

"What the university has done historically with all of its athletic programs is establish them in a first-class manner," Echols said Monday. "It's not just a matter of having a program, but having a program of quality over the long haul. If they enter into serious consideration, I'm sure Tony and his staff would do it in the same manner."

Echols cautioned it's too early to know what role, if any, the city would play in helping establish the program.

The committee developed a thorough breakdown of what would be required to start a program at the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) level.

The primary expenses are $11.5 million for an 8,000-seat stadium and $5.1 million for a 24,000-square-foot fieldhouse.

DiGiorgio said there were some conversations with the Rock Hill school district about playing in its stadium on Cherry Road, which is adjacent to land controlled by Winthrop.

However, he said the cost of updating the facility would have been near the price of a new stadium. Also, a new structure would fall into place with an aggressive campaign of building athletics facilities in recent years.

"The stadium, as is, would not be what we need to compete at the I-AA level," Hickman said.

As with all facets of the conversation, DiGiorgio emphasized he's nowhere near ready to break ground.

"I haven't had one conversation as far as where it would go," he said of the potential stadium.

Budgeted expenses also include 53 scholarships (the maximum for Football Championship Series schools) at $16,000 each and $40,000 for additional band funding.

The projections only show $500,000 per year in kestimated revenues, with the bulk of that coming from guarantees from playing larger schools. For instance, Appalachian State received $400,000 for this year's trip to Michigan, and such games help pay the freight for smaller programs, although they fall short of covering the total cost.

That's why DiGiorgio's floating his line. He wants to see just how interested folks are, after years of scattered conversations about the chance of fielding a football team.

"The very basic question is, 'What will it take?'" DiGiorgio said. "And how will we get there?"

Winthrop students answered the question "Do you think Winthrop should have a football team? Why or why not?"

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