It's Not Easy Being New

Starting football or moving football from a lower division to FBS takes a big investment in time and money and there are no guarantees.


The line from Field of Dreams has become a policy-making justification in intercollegiate and professional athletics. “If you build it, they will come.”

While it may EVENTUALLY be true that if you build it, fans and money will come, in the short-run, it generally is not true.

Building a well-supported football program is an effort that requires an extended effort to not only attract fans, but to generate sufficient revenue from ticket sales, donations, and sponsorships. Without money from those sources a program will either be heavily dependent on support from the institution or will be forced to operate on a budget too small to be competitive. Institutional support may come in the form of university revenue transferred to support athletics or student fees to support athletics.

UAB over the span of roughly twenty years has been a groundbreaker. UAB was the first of the schools to start the modern trend of creating a football team and then moving quickly to FBS, a path eight other schools have followed. After the 2014 season, the Blazers became the first drop FBS football since 1995.

UAB’s need for university support was on the laundry list of reasons given for shutting down football along with statements of concern about support.

Supporters of UAB football have offered counter-studies and more significantly have come forward with fund-raising efforts.

Left unanswered in the debate are some simple questions. How did UAB stack up compared to other schools in similar circumstances? Were the numbers at UAB out-of-line for a program among the so-called G5 or among those who had established programs but moved to FBS later?

UAB started football in the 1991 season and entered FBS in 1996. Since 1996, eight other schools have started football from scratch and are either FBS today or are in transition to FBS.

Only two of those eight rely less on subsidies from the institution than UAB. So UAB was out-performing most of the schools who are new start-ups, opponents would likely counter that UAB also had a head start.

Having a pre-existing football program might provide an advantage in elevating a program to FBS. Is there value in having a longer history of football even if that history is not at the FBS level?

There have been 13 universities moving to FBS in 1996 or later with football programs that existed in a different division prior to 1996. The numbers suggest history does matter. Only five of the 13 established programs moving to FBS in 1996 or later have subsidies as large as or larger than UAB.

Let’s take a look at the attendance the last two years for the nine schools to go from no football to FBS starting with UAB and going forward, along with the percentage of their athletic budget that comes from university sources.

School

2013 Attendance

2014 Attendance

Percent Subsidy

UAB

10,548

21,841

64.17

South Florida

34,702

30,694

39.28

Florida Atlantic

14,522

14,122

67.61

Florida International

15,543

11,966

77.54

South Alabama

15,962

17,445

78.26

Tex-San Antonio

29,214

27,756

61.15

Georgia State

15,577

15,006

84.59

Old Dominion

20,118

73.35

Charlotte

15,541

13,272

69.97

 

Now let’s look at schools with football programs prior to the creation of the UAB program that joined FBS the same year as UAB or later.

School

2013 Attendance

2014 Attendance

Percent Subsidy

Boise State

34,366

32,504

26.63

Central Florida

42,084

37,812

55.45

Idaho

14,744

12,886

47.44

Marshall

25,023

27,461

52.42

Buffalo

22,736

20,403

76.27

Middle Tenn St

18,715

17,408

70.89

Connecticut

30,932

27,461

29.78

Troy

18,906

16,767

65.92

Western Kentucky

18,334

16,306

59.46

Massachusetts

15,830

16,088

81.02

Texas State

18,062

20,598

70.67

Appalachian St

24,894

23,166

52.34

Georgia Southern

14,828

21,102

63.03

 

These numbers standing alone do not provide a full picture though

How does this stack up against the average G5 school that was a FBS member by 1995?

Looking only at public institutions required to release financial data to USA Today, the average institutional financial support was 55.04% of the athletic budget, 2013 attendance average was 22,574 and the 2014 attendance was 22,040.

South Florida is the sole newcomer to football with an institutional subsidy level lower than the G5 school average. Among schools that had football in 1995 but did not move to FBS until 1996 or later, Boise State, Idaho, Marshall, UConn, and Appalachian State are the only ones operating athletics with a subsidy below the G5 average. Central Florida missed the average by less than a half of one percent.

Attendance in 2013 among schools that have been FBS since 1995 averaged 22,574. South Florida and UTSA were the only football newcomers above that level. Boise State, Central Florida, Marshall, Buffalo, UConn, and Appalachian State all exceeded that level among established programs moving to FBS later. UAB was at the bottom of the new programs in attendance in 2013 and only Eastern Michigan fared worse among established G5 programs. Idaho had the worst attendance among established programs that are FBS newcomers and they outdrew only Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan among established G5 programs.

In 2014 the FBS veterans averaged 22,040. South Florida and UTSA exceeded that amount among football newcomers and five schools among the newer FBS programs exceeded it: Boise State, Central Florida, Marshall, UConn, and Appalachian State. The worst of the new football schools was 11,966 at FIU and worst among new to FBS was 12,886 at Idaho. Akron and Ball State finished below both schools and NMSU was below Idaho.

The experience of the newcomers to football indicates that a school must be prepared fund at least 70% of the operating budget for athletics with university revenue or by imposing a fee on all students in order to have football. A program that has been existence at a lower level for many years moving to FBS will need to subsidize at least 60% of the athletic budget.

Only a few schools will be able to quickly draw crowds similar to their peer schools among FBS’s G5.