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The case for college football

Football season has concluded, though the true college football fan never rests.

Once the national championship game is played in early January, fans turn their attention to recruiting and the February signing date.

After that, it’s time to look forward to spring football.

The NCAA announced last week that college football set a new attendance record for the fourth time in five seasons in 2010. That’s no surprise. The sport has never been more popular.

A record of 49,670,895 people attended games at 639 NCAA schools last fall, breaking the previous high set in 2008.

So much for a bad economy.

The total attendance increase of 1,386,222 people from 2009 to 2010 came mostly from Division I, which saw an increase of 713,527 fans.

Michigan’s 111,825 fans per game over seven home games set an all-time individual school record, breaking a record set at Michigan in 1999. It was the 13th consecutive season for Michigan to lead the country in attendance despite having mediocre teams in recent years.

Four other schools averaged more than 100,000 fans per home game — Ohio State at 105,278; Penn State at 104,234; Alabama at 101,821; and Texas at 100,654.

The 120 FBS teams averaged 45,912 fans per game in 755 home games last season. The Southeastern Conference had a total attendance of 6,521,151. That’s an average of 76,719 fans per game.

It goes without saying that football is big business.

What’s truly amazing is the number of colleges and universities that have launched programs during the Great Recession.

Almost 30 schools have added football during the past decade, and there’s no end in sight to this trend.

Why are colleges adding this expensive sport?

1. A football program can attract students to a school, especially schools that want to increase the percentage of male students. We’re not necessarily talking about football players. We’re talking about males who simply want to attend a school that has football.

2. A football program energizes campus life in the fall.

3. A football program increases the media attention devoted to a school and allows that school to better brand itself in the minds of prospective students, their parents, alumni and potential donors.

4. A football program can boost alumni support in all areas.

5. In addition to bringing in more male applicants, a football program plays a role in attracting students interested in sports journalism, cheerleading, band, athletic training and other areas.

These are among the reasons that Hendrix College in Conway has been considering the addition of a football program at the NCAA Division III (nonscholarship) level.

And these are the reasons I still think it would make sense for the University of Arkansas at Little Rock to add football at some point. UALR already is in a football conference (the Sun Belt) and would have an automatic rival in Arkansas State University.

The Trojans could play their home games at War Memorial Stadium — not conflicting with the two University of Arkansas games played there each fall — and schedule nonconference games at the stadium each season against the University of Central Arkansas and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. That would guarantee several decent crowds each year.

“With more than 1 million high school football participants and only 66,000 playing college football, it makes sense that colleges would want to give high school players more options for playing at the next level,” says Archie Manning of New Orleans, the chairman of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame. “We are proud to highlight the college presidents and their trustees who have recognized the educational benefit of our sport. Their foresight will provide more student-athletes the opportunity to continue to learn to be leaders through football.”

Launching programs in 2009 were Old Dominion University in Virginia, the University of Incarnate Word in San Antonio, the University of New Haven in Connecticut, Anna Maria College in Massachusetts and Castleton State College in Vermont.

Launching varsity teams last season were the University of South Alabama, Georgia State University, Lamar University in Texas, Pacific University in Oregon, Lindsey Wilson College in Kentucky and Notre Dame College in Ohio.

Still to come in the next few seasons are the University of Texas at San Antonio, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, LeMoyne-Owen College at Memphis, Presentation College in South Dakota and Stevenson University in Maryland.

South Alabama played a junior varsity schedule in 2009 and a varsity schedule last season. The school will join the Sun Belt Conference in 2012.

In a 2009 article by Raul Colon published at, South Alabama president Gordon Moulton said: “We know from experience that there are many academically talented students whom we recruit each year who choose other universities because we don’t offer these programs. For many universities across the nation, NCAA-sanctioned football and a marching band program serve as the centerpiece of student life and campus tradition. They serve as a catalyst for a wide range of student life activities.”

In 2007, more than 2,500 South Alabama students signed a petition saying they would support a $300 increase in the annual student activity fee to help fund a football program.

Former athletic director Joe Gottfried put it this way: “Having homecoming, parents’ weekend and other activities that our university will have on football weekends will be great. In the past, we tried to do these types of activities around other sports, and it was not the same.”

Georgia State, which began in 1913 and now has 30,000 students attending college in downtown Atlanta, conducted extensive research before announcing in April 2008 that it would launch a program. Bill Curry — the former head coach at Georgia Tech, Alabama and Kentucky — was hired as the school’s first head football coach.

At the news conference held to announce his hiring, Curry said: “Football will be a huge success at Georgia State University. That’s a promise. There would be no Georgia State football program starting today if the student body did not respond in such a positive way and frankly in such an unusual way by supporting the increase in the student athletic fee. That’s inspirational to everybody.”

Administrators hope the program will help change the school’s reputation as a commuter school.

I once heard a prominent Arkansas business leader say that UALR needed “dorms and a football team” to change its image among people across the state.

Dorms have been added in recent years, and more are being built. Drive down Fair Park and look at the construction just before reaching Asher. It’s impressive.

So what about a Division I college football team based in Little Rock?

Consider what happened in San Antonio.

Even though San Antonio is the seventh largest city in the country, it had only a Division III program at Trinity University. That’s why both UTSA and Incarnate Word stepped in to fill the void.

When the UTSA program was announced, athletic director Lynn Hickey said: “We’re in a city where we really need to enhance the idea of going to college and finishing high school. If we can put a product in the Alamodome that kids in this community can come and watch and be a part of, that may give them the idea that it’s cool to go to college.”

Lamar, which is located 80 miles east of Houston with about 11,000 students, decided to reinsitute football after 79 percent of its student body voted to raise fees by $105 per year. The school then launched a $29 million project to renovate its stadium and surrounding areas.

It’s a bit of an anomaly: At a time when schools across the country were forced to cut expenses, a number of them decided that football makes sense.

I remember being on a committee at my alma mater, Ouachita Baptist University, a number of years ago. The committee was charged with coming up with recommendations for the school’s athletic program. We discussed whether college football was a good fit at Ouachita. With 1,500 students, Ouachita is one of the smallest schools in the country to compete at the Divison II level in football.

The president at the time, Ben Elrod, told us this: “I was president of a school without football (Georgetown College in Kentucky), and it was boring in the fall. It’s well worth the investment.”

Guess what? During the past three seasons combined, Ouachita has a better winning percentage than any other college football program in Arkansas. UCA is second, and the University of Arkansas is third.

Almost 20 years later, it seems a lot of college presidents are coming to the same conclusion that Ben Elrod reached back then.

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