By Davis Merritt
Every decade or so since 1986, when President Warren Armstrong bravely pulled the plug on a moribund, poorly supported program, the issue of renewal finds new legs for a while, then fades away.
Usually reality disrupts the old alums’ nostalgia – such realities as, uhh, well, there’s no good place to play the games.
In 2016, President John Bardo invested $60,000 in a detailed analysis of a potential football program by College Sports Solutions. Little in the report conjures up the smell of crisp gold leaves drifting on a bracing fall afternoon breeze while some of the 10 percent of WSU students who actually live there stroll happily towards an emerald field etched in Shocker Yellow and Black.
Rather, for those approaching it realistically, the study contains more orange warning signs than 10 years’ worth of Kellogg Boulevard projects. The study, as usually happens, is currently under study.
The study time has allowed discussion of possible changes in conference affiliation. WSU may have athletically outgrown, at least for now, the Missouri Valley Conference, but it is destined forever to be what’s called a “mid-major” university because of its size and location.
So even a change to a slightly higher level conference would not justify the return of football. It’s hard to imagine that a high-risk, 10-year startup investment on the order of $100 million in a sport would ever make a lot of sense for WSU, but certainly not now amidst the Kansas government’s fiscal train wreck.
Assuming, perhaps too optimistically, that our ship of state could be righted at some future point, could another look then be in order?
Another: Can it pay for itself at WSU?
Whether recent startups or with 50 years of history, barely half of college football programs make a “profit.” Depending upon how costs and revenues are allocated (a tricky business), the financially successful programs net a median of about $9 million a year. Among the other half of the 120 or so programs, the median loss is about $3 million.
The cash-cow programs can subsidize other activities – athletic or otherwise – but the unprofitable ones are just another underfunded, recurring expense, especially for financially hard-pressed and debt-ridden students whose fees provide much of the operating revenue.
Historically, the schools on each side of the ledger remain the same year after year; that is, profitable ones tend to remain profitable, money losers tend to remain money losers. And most of the latter are mid-major universities such as WSU.
The report detailed the experiences of six smaller universities that in this decade have studied the football question. At five of them, the programs were created. At all five, student fees immediately rose by $100 to $300 per semester and, under Title IX’s gender equity requirement, several new women’s non-revenue sports had to be added and supported and some men’s sports cut. And, of course, stadiums and training facilities had to be created.
The sixth, Winthrop in Rock Hill, S.C., rationally decided against football.
WSU has many important missions to fulfill, and under Bardo is launching an exciting new one. Reviving football would add little value for either students or the Wichita community, and would subtract much.
Davis Merritt, a Wichita journalist and author, can be reached at [email protected]