Friday, December 11, 2009

Why Have Football?

Earlier this week, I posted some of my thoughts about why I am still mad about Hofstra dropping football. Reaction was fairly positive - but some folks, in so many words, questioned what a CAA schools' problems with supporting football have to do with Lehigh, the Patriot League, or even private school football programs in general (gently reminding me that the name of this blog is "Lehigh Football Nation", not "Hofstra Football Nation", "Defiantly Dutch" or anything else).

The answer to this question is: Hofstra's decision means a whole heck of a lot to every football program in FCS. But it especially means a lot to the Patriot League's seven football schools.

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Hofstra is a private university, just like Fordham, Lehigh, Georgetown, and every other school in the Patriot League. And Hofstra's president - by many accounts, unilaterally - made the decision to drop football.

Hofstra's president, Stuart Rabinowitz, cited costs and lack of alumni and student interest in his decision. But it really appears to have come down to one question: why have football?

It's not about cost. Yes, Hofstra football was not cost-free, but when you subtract revenues, scholarship aid and other donations, it probably only cost about $1 million a year or so - paling in comparison to, say, the $100 million medical center that Hofstra will be financing. It wasn't about lack of alumni and student interest: within 48 hours of the decision to drop football, 7,000 fans joined the Facebook group "Save Hofstra Football", and football alumni came together in an effort to bring a team back.

Rabinowitz, rightly or wrongly, was answering a different question by pulling the plug on the program. Why have football? What's it's purpose? Is it a huge money sink? Does it have educational value?

*****

In answering this question, you have to talk about running cost/benefit analyses on any collegiate endeavor, athletic or otherwise.

It's become popular these days to treat athletics programs, especially the football program, as a business unit. There are revenues, and expenses. If revenues beat expenses, then it's a good athletics year. If expenses beat revenues, it's an unsuccessful year.

It's not just Mr. Rabinowitz that's talking in this way. Old Dominion's president mentioned the other day that his football program "broke even" last year, with seven home games, all 20,000 seat sellouts. It's a fad these days to talk about football as a business, not an educational mission.

Let's get serious, though - what other educational mission could survive this level of scrutiny? "Mrs. President, those philosophy professors - well, they've just been a source of high annual salaries and benefits, and the graduates they crank out don't donate back to the university, they're just going to end up at Phish concerts and ending up at Columbia for grad school. Shouldn't we cut them so we can save $1 million a year?"

I propose that every time a cost/benefit analysis is made of football, that the cost/benefit of, say, a school's orchestra is brought up. "What is that music department really bringing in, anyway?" It's a ridiculous argument that ought to be attacked at every opportunity.

*****

Putting aside cost-benefit analysis, though, is the bigger question. What's the educational value of football?

In the BCS conferences, it's clear that football is a different sort of game, with huge amounts of money at stake - so huge, in fact, that it prevents the BCS schools from playing a true national championship. Those schools have chosen to pursue the money - including some great academic schools, too, like Army, Navy, Duke, Stanford, Northwestern and the like.

Even so, the great majority of FBS programs lose money. Costs are large for not only stadia improvements and scholarships and the like, but also for academic compliance as well. In many ways, FBS schools are playing the lotto, hoping to hit the big one every once in a while (Boise State, TCU) while not going bust (Western Kentucky, UCF).

At the FCS level, athletics ought to be, in and of itself, an educational mission, not a for-profit mission. Very, very few FCS football teams "make money" - but then again, the softball teams, crew teams, soccer teams and the like don't make money either. Is the purpose of these teams to make money - or to give student-athletes a chance to have fun, maybe get a trip to a national championship game somewhere, and learn some lessons about discipline, sportsmanship and life along the way?

Athletics promote universities. ESPN is on 24 hours a day. Websites and newspapers run a constant commentary on collegiate athletics, including FCS teams. Do you think I'd have a blog writing about "Lehigh Science Nation"? Not that I'm telling folks that a blog like this shouldn't be written, but for me my passion is Lehigh athletics. Athletics made my time at Lehigh worthwhile - and I'm not alone in that assessment. Athletics invokes a passion in the ol' Alma Mater that Science will never achieve. Grouse all you want about this fact of life, but it is true.

Expanding on this a little, in the Patriot League athletics promote the universities in a very positive way. Appropriately, the Patriot League does not pursue just any student-athletes. They look for the best of the best academically and athletically. They're defined by academics first. You know those NCAA ads talking about "going pro in something other than sports?" That IS the Patriot League. Is it worth spending some money for that educational experience? You bet it is.

*****

You know I'm going to be passionate about this. I love Patriot League football. Unfortunately, it's not my opinion that counts. It's the opinion of the college presidents that matters more. Just ask any Hofstra graduate who is now without a football team for the forseeable future.

Think Patriot League presidents aren't like Rabinowitz? Think again. All private institutions are feeling some sort of crunch. The meme at this time is cutting costs - and even Patriot League presidents could be eyeing the football program as a potential cost savings. It doesn't matter if they're successful or unsuccessful - Hofstra's football program was much, much more successful than it's basketball program, yet it got the axe while men's basketball gets to take trips to Kansas. Could Patriot League schools be thinking about it? I hope not; but in this climate, it feels like no program is safe.

It's not so much that tuitions will continue to go up for the forseeable future, it's not so much that football programs cost money, it's not so much that scholarships cost money, and it's not so much that students and alums go to only one or two games a year at best. The core issue is that college presidents believe the argument that football needs to be a money generator and needs to adhere to a higher economic standard than any other educational endeavor in the school.

Until that myth is debunked - and I have confidence that it will, ultimately - my advice to football fans out there that want to keep their programs, I'd say:

1. Go to the games.
2. Get a rival - preferably one that's close by.
3. Donate back to the university - and give some portion of that to football, if you love the program.
4. Make it clear, whenever you give money, that you're a supporter of football.

That might - just might - convince some university presidents about the full ramifications of dropping football. The atmosphere at the games, the money it generates, the positive culture it brings (in the Patriot League) - it all needs to be priced accordingly.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Still Mad About Losing Hofstra Football

(With sincere apologies to anyone involved with the movie Network, and the estate of one of my favorite writers, Paddy Chayefsky.)

"I don't have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It's a depression. Everybody's out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel's work, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter... [and now Hofstra's president, in the blink of an eye, drops its football team.]

Well, I'm not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get mad! I don't want you to protest. I don't want you to riot - I don't want you to write to your congressman because I wouldn't know what to tell you to write. I don't know what to do about [the demise of Hofstra football]. All I know is that first... you've got to get mad!"

- Howard Beale, UBS Newsman

This wasn't really what happened in the movie Network, but the way Hofstra's president suddenly and surprisingly pulled the plug on the Pride football program has made many, many people very mad. Including me.

Don't just take my word for it: take the word of the 7,567 (and growing) members of the Facebook group, Save Hofstra Football. In Paddy Chayefsky's time, Facebook was a concept that was ungraspable, but in this day and age it is proving to be an invaluable way for people to stick their heads out the window and yell, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"

Here's some highlights:

What they are banking on is that we become apathethic and let this slide after a week or two. We have built a school of law, school of business, basketball arena, school of communications, theatre, etc.. without ever once contracting a program or service. Force them to open the books. Hofstra although private, accepts public funds, we can get this done!

if they didnt want to waste money, they should re consider giving out all the FREE bmws to the department executives, and maybe charge them for gas instead of getting their tanks filled everyday for free ....

what an unbelievable disappointment. I was crushed upon hearing the news. i am putting away all my hofstra gear, taking off my license plate frame. nice job board of directors. what will you do for an encore, burn down some christmas trees?

There is also a Hofstra blogger called "Defiantly Dutch" who has been active as well in his displeasure:

We all could have done more to save Hofstra football. But the person who could have done the most instead killed it, even if Rabinowitz said Thursday “…there really is no concrete rebuttal possible” to the decision.
But there sure are plenty of Unispan-sized holes in it. For instance: Rabinowitz said dropping the program to the non-scholarship level was not a legitimate option because if Hofstra is going to compete athletically, he wants to do so at the highest level and for national championships.
Yet he also said no other program is in danger of being cut. Well, if rubbing shoulders with the elite is the objective, then everything except the basketball, lacrosse, soccer, softball and wrestling programs should be in big trouble.
...
When Rabinowitz talks about how the money from football will go towards need-based academic scholarships, I don’t want to hear him tugging at the heartstrings with stories of kids who can’t afford to go to Hofstra or can’t afford to finish their studies there. Not when he has presided over a school whose costs have risen at rates that almost defy description.
During the 1999-00 school year, the Hofstra student paid $20,922 for tuition, room and board and student fees. The cost this year? $42,526.
Tuition and room and board at Yale, by the way, is $47,500, an increase of 3.3 percent. Tuition at Hofstra this year ($29,980) increased more than nine percent from last year ($27,600). Tuition rose almost four percent from 1998-99 ($13,328) to 1999-00 ($13,750).

There's also an incredibly pissed off bunch of football alums, including an up-and-coming government lobbyist, who quickly formed a group to save football as well. Brad Gerstmann, who has put himself front and center, mentions the following on his reaction to Hofstra President David Rabinowitz's decision to pull the plug on football:

“The University is part of the fabric of Long Island and I believe this is damaging to Long Island and the reputation of the school,” Gerstman says. “More importantly, Hofstra isn’t simply a small private business operating in a vacuum. They receive grants from our government and decisions made by the administration can and do impact the region. As such, it’s curious to me that as caretakers of an institution which has had football since it’s inception in the 1930’s, they can make such a radical change in a secretive way, without any notice to anyone, input from outside stakeholders, or public debate.”
So far - and in line with the initial decision for Rabinowitz in dropping football - folks are still yelling out "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" But the seeds are there for folks to pressure Hofstra to bring back football - and the organizations are taking shape.

****

And, yes, I'm mad about it too. Here's why.

One, Rabinowitz pulled the plug without telling the players or coaches. Just the night before, some of the coaches were out recruiting for the upcoming season. Two and a half weeks of wasted time and money by head coach Dave Cohen, the staff, and others, who could have been looking for jobs with other football schools - not to mention to give players some real time to weigh their options. The players and coaches were treated like trash by the college president.

Second, in Rabinowitz' press conference, when he dropped the bomb, he mentioned the following in regards to Football Championship Subdivision football (or FCS):

“Three of the last four years, Appalachian State was the champion,” Rabinowitz says. “Last year, Richmond was the champion, I don’t know if too many people will remember that because of the lack of national coverage. In a sense, this subdivision of football is like football purgatory. It’s like you need to spend a lot of money to be competitive, but there are none of the benefits that a robust athletic program produces.”

When this bastard sticks a middle finger up in the air at what I do, you better believe I'm going to take notice.

Never mind my efforts to publicize FCS football on a national basis with the College Sporting News. How about the Sports Network, who sponsors the Walter Payton, Buck Buchanan and Eddie Robinson awards and the FCS Top 25 during the year? How about AP, who covers all the games? How about Sports Illustrated, who covered the death of Hofstra's football program? How about ESPN, who is carrying the FCS playoff semifinals and finals?

Rabinowitz might want to check the internet every once in a while when he claims that nobody remembers FCS football, and won't remember their champions. Apparently, the folks at Michigan do. So do the folks at Virginia, who just nabbed Richmond head coach Mike London, last year's Division I national champion, 24 hours after he lost to Appalachian State in a 35-31 thriller.

How about the old "Google test" as to the reputations of the last two football national champions versus Hofstra? "Appalachian State University" yields 1.9 million results. "University of Richmond Football" - 2 million.

"Hofstra University?" Try a piddling 496,000.

Who knows if Hofstra had made a run at the Division I national championship in football what it could be? All I do know is that the last two national champions have just about four times the national Google traffic Hofstra does - and that will go down further once football is canned. Bank on it.

Say you want to pull the plug on the program. Say you want to keep your perks as president. But do NOT say there is a lack of national coverage about FCS, or that it does not matter, or that there are no benefits. That is complete and utter bullshit. And maybe if he lifted a finger and did a Google search, he'd have figured that out.

*****

I'm just getting warm. Here's more, from the Defiantly Dutch running day blog:

Rabinowitz says the University has not come anywhere close to making back the $4.5 million it spends annually on the football program. The football endowment, after 69 years, is around $400,000. Only 500 students attend games, a figure he says includes cheerleaders, dance team and pep band members. The season ticket base for football is 172. In basketball, he adds, it is 750.
“So people have voted on this, in terms of their financial support and their attendance for it,” Rabinowitz says.
“We are just sad every time I hear a good student say ‘I really want to go to Hofstra, it’s my first choice but I can’t afford it,” Rabinowitz says. “‘My parents can’t afford it’ or ‘I can’t afford it.’ Or students who are here and have done well who say ‘I can’t stay here and graduate.’ "We need Hofstra University to really keep good students.”
The 7,000 person strong Facebook group would certainly imply otherwise about people's "votes", but let's do one better and look at numbers.

$4.5 million certainly sounds like a lot of money. But the way Rabinowitz talks about the numbers, he makes it sound like Hofstra takes a check from its general fund that would normally go towards making the world safe for puppies, kittens and babies and instead have to make a check out for $4.5 million for the football program. That's a lie.

The great majority of "money" "spent" on the football program is financial aid. Hofstra's tuition is $42,526 a year. Multiply that times 60, and you get a little over $2.5 million in scholarship money. (Money which - oh by the way - largely goes to folks who need full or partial assistance anyway, and goes to the most diverse team on campus.)

So let's say that this is put back into the main scholarship pool. This money will go towards all students now - unless the goal is to replace the one hundred or so football players with more well-to-do, less diverse, less needy students.

If it's about saving money, the plan has to be to make the student body less diverse and less needy - the only case in which there is significant scholarship cost savings in dropping football, since "needy" students would be replaced with "not-needy" students (probably students that are whiter and richer, too). Either that, or else the university will use those funds to target diverse students that need financial aid - in which case there will be no savings.

If you take Rabinowitz at his word - that he really is trying to make university more affordable for underprivileged students - then there will be no cost savings. Period. Of course, he doesn't mention that 100 or so "good students" who DID get a chance to go to Hofstra as a result of their talent in football, who now, most likely, will be leaving to be able to play the game elsewhere.

Evidently, he is not sad for them.

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"OK", says the skeptic. "But what about that other 2 million?"

Well, for starters, there is sponsorship income. Folks may not realize this, but Modell's Sporting Goods, the LIRR, the Wing Zone, State Farm Insurance, the LI Herald Community Newspapers, and Fresh 102.7 FM all were partial sponsors of Hofstra football last year (never mind the Hofstra bookstore, whom you'd expect to be a sponsor). While harping on the expenses, Rabinowitz pointedly did not mention all these sources of income last year.

There is the $400,000 football endowment - which, presumably, will not be a part of future plans with Mr. Rabinowitz. Could it have been bigger and better? Sure - but it's not an insignificant chunk of change.

There's also $3.5 million dollar Margiotta Hall, a display of the "history of Hofstra Athletics", which was dedicated this past summer with the names of two former football players and made possible by one-time lacrosse player John C. Metzger. Metzger's generous contribution, it was pointed out in this release, was made "to support the men's and women's lacrosse programs and the football program". Would Metzger have made the gift if he thought that there wouldn't be a football program to benefit? Maybe, maybe not, but it does demonstrate that the possibility of athletics contributions drying up at an institution without football is very real.

(No word if the former players, Mike D'Amato '68 and Lou DiBlasi '61, will be taking their names off the project and Hofstra hall-of-fame. Maybe they can erect a bust of head basketball coach Tom Pecora in its place, and a monument to the zero NCAA tournaments he's been to. Fun fact: in the last 12 years, the football team has more NCAA playoff appearances (4) and conference championships (1) than the men's basketball team (0).)

There's more, too. There's revenue generated by playing at FBS Western Michigan, where FBS schools almost always pay financial "guarantees" for FCS schools to play them. Many, if not all, of these checks have six figures.

Does this total $2 million? I don't know. But I do know it's not a $4.5 million dollar check from Hofstra to keep a program alive. And I do know that millions of dollars of revenue for Hofstra athletics - including funds to keep, say, a state-of-the-art weight training facility, or upgrades to Shuart Stadium - will now be vaporized as a result.

$4.5 million of expenses? Without revenues? Talk about only stating one half of the story.

*****

Finally, again from Defiantly Dutch:

[WFAN Sports Radio announcer Mike] Francesa asks what schools Rabinowitz wants Hofstra to be compared to. Among the ones he lists is Boston University, where football was dropped in 1997.
Rabinowitz calls the decision the most painful one of his career—“Times like this I wish I was back in the classroom teaching law”—but says it was an inevitable decision “because there is no pot of gold” at the end of the rainbow in Division I-AA.
Francesa ends the 17-minute interview in familiar fashion. “You need to get that basketball team into the A-10,” he says.
“Well, give me a hand, will you?” Rabinowitz says.
Could it be this is all about getting Hofstra's basketball team in the A-10? "Maybe if I take the football team out back and shoot them, maybe Jodie Foster might be impressed?"

I can't even to begin to say how misguided this is, never mind the casual way he was lobbying Francesca. The timing of it in terms of gunning the football program - treating the coaches, students and fans as if they were trash, and then getting on only hours after the decision to make a pitch to a basketball league is ISN'T A PART OF - is just inexcusable.

It's also interesting that he wants Hofstra to be compared to Boston University - considering that the former college president that presided there that killed the Terriers' football program, John R. Silber, collected $6.1 million two years after he stepped down as president - ample money to keep, say, a FCS football program alive. (There'd even be enough left over to help pay off the outstanding bond debts from BU's $100 million Agganis center, which still isn't paid off.)

Saving a million a year, so he can get, oh, six million a couple years after retirement? Perhaps that's what Rabinowitz is looking for - his words, not mine.

Did I mention I was mad?
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