Every year the National Football Foundation releases a report detailing the constant growth among colleges and universities participating in football. And it is constant. Thirty-six schools have joined the sport from 2011-15 and five more join the fold this fall, nudging the total to a record 671.
As you'll see below in this NFF graph, the vast majority of the colleges jumping into the pool are doing so at the shallow end.
Inside Higher Education looked at Wichita State's recent study on whether or not to restart football as an examination of all attempts to join Division I football. The piece puts the effort forth as a costly one:
At Wichita State, bringing back the football program would cost the university tens of millions of dollars. College Sports Solutions estimated that revenue for the first two seasons would be about $3.7 million total. The university would lose $14.5 million before the team began its third season.
"If you have had a team for 100 years, and you have invested in it before the sport was this expensive, it often makes sense to keep it," South Carolina sports management professor Mark Nagel said. "But starting one from nothing and hoping to get to the echelon of college football now, it’s probably too late."
Added Smith College economics professor Andrew Zimbalist: "There’s this idea, primarily coming from alumni and boosters, that you can put enough money into a team and turn it into a powerhouse success story. But that becomes more and more unrealistic with each passing year. It’s a fool’s errand, but people are crazy about football, so they keep trying."
But in building the case against adding high-level football, Inside Higher Education argues its own test case. "The ancillary benefits of having a big fall sport on a college campus are very large," Wichita State AD Darron Boatright said. Football gives an entire community a reason to come on campus, to see your logo, to pay attention to your school in September, October and November. It's an opportunity for the alumni association, the president's office and the chemistry department to woo donors and make friends, benefitting the university in ways that will never, ever show up on the actual football program's balance sheet.
While organic growth is unquestionably the safest model to building a sustainable FBS program -- see: Boise State, Georgia Southern, Appalachian State -- a number of programs have jumped straight into the deep end, or close to it, right away. South Florida launched football in 1997 and was in a BCS league eight years later. UTSA played its first football game in 2011 and joined Conference USA by 2013. Georgia State kicked off in 2010 and played in a bowl game last December. Charlotte launched the sport in 2013 and played in Conference USA last season.
Those four programs all shared similar traits. Each enjoys the benefits of a major metropolitan area bathed in a football-crazy culture. Three of them had large stadiums waiting for them, and the fourth built its own backed by an eight-figure donation from an NFL owner. All four have the patience to ride out a probationary period as de facto expansion franchises.
"It’s a struggle at times, but it’s been absolutely worth it so far," Georgia State AD Charlie Cobb said. "Everybody wants their team to win, but we understand that it’s a process. You’re going from not even having a uniform and helmet decal to recruiting players and building a practice facility. We were truly starting from scratch. After the way we finished last year, I think were right where we should be from a competitive standpoint."
While building a big-time football program from scratch has never been costlier, to say those that haven't done it by now missed the boat is categorically false.
It can still be done, as long as your university has the stomach for it.