Every several years a group of students at my university make a request of our administrators: bring NCAA football to George Mason University. Actually, their request is that the university initiate a NCAA Division FBS (formerly Div 1-A) or FCS (formerly Div 1-AA) football program, complete with scholarships, a stadium, and presumably placement in a major conference.
GMU actually has a football team. There are no scholarships, but they have a coach and they play a respectable small college schedule, playing our rival Virginia Commonwealth University, and occasionally William and Mary. I’ve never been to a game myself, but I have had a few students over the years who have told me about the dedication of the players, but there is little student following and attendance is sparse.
I’m often conflicted about students’ request for a “real” football team at GMU. My undergraduate alma mater, West Virginia University, has had a football program since the late 19th century; as an undergrad I attended every home game, rain, snow or shine. Football games and the rituals that surrounded them were among my fondest college memories. I married a life-long Penn State fan, and for many years we were members of the Nittany Lion Club. We drove to State College every fall for games until my twins were born, and afterward we attended a game at WVU to introduce the children to wonders of college football. I wept when Joe Paterno was unjustly fired, even more so when he died in January. I have longstanding ties to college football. My father, Paul Lattanzi, was a major college official (for basketball and football) in the 1980s and worked as a Red Cap for WVU Football until his death in 2003.
When I return to WVU or Penn State for games, I often lament the fact that my GMU students are missing out on an important aspect of the college experience. Football has a way of bringing students and alumni together. Throw in the marching band and you’ve got yourself a memorable college experience that can tie students to an institution for a lifetime.
Most people are surprised when I tell them I strongly opposed developing NCAA football program at GMU. As much as I love the game, I’m opposed because I’m convinced it would be an abysmal failure.
As a life-long observer of the sport, I realize that not all schools are ideally situated to be football schools. This has nothing to do with the longevity of the program, but more with location and demographics. Temple University in Philadelphia is a prime example. They sit in a city of 1.5 million people, and rarely draw more than 25,000 fans at home football games. The University of Pittsburgh (est. 1889) has longevity as a program, but compared to its local peers Penn State (est. 1887) and WVU (est. 1891) has poor attendance and alumni support. It’s no secret that big city schools have more competition from professional sports teams. But what about a school in a large metro area like DC? Would GMU’s location in the suburbs make a difference?
I don’t think so. The University of Maryland, a school that has fielded a football team since 1892, averaged about 39,000 people per game last year. That may sound great, but a good many of those ticket sales were from fans from opposing teams like WVU who follow their team on the road. It’s not what you could expect for a newly formed team at GMU. It’s probably close to the best one could expect, and frankly, you can’t run a football program with that type of attendance.
Another issue is our current student participation with Men’s basketball. I’ve been a season ticket holder since 2006, and while the Patriots do have the best attendance in the CAA, our average hovered around 5,000. Keep in mind students are admitted free and we have approximately 33,000 students. We sold out one game against ODU at Homecoming this year (our arena holds some 9,400). That alone should tell student football enthusiasts that GMU cannot expect student support to simply emerge for football just because it’s there.
Football isn’t a field of dreams. You can build it, as they have at Pitt, Temple and Maryland, and there is a very good chance they won’t come.
The final and most important reason why I think scholarship football is a bad idea at GMU: it will effectively end every men’s sport except football and basketball. Title IX requires that universities offer equivalent scholarship opportunities for women. Division I-A football teams typically offer 80 scholarships, which means that GMU would have to decrease or eliminate the total number of scholarships in other men’s sports and increase those for women.
Very recently GMU’s incoming President Angel Cabrera was asked his opinion about establishing NCAA football at GMU. As reported in Connect2Mason.com, Cabrera said:
If there’s a way to have more of that [pride] and not lose our shirt in the process, I’m all for it,” Cabrera said. “If someone can figure out a way to have football and create more of that sense of ‘winning tribe,’ if you will, and we find a way to be able to pay for it, I’m all for it.
Cabrera’s comment reflects the fiscal reality of universities that host NCAA sports programs: they’re expensive. But he also acknowledges a true issue in the Mason community: the lack of school spirit and limited student engagement. Working toward a better basketball conference, like the Atlantic 10 or perhaps one day the Big East, might move us in that direction, and there are probably less expensive ways to address those issues.