ATLANTA (AP) — UAB was the first major college football program to shut down in nearly 20 years.
Chances are, the Blazers won’t be the last.
With the enormous cost of having a football team and the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots in college athletics, it’s inevitable that other schools will realize they simply can’t afford to stay on the gridiron.
If anything, UAB’s decision this week to throw in the towel on its money-draining program might make it easier for others to follow suit.
“The danger in one school dropping it is you never know what kind of domino effect that will have on other programs that may be struggling,” said Lynn Hickey, the athletic director at UTSA (Texas-San Antonio), where they started a football program three years ago. “It’s human nature that when someone opens the door, makes a big step, a big decision like that, sometimes that eases the pressure on other people who want to do that.”
Hickey insists that her fledgling program is in solid shape financially, playing in one of the nation’s largest cities while competing for fans with only one major league team (the NBA champion Spurs). The Roadrunners are among seven Division I team that have sprung up since 2000, many of them spurred by a desire to stay relevant in a wave of conference realignment that was largely driven by football considerations.
UNC-Charlotte was one of those schools.
“My primary reason for wanting football was to protect the rest of the athletic program,” said Judy Rose, the 49ers athletic director. “We had invested a lot in our athletic programs. But all the decisions about conference realignment have occurred because of one sport — football. Basketball has nothing to do with it. Nothing. We’ve got to protect what we have here.”
Charlotte landed in Conference USA and got one big thing right in the planning for its new football team. In 2013, the 49ers launched their inaugural season in a new 15,000-seat stadium right in the middle of campus, a facility that can easily be expanded to 40,000 as the programs grows.
Chatting with ADs around the country, most agree that a campus stadium is a major key to the success of any program.
That was certainly one of UAB’s failings, the school starting football its program in 1996 but never constructing a facility that was convenient for the student body. Instead, the Blazers played at decrepit Legion Field, a 71,000-seat stadium that often looked like someone forgot to open the gates when UAB played there.
Crowds of less than 10,000 were not unusual for a team that had only three winning seasons and played in only one bowl during its 19 years of existence.
While many students and alumni were enraged at the university’s seemingly hasty decision to shutter the program — and it’s abundantly clear that those in charge never gave this program a chance to truly flourish in the shadow of mighty Alabama — the fact of the matter is: the Blazers won’t be missed.
As things stand now, it’s only a matter of time before other schools question whether they can really afford to have football if they’re not a member of a Big Five conference.
Georgia State, a commuter-oriented school, launched its football program in 2010. But a sprint to FBS status has caused enormous growing pains for the Panthers, who have gone 2-33 over the last three seasons and are still seeking their first win over a major-college team.
The team plays at the 70,000-seat Georgia Dome, where the averaged announced attendance was just 15,000 per game this season — though actual crowds were even smaller.
Georgia State’s future could largely hinge on a proposal to take over Turner Field after the Braves move to a new suburban complex in 2017. The Panthers hope to downsize the Ted to about 30,000 seats, while building dormitories and other athletic facilities on the surrounding land to create the closest thing to a true campus that the school has ever had.
If that doesn’t come to fruition, the Panthers could be facing a bleak outlook.
Every fledgling program hopes to follow the path laid out by Central Florida.
The Knights, who started their football program in 1979, now have a 45,000-seat stadium on campus and last year hit the jackpot — going 12-1 and earning a spot in the big-money Fiesta Bowl.
Then again, maybe the key is not to aim so high.
Georgia Southern, a longtime FCS powerhouse, moved up to the top division this season, won the Sun Belt Conference, and essentially sold out every game at 25,000-seat Paulson Stadium.
Not Alabama. Not too shabby, though.
“The challenge for us is not to try to be something we’re not,” Georgia Southern athletic director Tom Kleinlein said Friday. “You’ll find yourself in an arms race that not everyone can afford to be in.”
Paul Newberry in a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.twitter.com/pnewberryy1963
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