Where to Create the Newest Division I Football Program Pt. I
A look at 4 programs with the potential to join FBS/FCS
In the last decade FBS has grown from 119 to 130 programs across the country. These additions include UTSA, UMass, Texas State, & South Alabama (2012), Georgia State (2013), Georgia Southern, ODU, & App State (2014), Charlotte (2015), Coastal Carolina (2017), & Liberty (2018). Of the schools that have joined FBS since 2000, FAU, FIU, UTSA, South Alabama, Georgia State, ODU, Charlotte, & Coastal are all new programs. FCS has seen the additions of Campbell, ETSU, Lamar, Mercer, Kennesaw State, Houston Baptist, Incarnate Word, Bryant, Abilene Christian, LIU, Merrimack, Stetson, North Dakota, South Dakota, NCCU, Presbyterian, Dixie State, North Alabama, Tarleton State, Texas A&M-Commerce, & St. Thomas in the last decade. Schools are increasingly investing in boosting national recognition and prominence through the visibility of their football programs. We will answer the invevitable question of which schools could, or should, be next to take the plunge?
#1) George Mason Patriots
George Mason is one of the largest universities in America not fielding a varsity football team. The Patriots are best know for their improbable 2006 Final Four bid as an 11 seed that put GMU into the national spotlight. 15 years later, basketball success has faded and we're left wondering what GMU's athletic identity is now? Could an FBS team be the solution to cementing GMU as a national brand outside the DMV, athletically, as well as academically?
With an enrollment of 39,000, GMU is the 36th largest university in America and the 5th largest to not possess Division I football. Mason is located in Fairfax County, VA, the 3rd richest county in the US and has a vast alumni network in neighboring Loudoun and Arlington ranking 1st and 6th respectively, as well as Washington DC. In short, George Mason is in no short supply of potential donors. The endowment as of 2020 was $154.2 million representing an 111% increase in the last 5 years. Athletics revenue has also seen a 45% increase in the past 5 years to $38 million. The price tag of upwards of $220 million to finance the construction of a 40K seat stadium appears to be the largest stumbling block. The price may prove worth it in the long run however.
The last football feasibility study appears to be roughly a decade old now with no official statements by GMU since 2014. One cannot deny the successes of GMU's instate peers, Old Dominion, Liberty, and now FBS transitioning James Madison. Perhaps the Patriots should look to one of these institutions for a model on how to grow a program. I believe that ODU's model is most applicable to GMU; create a program from scratch, join the FCS (likely CAA), and eventually move up to FBS. Mason has a profile similar to FIU, Texas State, & Georgia State and should consult with the AD's of those programs as to the right course of action. UCF may be the best example for Mason to follow considering their meteoric rise from DIII to P5.
Conclusion: George Mason has the profile to be successful in FCS, especially with JMU leaving a vacancy in the CAA. Because of the Duke's departure, any concerns over bad blood between GMU & the CAA over the Patriots 2013 exit will be moot. Within the A10, Mason is the largest school ,yet is midling in terms of basketball attendance. Unfortunately, GMU is still predominantly a commuter school with only a quarter of students living on campus. Students need a reason to stick around campus for sporting events and football has been proven to be a boon to all sporting attendance. Football is the missing piece to George Mason's success and the administration needs to recognize this.
Rating: FBS (A-).
#2) Little Rock Trojans
The University of Arkansas-Little Rock may have found themselves in the ideal situation seeing as they're soon to be a member of an FCS sponsoring confernce. UALR just wrapped an 18 month football feasibility study in 2018 that recommended waiting to pursue a football program. Unfortunately for Little Rock, time may be a luxury they don't have. Little Rock has just announced plans to move their sports from the Sun Belt to the Ohio Valley Conference in 2023. This could be a blessing for those desiring football at UALR as the costs associated with starting an FCS program are significantly less than if they'd started one in the Sun Belt.
The Trojans officially ended their football program in 1955 but have since conducted numerous studies into resurrecting it. UALR currently has 7.5 thousand students with an endowment of $80 million. While small, Little Rock's endowment is still substantially larger than former conference mate ULM's paltry $23 million endowment representing the lowest in the conference. What makes football at Little Rock so appealing is the availability to play their games in War Memorial Stadium, a stone's throw from campus. With 54K capacity, War Memorial wouldn't need any immediate upgrades seeing as the Razorbacks already play a game there every season. With only 2 FBS and 2 FCS teams in the state, Arkansas is an underserved market for football in the southeast. The south has shown that fans will show out for them even in states dominated by the SEC.
Per the 2018 report, the Little Rock Board of Trustees cited:
“The establishment of a football program must be a part of the university’s strategic master plan, with clear goals and a commitment and data-informed strategy for long-term sustainable funding model and infrastructure.”
“At this time, the university should continue to focus on raising the quality and investment in its current 15 intercollegiate athletic programs, including the new wrestling program beginning this fall."
This was all prior to the 2021 conference realignment shakeup. The 2018 study found that 76% of students favored adding a football program along with 60% of season ticket holders; school donors were the least enthusiastic with only 41% favoring adding the sport. Despite financial concerns, Little Rock's athletic budget is currently 2.5x that of FBS sponsoring ULM. When taking into account the university's plan to increase enrollment to 15K, the addition of over 7.5K student would boost athletic revenues by a further $3.88 million.
Conclusion: The money, facilities, and market are there for Little Rock. This seems like a no brainer for a school seeking to boost sagging enrollment and find identity in a new conference. Little Rock's new home in the OVC will dramatically reduce costs in creating a football team as UALR would now only have to sponsor 65 scholarships. The Trojan's entrance also gives the OVC a potential replacement for the departing Austin Peay. The financial advantage Little Rock will have over it's new peer institutions may be key in swaying the board in favor of football as well.
Rating: FCS (A+).
#3) North Florida Osprey
The University of North Florida is a relatively new school, being founded in 1969 and only becoming a division 1 institution in 2009. As Florida's population has grown, so too has UNF's enrollment, currently topping out at over 17 thousand. The school's endowment also peaked this year at $119 million dollars with an athletics budget of $13 million. As enrollment continues to climb, so will the opportunity to raise funds from student fees. The school has openly admitted they've considered football and will likely add it at some point, but they've been kicking that can down the road for nearly a decade now.
Thanks to Jacksonville's decision to drop FCS football in 2019, UNF has the opportunity to be the only college show in town. Leasing TIAA Bank Field, home to the Jacksonville Jaguars, may be a viable option for UNF as it is only about 15 minutes across town. USF is a long time renter of Raymond James Stadium in Tampa so it wouldn't be unheard of for a FL college. Unlike the small private Jacksonville University, UNF is a large state school with a rapidly expanding alumni base in North Florida. Even at the FCS level, UNF should be able to draw a crowd they would be the only non-HBCU scholarship FCS team in Florida (Stetson is non-scholarship).
The Atlantic Sun Conference's announcement that it will begin sponsoring FCS football in 2022 should be the sign President Nick Morrow is looking for in terms of when to start the program. Granted, he stated in an interview in October that football is not in the Osprey's immediate future, there's no time like the present. This rings especially true as football becomes ever more the driving force in conference realignment and media deals. The future ASUN football will feature Austin Peay, Central Arkansas, Eastern Kentucky, Kennesaw State, North Alabama, and Jacksonville State (departing for CUSA). The ASUN may try and pressure Stetson into joining for football as well.
Conclusion: UCF, USF, FAU, & FIU have all made their ascents to FBS in the last 30 years, each with some level of success. The South's hunger for football is insatiable and so are prospective students' desire to attend a football sponsoring university. There's no shame in being the "second team" to a UF or FSU fan. Certainly the other programs in Florida started that way too. One must only look to Orlando to see how to build a succesfull program from the ground up. The budget must be increased 2.5 fold most likely but the market is ripe for the taking. FCS seems very reasonable for UNF and something I would recommend the university pursue in the near future.
Rating: FCS (B+).
#4) Maryland-Eastern Shore Hawks
The University of Maryland Eastern Shore is an HBCU located in Princess Anne Maryland. The school is founding member of the MEAC and remains a non-football member to this day. UMES has an enrollment slightly over 2K as of fall 2020, continuing a steady trend of decreasing class size. Thanks to a generous donation from billionaire MacKenzie Scott, UMES has nearly doubled it's endowment to ~$50 million. This sudden windfall may be a win-win for UMES & the MEAC.
UMES was once one of the most prominent black college programs in America. With multiple undefeated seasons to their name, The Shore has produced numerous Hall of Famers. The Hawks are still tied with FSU for having the most alumni appear in a single Super Bowl with 4. That's despite UMES having dropped football in 1979. The legacy remains strong at UMES and students have repeatedly suggested reviving the defunct program. After a feasibility study was conducted in 2021, President Juliette Bell punted on reinstating football, insisting the school would circle back to it in 2018. It's now almost 2022 and there's still no word on a decision.
The decision may be made for them by the MEAC given the recent exodus from the conference. In just the past few seasons, Hampton, Florida A&M, Bethune-Cookman, and North Carolina A&T have all sought greener pastures. This leaves Howard, Norfolk State, North Carolina Central, South Carolina State, Delaware State, and Morgan State as the only football members, barely meeting the FCS minimum to form a conference. Without dipping into DII, UMES and Coppin State are the most logical choices for the MEAC to look in acquiring new teams. UMES should be the first to jump given their alarmingly low attendance right now.
Conclusion: The MEAC needs teams and UMES needs football. The area is completely devoid of major football and with the huge donation, the school can now fork up the money to sponsor FCS football. This should garner much positive media attention and boost applicants to the school. Sea Gull stadium at nearby Salisbury University could provide a temporary home for The Shore until a stadium is completed on campus if SU is amenable. UMES is arguably a better fit for the CIAA of DII and yes I mean for all sports. This makes a move to FCS difficult for the Hawks, and the funding may prove too thin to stretch but it is worth a much harder look now vs 2012.
Rating: FCS (C).
Be sure to watch for Pt II coming soon as examine a further 4 schools that should add Division I football. Give us a follow on Twitter at @Sidelines_SN and find your favorite college or professional sports team with us as well. Thanks for reading!