On Tuesday I received the National Football Foundation's press release heralding a record number of NCAA college football teams for the 2013 season. In total, there will be 12 new programs in college football with nine beginning NCAA play and three playing at the NAIA level. Is this type of growth sustainable or even desirable?
Obviously, if you work for an organization that wouldn't exist without football, growth in the sport (at an average of 4.7 schools per season since 1978) is a good thing and you kind of have to be cheerful about it. Here at Crystal Ball Run, you will never encounter most of the schools which are just starting programs as only 25 percent of the new programs from 2008-2016 are entering at the FCS or FBS level. Thirty-six percent of the brand new teams will play at the NAIA level where the football scholarship limit stands at 24. NAIA schools may also take their allotment of scholarships and break them into tiny pieces which allows for more players (student-athletes) to receive aid.
Houston Baptist University, which will join the Southland Conference in football in 2014 and will play a seven-game “developmental” schedule in 2013, is featured in the NFF's release. HBU will have no real home games this season as their stadium is currently being constructed. HBU estimated that football cost the school $10 million in start-up costs (the stadium playing surface was paid for by a donor). The tuition of the 40 or so walk-ons who are paying their own way to play should offset the $1 million annual operating costs of the program. One of the reasons cited by the school to begin a football program is to more than double enrollment over the next decade (current student-to-teacher ratio is 15-1). However, I know of no school that plans on hiring faculty at pace to keep class sizes down. The estimated cost of attendance of attending HBU for 2013-2014 while living at home is $36,977. Of that total, $1,650 is allocated to “general fees.” Undoubtedly, a chunk of that sum goes to athletics but HBU's athletic director was unavailable for comment and other athletic and academic employees were unable to provide the figure.
Richard Vedder wrote in Bloomberg in June 2013 that during the 2010-2011 school year, students at Division I public schools ponied up more than $2 billion in athletic fees (at an average of more than $500 per student) to subsidize athletics. The problem is more pronounced at schools with students who have more financial aid need, which is to say the students are spending some of their loan money on athletics. Despite what school athletic directors tout about football playing a major role in enrollment, the same study cited by Vedder found that 72 percent of students “said athletics had an 'extremely unimportant' or 'unimportant' part in their school choice or as a priority for their student fees; less than 10 percent ranked the athletic programs as 'important' or 'extremely important.'” Add in the fact that the Class of 2013 graduated with an average of $35,200 in total college related debt and you might start to question the wisdom of those schools which are just now adding football hoping that it will fuel enrollment while rates of enrollment are actually declining.
But, forget for a second about rising fees for students who are graduating with debt they may never be able to pay back. From a purely football standpoint, more schools diluting the talent pool does not lead to better football. The haves of college football are still going to get the bulk of the players they want and are in a much better position to offer student-athletes cost-of-attendance scholarships (and let's not even think what could happen after the O'Bannon case gets decided). The College Football Playoff may lead to some more risky scheduling but there are also now more than ever rent-a-wins available at the FBS level to bore us on Saturdays. Until we see a playoff committee penalize a weak schedule, why risk playing a potential Top 15 team out of conference? As usual, I'm in favor of contraction at the highest level of college football or at the very least, relegation and promotion.