6.3.08

THE SUPPLY ELASTICITY OF CUPCAKES. The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, home to a basketball mid-major that famously worried Marquette's Al McGuire, contemplates becoming a football power. George Leef demurs.

We’re told by the feasibility study that football increases school spirit and pride and “captures the competitive spirit of America.” Perhaps so, but are such intangibles worth the increase in mandatory fees? An added cost of $300 to attend UNCC is not pocket change for many families.

The study also defends the proposal by claiming, “football would help increase the public perception that UNC Charlotte is a great institution.” But certainly participating in top-level football is neither necessary for sufficient for that public perception. The University of Chicago hasn’t had intercollegiate football in 60 years,(*) but is no doubt regarded as a great institution. Conversely, there are football powers like Florida State whose reputations probably suffer precisely because of their persistent gridiron success.

To which we might add Wisconsin, simultaneously celebrating bowl appearances, March Madness seedings, and hockey titles, while attempting to retain successful professors and keep the brightest graduates in state.

The article correctly points to Buffalo's forlorn attempt to become a football power.

The allure of big-time football has been too much for some schools to resist. Throughout its history, the State University of New York at Buffalo (now just called the University of Buffalo, or UB) played in the low-key NCAA Division III. No prestige, but little cost. Then in 1990, the administration, egged on by the athletic department, decided to move up.

UB spent eight seasons in Division I-AA, a notch below the big-time and then reached the pinnacle, Division I-A, by obtaining membership in the Mid-American Conference in 1999. University president William Greiner said that the reason for going into big-time sports was that they make “a major contribution to the total quality of student life and the visibility of your institution.”

Buffalo’s athletic director, Bob Arkeilpane, added, “Not having big-time college athletics at Buffalo meant there was a quality of life element that was missing here.”

Those sentiments sound a lot like the rhetoric in favor of starting football at UNCC.

The Mid-American isn't exactly the "pinnacle" as its teams have to sell wins to the power conferences to meet the football cartel's attendance criteria. It's rare that Northern Illinois or Toledo isn't in the win-selling business, as Maryland and Alabama and Iowa State once learned, and it's more rare that Northern Illinois is in the win-buying business, as bitter experience with Southern Illinois and Western Illinois has taught, although there's probably room for Charlotte to become a non-conference cupcake to the Mid-American, at least in the early years of its program. That's what Buffalo was before it formally affiliated. (Temple, too, probably to Bill Cosby's dismay).

After six losing seasons, in 2005 the university commissioned a report from nationally recognized sports consultant Gene Corrigan on what it needed to do to become successful. Endorsing Corrigan’s report, the school’s new president John Simpson said, “Building a high-quality, highly competitive athletics program is integral to our success and progress as a leading university community.”

One of the recommendations was to hire a new director of athletics and UB promptly undertook such a search. Corrigan also said that the school needed to put more financial resources into its athletics program. With state financial support tightening, that meant scraping up more private donations for sports and raising student fees.

Buffalo has had a little more success in the Mid-American Conference over the last couple of seasons, but it’s hard to see that student life is any better than at non-football schools. It’s also hard to see how being an also-ran in a low-luster conference does much for the school’s visibility and reputation.

On the other hand, some pretty good economists are at Buffalo. New York's stinginess might have prevented them from getting more. Northern Illinois has received some favorable publicity and perhaps a few enrollments because of football success, although the True North capital campaign reflects the reality that there were plenty of positive things happening elsewhere long before anybody noticed those wins. (The radio call-ins the night of the shootings tended to mention these other things.)

(*)Pedant's note: the Maroons take the field in Division III, although "Run the ball around Chicago" is unlikely to be written back into On! Wisconsin!

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