Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Cost Of Competition

July marks the official pre-season to Georgetown's 104th varsity season and its 45th since the return of football to campus in 1964. It rightfully claims a rich football tradition that is all but obscured amidst the recent efforts of the program. For a variety of reasons, Georgetown enters 2009 with nine straight losing seasons, the most by far in its history, and sees a horizon ahead where changes to the Patriot League cast a shadow on its ability to compete under its present resources.

In 1964, a HOYA column noted that Georgetown did not seek a program such as those at Boston College, Villanova, Holy Cross, or George Washington. Unbenownst to the writer, he suggested various program scenarios which now apply two generations later: the big time, major college football power, the team competing at the highest levels of a lesser subdivision, the former power who follows an Ivy-like commitment to academics and athletics, and finally, a school who packed in football to focus all its energies on basketball, to very mixed results.

Does Georgetown want to be any of these programs, or something entirely different? If the last 45 years of Georgetown football was built on low costs and high hopes, is that enough in the next generation? Are the losing ways of the Patriot League a case of what went wrong, or the seeds to what to do right?

Boston College

For 30 years, Georgetown and Boston College enjoyed a healthy football rivalry, and while a game with the Hoyas was nowhere as important as the annual cross-state game with Holy Cross, the modern comparison between the schools shows just how far football has taken the BC athletic program from its days long ago.

The two schools share a common athletic structure and each offers a large number of sports appealing to both a Jesuit as well as an Ivy-like sensibility. (BC offers 31 sports, Georgetown 29, compared to the NCAA minimum of 14.) In building a on-campus field in 1957, BC shed itself of the high rents at Fenway Park that were mortal wounds to Catholic colleges nationwide. In 1940, nearly 20 Jesuit schools played major college football, by 1970 only three (BC, Holy Cross, Xavier), all of which were on-campus.

Like the conference they were a part of, BC football took off in the 1980's and distinguished itself as Boston's I-A program. Long gone were the days where BU or Harvard could muster huge crowds at games, but BC began to leverage its moment in the sun during the Doug Flutie years. The move to the ACC remains controversial, but it has provided a firm financial footing for the program.

Boston College runs on a $18 million football budget, covered by ACC television contracts, bowl revenues, and ticket sales (home games average 41,037 in 45,000 seat Alumni Stadium). Its men's athletic budget, roughly twice that of Georgetown, is $18 million football, $6 million basketball, and $6 million everything else. Football enjoys a 14 station, five state radio network and a steady base of season ticket holders in New England which ensure steady revenues.

Where BC has really set itself apart is fundraising. In 1998, fundraising covered approximately $3.6 million, or 90 of the school's scholarships. (Read another way, it covered 85 football grants and not much else.) In 2008, BC raised $21 million from an alumni base only slightly larger than Georgetown, or the ability to fully fund as many as 227 scholarships and still have $7 million left over. According to Georgetown's own web site, it has just five (repeat, five) endowed scholarships in the entire athletic program.

What would Georgetown Athletics look like with 227 scholarship athletes? No way to tell, but it wouldn't surprise anyone seeing a fully funded Georgetown program better than #84 in the NACDA Director's Cup totals, which is where GU ended this year.


As the saying goes, no sadder words exist than these four: "what might have been".

In 1981, as arguably the most successful of Philadelphia's major college football programs, the Villanova University football program was terminated for what was its president referred to as a "rededication to its academic mission." A senior lineman named Howie Long had other words for it. In a 1981 article, he called it an "overnight shafting."

But instead of bidding a fond farewell, alumni undertook a vocal and visible approach to bringing the program back, holding fundraisers, getting the word out, and, in some ways, shaming the Augustinian leadership for making the decision in the first place. Villanova returned to the gridiron as a 63 scholarship Division I-AA school in 1985, and has enjoyed a fair amount of success since. Had it stayed in I-A, there is little doubt it would be playing Big East football today.

The closest peer to Georgetown as a I-AA football/major college basketball hybrid, the Villanova men's budget is actually less than Georgetown, roughly $4 million for football, $5 million for basketball, and $4 million for the remainder. Without the benefit of television contracts enjoyed by major conferences such as the Big East, Villanova is extremely dependent on ticket sales and institutional fundraising. Villanova averaged only 6,691 at 12,000 seat Villanova Stadium and raised $5.4 million in 2006 for athletics, much of it for men's basketball.

With a single I-A game each year for school pride and a paycheck Villanova football is the proverbial big cat in the smaller yard--CAA football can take them only so far and the school won't make the leap to the Big East. By some accounting standards is could be losing $3 million a year on football. But the collateral damage of not playing is something the school does not want to see repeated.

Holy Cross

Like Villanova, Holy Cross was a proud I-A program at the edge of what is known today as major college athletics when the Big East conference began to form. Unlike Villanova, Holy Cross passed on joining the league, and its programs have never been the same.

In the mid-1980's, Holy Cross was one of the founders of what was then the Colonial League, a group of former Division I-A teams like Colgate and Davidson, plus three former College Division schools in Bucknell, Lafayette, and Lehigh. The new league, soon retitled the Patriot League, would adopt the Ivy League model to recruit and compete in Division I, with the expectation that other selective schools like Richmond, William & Mary, and Villanova would join. None did. Davidson bailed after three seasons, Fordham spent a decade in PL purgatory, and the league even added Towson to make ends meet before finding a willing party in Georgetown in 2001, ostensibly taking Fordham's place in the cellar. Talk of adding new schools to a league famously referred to as the "last amateurs" remains talk.

Like Georgetown, Holy Cross does not offer athletic scholarships in football. That is not to say they don't provide more support, however. Nearly 45% of its men's athletic budget of $7.2 million goes to football, versus $1.6 million for basketball and $2.3 million for everyone else. Ironically, HC still offers more in men's athletic aid across all sports ($3.2 million) than Georgetown does ($2.8 million) because of football "equivalencies", or the aggregate amount of preferential financial aid it offers to football players. From its budget of $3.2 million, less operating (game day) expenses of $300,000 and an estimated $400,000 for salaries among its full and part-time coaches, HC has somewhere around $2.5 million available to financial aid, or 50 scholarship equivalencies. Some of that is paid from attendance revenue (8,431 a game) but that's not enough. Most comes from a university subsidy to remain competitive in PL football after a number of years in the late 1990's where HC football was treading water. (In 1999, Holy Cross lost at home to Georgetown 34-16, and someone up at Mt. St. James must had said "never again!". Since then, the Crusaders are 9-0 against the proto-Hoyas, and most games haven't been close.)

Maybe the glory days aren't coming back for the Cross--it hasn't sold out Fitton Field since 1986 and hasn't won the PL title in 18 years. But the Crusaders stand a pretty good chance of winning the title this year, and aren't afraid to invest in making that dream a reality for its student-athletes.

So what do these stories tell us?

Georgetown is not Boston College.
It is not Villanova.
It is not even Holy Cross.
What it is, and what it wants to be, remains open to question among other PL fans.

In a league where coaches are openly campaigning to go full scholarship in the wake of Fordham's shot across the PL bow, where does Georgetown stand? If Georgetown is 1-16 in the last three years of PL play against supposed "non-scholarship"opponents, what happens when everyone else in the league can offer 60+ full rides to recruits and Georgetown can't?

Georgetown doesn't have to spend 50% of its budget on football, but 5% won't cut it, either. Numbers like these point to a simple and glaring fact that anyone at BC, Villanova, Holy Cross, or any Division I program will tell you, without a systematic approach to fundraising, the competitive student athlete will almost always go elsewhere than Georgetown, leaving those behind at the Hilltop ill-equipped to meet the challenge ahead. Whatever fans say of Kevin Kelly this year, remember this--he's still bringing a knife to a gunfight. And the PL is about to about to start packing some heat.

(Coming in part two, a look at how to build a foundation from the only source that Georgetown Football can count on--its own.)

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Fordham Flash

If conferences were corporations, the Patriot League would be Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company. It advertises itself as "the quiet company", all the while with more assets than anyone knows.

The League tends to like things, well, quiet. it does not overly promote itself--its football media day is not at ESPN Zone in New York, but a golf club outside Bethlehem, PA. It has no television package for football (indirectly, to protect the Lehigh and Lafayette networks in their local area), and when it comes to the off-season, it likes things quiet as well.

Not this year.

With all the subtlety of a bull in a china shop, Fordham University has turned up the equivalent of a car alarm in the midst of this peace and quiet. And it's not going away. The league famous for eschewing scholarships now has a Trojan Ram inside its walls.

Fordham announced...no, told the Patriot League that it is pursuing a full scholarship program beginning in 2010, come hell or high water. Rather than lose the Rams outright, the Patriot League engaged in a delicate balance of compromise that allows Fordham to remain in the league, except it is ineligible for championships, all-League honors and the like. I'm not sure Fordham cares at this point--they got what they wanted, and will be selling the benefits of a free ride to PL recruits up and down the list, games with Connecticut, Army and Navy, and the very real possibility that they will lay waste to the rest of the league standings while the PL leadership decides what to do about this scholarship mess. It's become the talk --and not too quietly--of the I-AA off season wires.

The symbolism of the Trojan Ram is not far off. For the better part of 25 years, dating back to the days when Rev. John Brooks, S.J. steered Holy Cross out of major college athletics and sought alliances with the Ivy League that would reposition his college as an academic colossus and not just another Boston College or Georgetown (two schools he had varying degrees of cynicism against). It was the insistence that what was then known as the "Colonial League" adopt and defend the policies of non-scholarship athletics that the Ivy Group had created 20 years earlier. "The Last Amateurs", or so we were told.

There were cracks in the wall before, of course, when the next generation of leaders at Holy Cross pulled a similar move and demanded they get basketball scholarships or they would walk. The PL instituted a slow and somewhat deliberative rollout in that sport, and other sports have followed. But not football.

But not anymore.

In a different time, in a different climate, the PL schools would have turned away from Fordham as they did to Towson, a school who opted for scholarships after the 2002 season. Back then, a PL team (or two) were regular entrants in the I-AA playoff process and in 2003, it was Colgate that "ran the table" to a 15-0 record and a berth in the national finals. The only team that came close to upsetting them was...uh, well...never mind.

Those days are in the rear view mirror. Since 2003, the league has experienced a noticeable step back in the I-AA football order, with a lack of national rankings and a perception that it is becoming less competitive in the playoffs. With tougher competition from the Ivies on one side and a 40-schoalrship Northeast Conference picking off players on the other, the good times aren't as good for the Seaboard Seven as they once were. And now comes Fordham, ready to pick off a Lehigh recruiting lock here, a Colgate catch there. "Hey, you running backs at Bergen Catholic or that linebacker at Delbarton--why pay $50,000 a year to go to Georgetown? How about a free ride to Fordham, all on us!"

All the more unsettling to PL leadership, then, to see this coach's quote appear on the Lehigh Athletics web site the day after Fordham's announcement:

"At this time, I view Fordham's move to scholarship football as a positive move. I am excited that the League Presidents are committed to discussions on awarding athletic merit aid for all league members. I am certainly a proponent of scholarship football in our league. I have no doubt that scholarships would enhance Patriot League football on the national level, which I believe would help every member institution."

But more telling, this quote from its athletic director:

"The athletic merit financial aid awards that Lehigh offers in sports other than football have contributed positively to yielding student-athletes of desirable academic quality, strong athletic quality and other qualities that Lehigh values. We understand the reasons for Fordham’s decision and hope that the ongoing discussions will enable them to remain a member of the Patriot League.”
Translated: "When the vote comes, we'd like football scholarships too."

Fordham's window runs through 2012, but all signs point to some sort of position by the league whether to pursue football scholarships by the end of the 2010 season. Internet chatter considers that Lehigh and Colgate are for scholarships, Holy Cross against, with Lafayette to side with whatever Lehigh does and Bucknell to follow the majority in either case. Georgetown, which has not expressed an opinion one way or the other, is a presumed "no" on scholarships inasmuch as it has comparatively little to offer for scholarship or financial aid money under any scenario.

The league could opt for any of four options:

1. "Status Quo": No scholarships, bid Fordham adieu and rededicate itself to the non-scholarship credo.

2. "Easy Does It": Allow schools to add a small number of merit scholarships each year, say, five or six per team per year. This would extend the window of full football scholarships out 6-8 years.

3. "Laissez-Faire": Open the door to scholarships (and a considerable competitive imbalance) by allowing each school to set limits as they see fit. If Lehigh and Colgate want 60 scholarships and Holy Cross and Georgetown none, well, good for them.

4. "Step Up Or Step Aside": Set a minimum count for scholarships and hold each member to meeting the minimum. Any plan to set a minimum number would be a cannon pointed squarely at the one and only member whose financial aid numbers are only half of the least funded PL program.

By forcing the league's hand, Fordham has no aspirations to be an Ivy league-esque program any more; in fact, you'll be seeing a lot more Stony Brooks and Hofstras on the Rams' calendar that Columbia and Cornell. The larger question is what it means for the six remaining PL schools, and the one school for whom non-scholarship football is more than just a philosophy, but a financial necessity.

In part 2, Georgetown's options in a scholarship football world. And it's no time to remain quiet about it very much longer.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

A Tree Falling In The Forest

"Scattershooting while wondering whatever happened to Bus Ham..."

As the printed newspaper marches towards its expected oblivion, a subtle but demonstrable change has preceded it: a staff reporter's regular coverage of events, the "beat", as they used to call it, has gone the way of the Smith-Corona typewriter. Two recent stories affecting Georgetown Football are evidence of this, and a cautionary tale about how sport and its program need to keep watch on the changing skies of information and while the trees that built the print revolution could be staying up a while longer.

Before I get into that, however, some explanation on the first sentence is in order.

It wasn't that long ago when the chief source of information on teams was the daily newspaper, where the beat writers were a window into the world of sports and the stars of tomorrow. Even as they graduated into columnists, one always got the feeling they had an inside look at the games, or as one newsroom wag once dubbed it, "the world of the perspiring arts."

Here in Dallas, columnists began and ended with Blackie Sherrod, the former Ft. Worth Press editor who ran with a crop of Texas sportswriters that are long remembered today--Dan Jenkins, Bud Shrake, Andy Anderson, Mickey Herskowitz, and Dan Cook. Sherrod's weekly column, which began with the "scattershooting" entre, proceeded to weave so many stories into the article that by the time it was all over, you were convinced he forgot more about sports than you'd know, but you enjoyed it all the same.

Every town had their run of great sportswriters. At the Washington Post, it was Shirley Povich and Bob Addie, Mark Asher and Bill Gildea, Dave Kindred and Ken Denlinger, Michael Wilbon and Thomas Boswell. And those that weren't at that level still wrote, a lot.

"These were my childhood heroes," wrote a recent blogger. "These were wordsmiths who made you want to head down to the newsstand on Sunday and buy every out-of-town paper they had — even if your team lost, because you knew they would tell you everything about the game you wanted to know, and would do so in a way that made the words jump off the pages."

But those days are gone. In 1964 , Post staff writer Bus Ham was at the tail end of a 18 year tenure as a sports editor of the paper. He took it upon himself to cover an unusual beat--the revival of Georgetown football in the fall of 1964. Seven stories by Ham covered the run-up to the game, with four stories on page 1 of the Post's sports page in the final ten days.

"Georgetown's student athletes and the game of football scored a smashing triumph yesterday in an exciting revival of the sport on the Hilltop," Ham wrote in an 800 word recap of Georgetown's 28-6 win over NYU.

What would a story like that garner in today's Post? 80 words? Eight?

Today's sports section content is all about subscriptions, little more. At the Post, Montgomery County high school football will get more space in the paper than Georgetown or Howard football, each of which went an entire season without any regular coverage outside its own game. A Virginia Tech game will get more coverage because someone figured out that Hokie alumni buy papers when Tech wins, but Hoya alumni... well, they'll subscribe anyway, so what's the point. And if it weren't for Barker Davis, the Washington Times sports page might ignore Georgetown altogether.

So when Bernard Muir announced his resignation on May 12, where did you hear about it? The Times? The Post? In fact, both were left to run a blurb in the "sports briefs" column when Muir's quiet negotiations were picked up by a Delaware blog. It got big news in the Wilmington News-Journal, but a passing glance in the local papers. They got beat on the story but what's worse, they didn't care.

And outside of the smaller towns, that seems to be the trend in the coverage of college athletics. Keith Groller does a fine job covering Lehigh sports at the Allentown Morning Call, but one gets the feeling that the PL football media pool could all fit into a Toyota Celica and have seats left over. When Fordham announced it was adding scholarships in 2010, it got an Associated Press story and an note in Dick Weiss' basketball blog, little more.

Fordham's move has potentially huge implications for PL football in general and Georgetown in particular. If a reporter had botehrerd to make a few calls, they would have found that Lehigh athletic officials made public statements to the efffect that they'd support a move too, and where Lehigh goes, Lafayette follows. Count Colgate in as well. All of a sudden, you've got a majority of PL schools looking to play at a 60 scholarship level. What does that mean to Georgetown, which has lost 27 of its last 32 as an unremarkable non-scholarship program? What does that mean to a new athletic director coming in the door?

For a hundred years or more, schools have relied on the print media to get the word out about teams, about big games, about its coaches. After all, it was Notre Dame sports information assistant George Strickler that got Harry Stuhldreher, Don Miller, Jim Crowley, and Elmer Layden into uniforms and on horseback, immortalizing Grantland Rice's account of the Four Horsemen. Print media drove college sports into its golden age, but what will drive it going forward?

Sure, it you're one of about 20 schools, there's ESPN. For everyone else, they've got to think ahead.

I was at a Georgetown conference last winter where Geof Rochester (B'81), an executive with World Wrestling Entertainment, summed it up. The three words Georgetown needs to be focusing on when it comes to communications is, "mobile, mobile, mobile". As smartphones continue their assault in market share (with as many as one third of all phones within five years featuring direct data transfer), the flow of information that is being sent by e-mail will make that medium about as useful as putting a stamp on an envelope. Ask anyone under 25 if they'd rather have an e-mail or a text message and see what they say.

Now, a bit of disclosure. I don't own a smartphone (I don't like Apple products and the cost of a data plan for a BlackBerry is still too high for me), but if I had one, would there not be value in getting scores and game highlights sent to me on a real time basis? What about post-game stories? What about coaches comments and video recaps? If I'm in Baton Rouge sitting at the LSU-Louisiana Tech game, why couldn't Georgetown send me the recap from the GU-Richmond game and tag it with a offer to give to the Gridiron Club via an easy link? Talk about connecting with your audience!

It's all part of a comprehensive communications strategy which the post-Muir era of Georgetown athletics must embrace. Georgetown was actually one of the first schools to utilize the web back in 1996, this is another opportunity. Georgetown football can't wait around for the Washington Post to discover I-AA football. By then it will be too late.

Author Stuart Brandwrote that: "Once a new technology rolls over you, if you're not part of the steamroller, you're part of the road."