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.)