Forest Grove, Ore. — Money killed Pacific University’s football program, and money is bringing it back.
Seventeen years ago, the Boxers were losing, McCready Field was falling apart, and football was draining the budget at the small liberal arts school west of Portland. Now Pacific is planning for a return next season to boost enrollment — and revenue.
Budget cuts in higher education make intuitive sense in a nation still suffering from almost two years of bad economic news.
Yet dozens of schools across the country are making the same decision Pacific did — to add sports rather than reduce them — and have done so for years, The Associated Press learned by reaching out to all 95 of the multisport conferences in the NCAA’s Divisions I, II and III.
Overall, the AP found those colleges plan to add a total of 174 new teams and drop 59 over the next two years.
The reasons aren’t always economic; complying with rules that demand gender equality in sports and that require Division III schools to carry a minimum of 12 sports starting in 2010 also play a role. However, the economy keeps popping up as an important and often critical reason for the expansion, particularly in Divisions II and III, where athletes often don’t receive scholarships.
More sports, more money
Adams State in Alamosa, Colo., will add men’s golf, men’s soccer, women’s lacrosse and swimming teams for both sexes. It’s one of 11 Division II schools adding sports for economic reasons, the AP found.
Lake Erie College, east of Cleveland, is bringing on men’s and women’s lacrosse and men’s and women’s tennis this year, its first in Division II.
Georgia’s Columbus State is adding coed rifle, women’s golf, and men’s and women’s track in 2009-10, the largest single-year expansion in the Division II school’s history.
“There is a perception out there from Division I that adding sports just consumes all the money,” said Adams State athletic director Larry Mortensen. “But at our level, it’s just the opposite — generating sports adds revenue. It generates enrollment.”
Lake Erie’s student-athlete population is expected to triple, boosting overall enrollment at the 1,200-student college and forcing the school to bolster its curriculum, athletic director Griz Zimmerman said.
For sport-loving students and their parents, the trend means more opportunities and college choices.
Freshman Meredith Howe had never heard of Lake Erie before she was contacted by the women’s lacrosse coach prior to her senior year at Jamesville-Dewitt High School near Syracuse, N.Y. Howe had looked at several colleges, and none stuck out. She knew she didn’t want to attend a Division I school.
It turns out Lake Erie was the right fit.
“It was my favorite. It’s tiny but it’s quaint. It was a sweet deal,” Howe said. “I was kind of hoping to pick a school for the sport. I picked Lake Erie because since the program’s new, I would still have a life. Lacrosse wouldn’t be 24-7 for me.”
West Virginia Wesleyan will field a Division II women’s lacrosse team in spring 2011 that athletic director Ken Tyler estimates could generate up to $159,000 in its inaugural year for the 1,200-student college.
“That’s significant for a small private liberal arts school like us,” Tyler said.
Wesleyan plans to bring in 20 new athletes for the first season. Tuition and room and board for one year at the school is about $30,000.
The school says it will wind up in the black even after it divides scholarships worth a total of $150,000 among the athletes. The costs also include the team’s $27,000 budget and the $30,000 coach’s salary.
Division III numbers
NCAA records show the number of college athletic teams has been increasing for years, and that while the recession scaled back some schools’ plans, it hasn’t stopped them from expanding.
Starting in 2010, Division III schools with enrollments of 1,000 or more must sponsor a minimum of 12 sports, up from 10 — six each for gender. A tenet of Division III membership is having a variety of athletic participation opportunities and “the legislation was adopted to really emphasize the importance of that philosophy,” said Dan Dutcher, the NCAA’s vice president for Division III.
Although the average Division III school has 16.5 varsity teams, as many as 35 colleges would have to add sports in order to meet the new minimum, Dutcher said. Most of the 35 have submitted plans showing “they’re well on the road to preparing for that increase.”
Pat Coleman, editor and publisher of the D3sports.com network based in Minneapolis, said just five Division III schools have dropped football since 1997, while an AP count found 24 Division III colleges that have either added it in the past decade or plan to soon.
“A school that starts football tends to bring out between 80 and 120 freshman for the first year. You have to look at the bottom line, in Division III, everybody’s paying tuition, they’re getting whatever they’re getting in financial aid, but the school isn’t giving scholarships,” Coleman said. “So that money goes to the bottom line.
“A lot of kids who play that first year don’t play all four years. Usually that graduating class that comes in at 120 ends up at about 20-25. But a lot of the kids stay at the school.”
LaGrange College in Georgia shows how the plan works.
The school decided to introduce football in 2006 to increase male enrollment. Although they were winless in their first two seasons, the Panthers finished 9-2 last season and were among the 32 teams that went to the division playoffs.
Along the way, they’ve brought in about 100 students each year, athletic director Phil Williamson said.
Offensive lineman Aaron Hill was even elected student body president last year. Hill originally intended to attend the U.S. Military Academy before a recruiting visit to LaGrange changed his mind.
“I’m a 5-11 offensive lineman. There’s not a big demand for me at places that give scholarships,” said Hill, a senior. “It was either go to a private school or don’t play at all.