How Do You Start A College Football Program?

School of Business class examines the risks, rewards and challenges of launching the sport.

Mark Hyman's Issues in Sport and Event Management class tackles a topic at the intersection of sports and business: the risks, rewards and challenges with restoring or launching a college football program. (Flickr Creative Commons/Brian Neudorff)
February 25, 2015

By James Irwin

Mark Hyman wants you to know that football isn’t coming back to the George Washington University. Not now, and likely not ever.

“There are obstacles that would make it highly problematic,” said Mr. Hyman, an assistant teaching professor in GW’s School of Business. “There are very few private, urban institutions playing highly competitive, major college football. Football is not returning.”

With that caveat in place, Mr. Hyman invites you to imagine what it would take to restore GW football. The semester-long research project of his Issues in Sport and Event Management class is an academic exercise at the intersection of college sports and business. Using GW as the setting, 20 students, broken into small groups and assigned issue areas—fundraising, history, applications for enrollment, health and expenses—are working to build a comprehensive view of the risks, rewards and challenges associated with restoring or launching a college football program.

Dick Duenkel was captain of the 1963 GW football team. The Colonials, he said, practiced on a patch of grass in between Memorial Bridge and Washington National Airport, near the present-day site of Lady Bird Johnson Park. (William Atkins/GW Today)

GW football, founded in 1881, was disbanded following the 1966 season due to lack of fan support and high expenses. The premise of the assignment, Mr. Hyman said, is that the program would come back as it went out, as a Division I-A—now Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS)—program. Economics is the cornerstone issue. FBS programs can award up to as many as 85 full scholarships. In addition to the expense, that also means the university would have to add an equivalent amount of scholarships for women’s sports or cut men’s teams to come into Title IX compliance. Travel for road games and salaries for large coaching staffs are huge line items. There’s also the issue of where to play.

“GW would have a lot of things going against it. There’s no place to put a stadium,” said Michael Martenak, a senior in the School of Business and the sports director of Internet radio station WRGW. He has drawn the assignment of arguing the cost efficiency of college football. It’s a tall order. According to the NCAA’s annual revenues and expenses report, only 20 out of 120 FBS athletics programs reported positive net revenues for the 2013 fiscal year.

“Not many programs make money,” Mr. Martenak said. “You learn very quickly that there are many topics to take into consideration. Here, we get to become well versed in our topic and piece together how it overlaps with others.”

There’s a practical element to the course that could come in handy one day for an aspiring athletics director or university CFO. College football is constantly shifting. The University of North Carolina-Charlotte launched its football program in 2013 and will transition into FBS this fall. The University of Alabama at Birmingham cancelled its program at the end of last season due to rising operating costs.

“When schools make the decision to go big-time it’s with the expectation that revenue will grow,” Mr. Hyman said. “How can you make that leap? How difficult is it to make money? Is there a cause-and-effect link between playing football well and fundraising? Are applications to the school influenced by the football team? We get to talk about all these variables.”

Mr. Duenkel, a member of the GW Athletic Hall of Fame, shared stories about his college experience and brought equipment from his playing days. (William Atkins/GW Today)

The course isn’t designed to investigate the history of GW football, he said. Still, it provides an opportunity to explore the past. In late February, Dick Duenkel, a GW Athletic Hall of Famer and captain of the 1963 football team, gave a presentation about the program in the 1960s. In a conversation that touched on the games, the city and campus life, Mr. Duenkel also provided anecdotes from his playing days

Athletes played offense and defense, he said. The biggest player on the team weighed 235 pounds, tiny compared to today’s 300-pound linemen. Student-athletes lived in Welling Hall, on 22nd Street Northwest—the current site of Science and Engineering Hall. And on Oct. 27, 1962, GW played Army at D.C. Stadium (now Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium) the day World War III nearly began. At noon, an American U-2 aircraft flying a reconnaissance mission over Cuba was struck by a surface-to-air missile, bringing the Cuban Missile Crisis to a boil.

“They announced at halftime that anybody who works at the Pentagon and had this level and above, please report to your desk,” Mr. Duenkel said. “The stadium basically emptied out.”

The shared history, Mr. Hyman and Mr. Martenak said, adds a connection for students in the class, even if they are two generations removed from the last GW football game.

“It does seem personal to them,” Mr. Hyman said. “Again, this is not going to happen—it isn’t real. But it’s real to us for 14 weeks.”