The Bobcats’ Game Changer
Bill Peterson | On 01, Sep 2012
Texas State football is finally moving up to the college big leagues this fall. The program, the fans, and the university will never be the same.
by BILL PETERSON
Now Texas State has big-time college football and, in the larger scheme of things, it’s an invitation to wider acceptance and acclaim for the university. So, hurrah for all that. The academic business is all about prestige because prestige connects the university with money, and, especially in Texas, institutional prestige is tied somehow to college football.
Questions for Dr. Larry Teis, Texas State University athletic director:
Will the expansion and renovation of Bobcat Stadium be finished in time for the home opener against Texas Tech?
We’ll easily be ready to play a game on Sept. 8. It’s exciting. Students will get a chance to walk over to the stadium, and they’ll be tailgating all day. We’re going to have live bands out here. It’s just going to be a great feel for everybody. It’ll be like the playoff games in ’05, when we had a packed house, but it will be with twice as many people.
You’ve sold about 6,500 season tickets so far, more than twice last year’s total. Who are these people?
People are buying season tickets from Houston and San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, which is good because we can’t do it alone in San Marcos. People are coming out of the woodwork. Usually when somebody buys something and I don’t recognize the name, we’ll pull up the donor history, and we have a lot [of new season ticket holders] who have never given a penny to Texas State, and some of them graduated 30 or 35 years ago. So this just shows you that we’re bringing back a new group of people.
Why is moving up in football important for all of Texas State?
You want to be with your peers, and now we’re an emerging research institution, and we’re probably No. 30 in the nation in terms of size. Academically we’re strong, so athletically we need to be strong and give something for our fans and our alums to come back and be proud of. If you go back and look at major research institutions, almost every one of them plays FBS football. So it’s kind of a parallel. I tell people this is not an athletic department move, this is a university move.
The growing university might set itself up for a fall with this entertainment venture, but only a moral catastrophe would leave it worse off than where it started, which was as a large Texas university without a football team trying to compete in a football-mad culture of universities, alumni and legislatures. Here’s the bad news: college football and moral catastrophe are well acquainted. Some say that college football is moral catastrophe, a joke that universities tell against their own high ideals. They say college football is to the university as the tail that wags the dog, forcing academic compromises that diminish the spirit of inquiry, merely to entertain multitudes while enriching the coaches and athletic directors. They’re not wrong.
Others, stating the dissenting viewpoint, aren’t wrong, either. They say things like, “Hook ‘em!” or “Gig ‘em!” It’s a mouthful, and it goes straight to the bond that happens with universities and their football teams. In a broad sense, you almost don’t have a university without one. (Example: the writer, a University of Minnesota alumnus, watches the Gophers every Saturday, no matter how bad they are. They’re my guys!)
The logic and history of growing universities suggest that Texas State, the fifth-largest university in Texas at 35,000 students, is at least due for this development. Perhaps, also, the cost of not making this move is even greater, depending on whether one supports the agenda for growth in the university’s 2006 master plan.
The nuances of college football as a recruitment and development tool for the American university can hardly be overstated. Big-time college football was born of universities embracing the spectacle as a facet of “campus life,” which markets to youths who might not be drawn to education. Football has succeeded to such a mighty extent that universities with successful football programs are in permanent danger of being beholden to them. That’s what happened just now at Penn State. It happened across Texas in the 1980s, leaving everybody damaged, though not really for very long. That’s because, as it so goes without saying, football is king in Texas.
With Texas State and Texas-San Antonio (UTSA) entering the bowl level this year, Texas has an extraordinary number of universities — 11 now — playing big-time college football, one of the greatest shows on Earth. Many Texans who never set foot inside a university classroom develop deep emotional attachments to these university football teams. How should Texas State advance among the elite Texas universities without that avenue for top-of-mind name recognition across the general public?
Every Saturday during the fall, the college football teams line up to play, and the alums of their universities and the fans of their teams — be they in the corridors of power or elsewhere — tweak each other with wagers, put-downs, memories, a lot of it in good fun, though deadly serious at times. It’s a folkway, a very commonly walked folkway in Texas, and how is Texas State supposed to enter that folkway and be on that par with the other big universities when it doesn’t even have a team, in the relevant sense?
The university is avowedly on a mission. That mission is to grow. In 2006, the university approved a master plan with $633 million of construction, including an $83 million performing arts center, an $82 million engineering and sciences building, and $17.2 million (now $33 million) in improvements to Bobcat Stadium as part of a bid to launch a big-time football program. The master plan illustrates the university’s belief that explosive population growth in Texas amounts to a call for another research university in the state. And part of becoming that university is big-time football.
Why should that be so? What does football have to do with academic research? It makes little sense, perhaps, but the numbers through the years show, as do anecdotal accounts from university administrators, that successful college football teams draw the attention of relevant audiences and increase funding for the university.
Consider the following, from the abstract of a 2003 paper by University of Maryland-Baltimore County economist Brad R. Humphreys. According to Humphreys, data collected for 570 baccalaureate-level or higher institutions from 1976-1996 “shows that schools with Division I-A football programs receive about 6% more in state appropriations than schools that do not field a Division I-A football team. Institutions with successful football teams receive 3% to 8% increases in state appropriations the following year. Defeating an in-state rival in a prominent football game is also associated with an increased level of appropriation in the following year.
These results suggest that the total economic benefit associated with big-time athletic programs may be larger than previously thought.”
The paper considers just the impact of football on general fund appropriations from state legislatures, where universities, their alumni and their fans, in whatever positions or alliances, exert pressure for billions in public money. And how is Texas State supposed to be in that game when it doesn’t even have a team to play in it?
About 15 years ago, when Southwest Texas State was still basically a teacher’s college with 15,000 students and one doctoral program, San Marcos all but shut down in the summer. Now that the San Marcos campus of Texas State enrolls 35,000 students and runs 12 doctoral programs, summer school is about as crowded as October used to be.
Now, October is really crowded, though, and that’s football season. And the fifth-largest university in Texas is a non-entity on those Saturdays when the names of the universities are most often spoken among the big hitters and common people. That’s why, on Nov. 10, 2010, Texas State President Denise Trauth said that the university is growing, and the football team needs to be a part of that growth. On that day, Texas State joined the Western Athletic Conference, thus entering the major leagues of college football. Staying there is another matter, and it certainly has been.
Has the university set itself up for a fall? Not if you believe the university’s marketing, because the university calls itself “The Rising Star of Texas,” and a rising star certainly can’t be setting up for a fall, because it’s a rising star, not a falling star. But what would a fall look like, anyway?
As an economic proposition, as a matter of putting the university in some financial risk for such an expensive endeavor, the students are taking a lot of that off the table. Simply, the students are paying for it and, at this point, they are paying cheerfully. With 80 percent approval in a 2008 vote, the students earmarked a $5 million annual subsidy in student fees for the athletic department, understanding that it amounts to a $5 million annual subsidy for a football team. The football team certainly wasn’t going to raise this money on its own.
In 2006, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Education, Texas State spent $2.3 million on its Division 1-AA football team, which, being 1-AA, generated only $640,000 in revenues. With a $5 million stream of fresh annual funding for football, Texas State can easily run a football budget to compete in the WAC, where it will play this year, and the Sun Belt, to which it will move next season.
Behold these figures, which show the education department figures for football expenditures and revenues at the Sun Belt universities and Texas State in 2010:
A $5 million annual bump from the students gives the university a nice leg up on the college football competition. It’s basically a license to operate $5 million in the red every year. If the Bobcats could just generate some piddling amount of football revenue, say $2.5 million, and put that with their $5 million subsidy, they would have the biggest budget in the league. In 2010, according to the education department’s figures, the average Big 12 program spent $16.3 million on football. If Texas State could just generate $11 million in football revenues, about the level of a good Conference-USA program, then it could at least spend with the average Big 12 program.
So much about this could go so right. The resources are in place to win. You’re located in Texas, recruiting the most fertile ground in America, and you’re joining a conference, the Sun Belt, where you are the only Texas team. Texas State has the budgetary capacity and the local talent to succeed. Imagine how San Marcos will play with recruits now that it is in play for bowl-level football. A lot of recruiting is about whether the place you’re taking the kid to is better than the place you’re taking him from. San Marcos will win that decision with a lot of recruits, and it’s also going to win in comparison with some of the other cities where a Texas kid might take up college football. This almost can’t fail.
But it still could. Worst case scenario: the team lays an egg year after year, making the university a laughing stock in the conversations where it wished to be mentioned. Students who are paying $10 per credit hour for a bad football team will ask, “Why are we spending $5 million per year to be known as losers when we could be complete unknowns for free?” As the pressure to win mounts, maybe a little rule gets broken here and there, then bigger rules are broken and the NCAA comes to town with its gumshoes. Suddenly, the university has an embarrassment on its hands, a public relations crisis, maybe even sanctions from the NCAA. Now you’re a university that lost control of your football program. Frowned upon. For $5 million per year in student fees.
Nobody wishes for any of this, of course, but it points to a very new state of reality concerning football at Texas State. There’s pressure to win. The game is way bigger now. That’s not just Texas State playing against, say, Texas Tech. It’s the State alumni versus the Tech alumni. It’s the State pressure groups against the Tech pressure groups. So, at least be respectable, then win in its turn. No one expects the Bobcats to win a conference championship in the first couple years, but if they’re struggling in the Sun Belt for too long, then that will become their reputation.
One imagines what the groaning might sound like in 2016 if the Bobcats are struggling in the Sun Belt against the likes of Troy and Louisiana-Monroe, names that are way too evocative of the Southland Conference. It’s not going to seem very much like progress.
And that raises the first living question around Texas State’s debut in big-time college football: Can Texas State gather momentum and become the best football program in the Sun Belt Conference quickly enough to whistle past the league’s identity crisis and be optimally positioned four or five years down the road, when the conference television contracts come back up and another scramble begins? If so, then Texas State can move up quickly. But it will take more than winning.
Just now, we’ve seen UTSA go from nothing to Conference-USA simply because it has a little bit of a television market and a demonstrated average home attendance of 35,000 (though promotionally aided). The situation is that fluid. We’ve already seen Texas State anticipate college football’s convulsions, jumping from the WAC to the Sun Belt before the other WAC jumpers could finish their paperwork.
Now, Texas State has to demonstrate that it brings more to the table than market potential, if it is to improve its position with the next round of television contracts. Can Texas State mobilize its alumni and fans as a reliable ticket-buying force? At the end of July, the Bobcats had sold fewer than 6,000 season tickets.
It has never been demonstrated that Texas State can draw in the numbers needed to succeed as a big-time college football program. Then again, it has never been tested. Last year, the Bobcats regularly put 15,000 fans into their 18,000-seat stadium. Now, Bobcat Stadium is up to 30,000 seats.
We’ll learn soon enough how well the move to bowl level, by itself, motivates ticket sales. Single-game tickets went on sale to the general public on Aug. 15, though donors have been able to purchase them since Aug. 1.
The Bobcats have a tasty schedule by which to build a following, both in San Marcos and around Texas. In addition to six homes games, they play in Houston and San Antonio. They should play all around Texas, home-and-home, of course. Then again, if they’re invited just to drop in on the Longhorns or Aggies some September afternoon, maybe lay some wood to ’em and cart home a nice check, take that, too.
We’re starting to daydream a bit, and that’s all in play, but none of it can be realized unless the team wins. No one thinks that’s happening right away. The Bobcats start on Sept. 1 at Houston, then open their improved home stadium on Sept. 8 against Texas Tech. Houston and Tech both were among the “others receiving votes” in the preseason USA Today poll. By the time they reach Nov. 24, when they go to the Alamodome against UTSA, the Bobcats are likely to be 1-9. That’s what rivalry games are for. Even at 1-9, that first game against UTSA will be a kick.
If the Bobcats win two games in 2012, they will max out the most reasonable expectations. The grim prognosis for 2012 illustrates the bad-case scenario going forward. But it’s still not so bad, is it? You’re in the game.