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Fowler: Finances play defense against football bid

A program would be great, but if alumni want it, they'll have to pay

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Now comes the hard part.

UNC Charlotte Chancellor Phil Dubois recommended to the college's board of trustees Thursday morning that the school establish a football program starting in 2013 in the college division formerly known as I-AA.

But Thursday's recommendation was not an ending for the long-running “Will there be football?” saga at Charlotte.

It's only the beginning.

I want football at UNC Charlotte. But even after this, I'm not certain it will ever happen.

The financial hurdles– assuming the Dubois plan is accepted in mid-November when the trustees vote on it – are extremely high.

“The cold, stark financial reality we face is that those who say they want football are going to have to help pay for football,” Dubois said in his speech to the trustees.

And that's even after Dubois tamped down significantly the recommendations from the Football Feasibility Committee, which had advocated UNCC starting football a year earlier (in 2012) and trying to enter Division I-A by 2016. Dubois instead believes that UNCC should stay in Division I-AA a lot longer than 2016 and will give no timetable for a move to college football's highest division, believing that to be a decision for a future chancellor.

This announcement comes in the midst of such a stormy economic climate that it's quite possible either the Dubois plan will have to undergo another major alteration (like retro-fitting a current stadium for football instead of building a new one) for college football ever to come to UNC Charlotte.

I can imagine what Saturday afternoons would feel like there in the on-campus stadium Dubois wants to build, which would have a modest 12,000 seats, expandable to 20,000 (I'd make it expandable to 30,000 myself).

What I can't imagine is where the money will come from. Dubois isn't sure, either. Even with the permanent-seat licenses he wants to sell for $1,000 apiece and a whole lot of giving from the school's traditional donor base, Dubois's budget for a $45 million stadium and support facilities comes up at least $25 million short.

Where does that money come from?

“Who knows?” Dubois said in an interview with The Observer. “Certainly as I go around the community, I hear a lot of people say, ‘Boy, wouldn't that be great [to have a football team at Charlotte]. Now, whether that translates into real money is anybody's guess.”

Dubois called the $25 million gap a “black hole” in that interview. And given the dire front-page news lately, it's hard to believe a lot of corporations will line up to fill that black hole.

You have to hand it to Dubois for his due diligence on the issue, though – and his cleverness. He has pacified the many folks who want football.

And if it still doesn't work because Charlotte's athletic department can't raise enough money for it, Dubois can't be blamed, either. The community and the economy will instead take that PR hit.

Although he is more of a basketball fan at heart, I truly believe Dubois wants football at his school, in part to help it capture the imagination of the Charlotte region. He expressed the concept of “ownership” of an athletic program quite eloquently in his speech to the trustees. As Dubois told them: “Appalalachian State knocks off Michigan and everyone in North Carolina owns App State. Davidson advances in the NCAA tournament and Davidson is North Carolina's team. But when has Charlotte really ‘owned' UNC Charlotte? Be truthful, and you'll probably admit it was our run to the 1977 Final Four.”

The Dubois plan isn't perfect for anyone. For the football junkies, Dubois's idea to stay in Division I-AA well past 2016 won't sit well.

For the students who don't care a bit about football, the increase in student fees (although a good deal smaller than what was originally recommended) will be a burden. For those who believe UNC Charlotte should stay football-free, the whole thing will sound like a waste of money.

What do I think?

I think Charlotte should field a college football team and that this is a sound plan.

But like you, I'm not about to write a $25 million check to make it happen.

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140; sfowler@charlotteobserver.com.

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