Today feels like the fourth quarter, but it's not. There's a lot of time left on the clock.
UNCC's board of trustees is expected to officially bless a plan to start a gridiron program at North Carolina's fourth largest university. This effort has been a long one for the 49ers – years in the making – and the temptation for supporters of 49er football will be to think of today's step (if it goes as expected) as the goal line.
Yet hold the cheers. The most critical part of making a football program a reality – and making it an asset, not a liability to a young campus – is still ahead.
Big mistake or big pay-off?
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This can be a defining moment in the life of a public university that urgently needs three things to reach its potential: money, an identity and a campus atmosphere that's more like, well, a university campus.
Football will help with the campus atmosphere. In the long run it can help with identity.
But the money … that's a different question. This is either a terrible mistake or a bold step that will pay off big. How things happen from here on will determine everything.
A high threshold
When Chancellor Phil Dubois called for a football program to suit up by 2013, he set a high threshold. He recommended supporters first raise $5 million in six months to help pay for a $45.3 million stadium. He also recommended a proposed hike in student athletic fees to pay for football be cut by one-third and phased in gradually to keep that fee more in line with what students at other North Carolina universities pay, and what UNCC's peers nationwide pay.
Those are sound conditions.
To start the fund-raising, Dubois suggested selling 5,000 personal seat licenses for $1,000 each, just for the right to buy tickets.
The 49ers have received reservations for 4,010 seat licenses. That translates to a projected $4 million worth of support for football since Dubois' recommendation in September.
No money has been accepted by the ticket office. The actual sale won't begin until the trustees' final vote. Yet some 4,000 reservations, if they all pan out, represent 80 percent of Dubois' goal.
That's impressive. But the next step is the real test: Where will the rest of the money come from?
Who will raise it? Who will pledge it? Will football fund-raising divert vital private financial support away from academics?
UNCC is a young university with almost limitless potential. It aspires to be a doctoral research university and it serves the state's most populous region. It is forecast to grow at a rate that surpasses most of the state's 15 other campuses during the next decade.
Yet while the numbers and wealth of alumni are growing, UNCC's fund-raising prowess has limits. Football should not be allowed to suck desperately needed private dollars from scholarships, faculty stipends and program support.
The right gesture would be to undertake an equally ambitious financial campaign for academic programs alongside the football campaign.
Now, game on
The point? This is not a done deal until the cash is on the table.
The trustees' expected vote today in favor of football is just a start. It is an opportunity, an opening – nothing more. And there's a lot to lose.
This is not game over. This is game on.