Trustees of UNC Charlotte have chosen an ambitious but risky path by pursuing football. Energy, focus or financial support must not be diverted from academics at this stage of the campus's life. That puts all but overwhelming pressure on supporters of a young but promising public university.
If this initiative is to be a success and not a liability, UNCC's leadership must stick strictly with these conditions: Insist on a modest football program, insulate students from cost and be prepared to say “game over” if private funds don't measure up.
Thursday UNCC's trustees voted to add a football program at the 23,000-student school by 2013, so long as boosters and fans raise $5 million in the next six months to help build a $45.3 million stadium complex. That decision ended years of debate about whether North Carolina's fourth largest university should field a gridiron team.
This decision is as much about identity as it is about sports. UNCC can move no further on its journey to maturity without a defined identity in Charlotte-Mecklenburg and North Carolina. A successful football program could help.
Yet the financial pitfalls outweigh the advantages. The cost of football is sobering. It can be a black hole into which donor money constantly drains. While the wealth and numbers of alumni are growing, UNCC's fund-raising muscle has limits. And developing universities urgently need outside financial support for scholarships, faculty endowments and programs.
A modest program such as Chancellor Phil Dubois has suggested has the best chance of doing the least harm. Yet this next step – the action phase – must be navigated under the right conditions.
UNCC leaders must not perpetuate the myth that football is a money-maker for a university. State appropriations don't support athletics, but student fees do. The record on that is clear: The overwhelming majority of football programs operate in the red without generous funding from mandatory student fees.
Students should not pay the majority of what football costs. UNCC should spike football if it means its mandatory student athletic fee is out of line with peer universities in the state and nation.
The Charlotte region should embrace UNCC football and support it. But UNCC must pull the plug on this effort if private fund-raising does not far surpass the modest goal for seat license sales – quickly.