The Charlotte 49ers are in the middle of a process that is nearly unprecedented in intercollegiate athletics: After fielding a football team for a first time in 2013, they are now one year away from playing in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision.
Only Texas-San Antonio has made the zero-to-FBS jump quicker than the 49ers (the Roadrunners started as Football Championship Subdivision independents in 2011 before moving up the following year).
It was a good move for UTSA, which has had winning records in both of its FBS seasons and averaged 29,214 fans for its home games in the Alamodome in 2013.
The 49ers, with their inaugural season in the books and another looming with an opener Thursday at Campbell, are set to join UTSA in Conference USA in 2015 (the rest of the 49ers’ teams joined the league in 2013).
Is Charlotte on schedule to make the move up into the world of big-time college football? The Observer looks at several key facets of the 49ers’ preparation:
There’s nothing too complicated about the inexact science of recruiting: Charlotte, which is playing this season as an FCS independent, needs bigger and faster players to compete in Conference USA.
As the 49ers went primarily after FCS-caliber players in their first two recruiting classes, they’re pursuing higher-quality recruits now. “Every step you take, whether it’s (FCS) to (FBS) or to the NFL, the game is faster and you’ve got to continue on that track,” said coach Brad Lambert. “That’s the thing, along with size. On the defensive and offensive fronts, you’ve got to find guys who can move.”
Entering Conference USA means the 49ers had to expand and deepen their recruiting territory. Charlotte targeted the Carolinas, Virginia and Georgia as its prime recruiting areas for their initial classes and are now placing more emphasis on south Florida.
As was the case in Charlotte’s previous two recruiting classes, most of the 15 players who have committed to the 49ers from the Class of 2015 are two-star recruits, according to Rivals.com. Two of them – defensive back Nafees Lyon of Mallard Creek and defensive tackle T.J. Smith of North Stanly – are three-star prospects.
That puts Charlotte in line with most Conference USA teams, including Rice (two three-star players) and Marshall (three), who played in last season’s league championship game, as well as Florida International (four), which won just two games in 2013.
The 49ers had 55 players on scholarship in 2013 and are up to 75 this season. They will be at the FBS maximum of 85 in 2015.
“We’ve still got to service each position and get to 85 (scholarships) by 2015,” said 49ers recruiting coordinator Phil Ratliff. “We’ve had to be more selective and we’ve done that. This league focuses on length in defense and speed on offense. So, it’s going well, we’re pleased with it.”
Charlotte recruits in and around the Carolinas against programs that will soon become FBS peers, such as Appalachian State, East Carolina and Marshall.
The 49ers have managed to get players who might have gone to teams in BCS leagues. Freshman quarterback Brooks Barden had interest from Louisville; freshman receiver T.L. Ford originally committed to Kansas State before switching to Charlotte.
The 49ers’ average home attendance last season in 15,314-seat Richardson Stadium was 15,541, 11th highest in FCS. FBS requires an average of 15,000 per game over a rolling two-year period (actual or paid).
There might be some danger signs for Charlotte, however. Two of the 49ers’ final three home games drew fewer than 15,000. That could have been attributed to the number (7,500) of tickets allotted to students who elected not to attend those games (one during fall break against Gardner-Webb).
Although permanent-seat licenses (which guarantee season tickets in the same seats each year) were renewed at a 98-percent rate, athletics director Judy Rose said season ticket sales this season are about 60 percent of 2013.
Rose said the student allotment will remain about the same. But if students don’t claim their tickets, they’ll be made available to the general public.
“We want to get the message out that we’re not sold out for every game,” she said.
Adding 85 football scholarships means the 49ers’ athletic department must increase its number of women’s sports to satisfy federal Title IX requirements.
The first new sport will be women’s golf, which will begin in 2017. Other possibilities are sand volleyball and swimming. Rose said there is no hard deadline for the new sports to be added, but the school must show that it is working toward that goal over a 10-year period.
Charlotte’s football facilities – which include Richardson Stadium, the Rose Football Center and two practice fields – will rival and surpass most other Conference USA programs.
That, of course, is largely because everything Charlotte has to offer is essentially brand new and state of art: from a 7,075-square foot weight room (called a “strength training suite” in the program’s media guide) to an academic center that includes a computer lab with 30 flat-screen monitors.
Lights will be added to the stadium before the 2015 season (the first game under the lights will be Charlotte’s spring game, with a 6 p.m. start on April 18). The stadium can be expanded incrementally to 40,000 seats, but Rose has said she wants to wait to see how attendance goes in these first few seasons before making that decision.
“I’m looking at supply and demand,” Rose said. “If we need to expand, we will.”
Until then, Richardson Stadium will be the smallest in FBS.
Rose said the 49ers’ football program spent $4.4 million in 2013 while bringing in $5.8 million, mostly on ticket sales, parking and sponsorships.
Both those numbers figure to increase substantially moving forward. Expenses will go up with more scholarships, travel and the addition of a marching band in 2015; revenue will increase with the help of a C-USA television package worth about $1.8 million to each school.
“Factoring everything in, it’s going to be tough for us to think about making money on football,” said Rose. “But we can make it manageable.”
Rose said the move to Conference USA keeps the athletics department staff busy with matters big and small, including:
• While Charlotte will be eligible for the C-USA championship in 2015, the 49ers aren’t eligible for a bowl until 2016. To that end, Rose’s staff is putting together a bowl policy, which includes issues such as ticket and travel.
• Figuring out the logistics of a hosting a Thursday or Friday night game, a staple of the C-USA television package.
“We’ve talked to some schools who have even canceled classes for that,” said Rose. “That’s not something we’d ever do.”