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Yes to 49ers football -- with a $5M catch

For UNC Charlotte boosters and football fans, it's first down, $5 million to go.

That's after UNCC Chancellor Phil Dubois recommended Thursday the school field a football team by 2013, but with one lofty condition to measure support: Fans need to raise $5million in six months to help build a $45.3 million stadium complex. The clock would start running if trustees approve Dubois' proposal at their November meeting.

Dubois announced his decision to the school's 13 trustees, suggesting the $5 million be raised by selling 5,000 personal seat licenses – much like the ones the Carolina Panthers sold to build Bank of America Stadium.

The licenses – Dubois called them “Forty-Niner Seat Licenses” – would sell for $1,000 each, just for the right to buy season tickets.

“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 told trustees. “We need to see support demonstrated now.”

The trustees will vote on the recommendation at their Nov. 13 meeting. Until then, details on the seat licenses won't be worked out – though there will likely be a payment plan.

The trustees could decide to extend the six-month time frame, or whether the licenses can be transferred to family members.

In no time after Dubois' announcement, the school's fundraising athletic foundation and ticket office began fielding calls, e-mails and text messages from fans eager to commit to seat licenses. By 5:30 p.m., 125 people said they would buy a total of 331 licenses, said John George, assistant athletic director for ticket operations.

David Coble, UNCC class of 1999, was one. He committed to four licenses.

“This is a tremendous step forward for UNCC,” said Coble, a project manager for Bank of America. “When we were at UNCC the campus died on weekends, which was a real disconnect for school spirit.”

Less burden on students

The football issue has been debated for years at UNCC. Dubois has dealt with it for much of his three years as the school's fourth chancellor.

He told trustees he hadn't expected to tackle the matter so soon.

But as it persisted, he concluded that football needed to be considered in UNCC's strategic planning.

“This should be a question of where UNC Charlotte wants to be in 20 years after 2012,” he said.

His proposal departs in a few critical areas from the one made by a football feasibility committee in February.

To pay operating costs, Dubois puts less financial burden on students.

The committee recommended student fees increase by $300 per year, or $150 a semester, phased in over the next four years. Under Dubois' plan, students would pay $25 each semester in 2010, $50 a semester in 2011 and 2012, and $100 each semester in 2013, or $200 for the year, when the team would start playing.

The chancellor said he has heard concerns about fee increases from adult night students and graduate students.

“We have an obligation to help them get their college degrees,” he said.

Trustees Chair Ruth Shaw said the lower fees will be more palatable to board members. “The trustees want an assurance that student fees will be kept at a reasonable level,” said Shaw, who was unwilling to predict how trustees might vote in November.

She and Dubois stressed that starting a football program would not distract UNCC from its academic mission as an urban research university. The school is projected to enroll 35,000 students by 2020.

Building a fan base

Under Dubois' plan, a team would start playing in a Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division 1-AA) conference “for the foreseeable future.” UNCC would not try to elevate the program to the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division 1-A) by 2016, contrary to the feasibility committee's recommendation.

“You have to build a solid program with a solid fan base,” Dubois said. “If you want to move to Division 1-A by Day X, you'd never be admitted by a Division 1-AA conference because no one would want you.”

To comply with federal Title IX rules, UNCC would introduce three women's sports: Lacrosse in 2016, field hockey in 2019, and swimming or another sport in 2023.

Dubois and athletics director Judy Rose said they'd prefer an on-campus, expandable stadium, starting with 12,000 seats. The $43.5 million complex would include a sports building with offices for coaches, locker rooms and practice fields.

Rose said she's confident the stadium money can be raised. Her department would have to raise $10 million to $15 million through its athletic foundation. That would leave another $25 million that would have to come from outside, possibly through partnerships with corporations, or other agencies and fundraising drives.

“A stadium on campus … ties us to the community,” Rose said. Having alumni coming back to campus, she said, is “so much more enticing” than playing football at another site.

Costs and benefits

Based on research and his days as president of the University of Wyoming, Dubois said he doubts football would open a floodgate to private donations, or draw higher quality students. UNCC, he said, is a young school with few donors.

“There's nothing in our history or in our alumni profile that suggests that our coffers will be filled with gridiron gold,” he said.

But he said football would “enrich the student experience,” boost school spirit and create a stronger bond between students and school – a prime ingredient for boosting graduation rates.

It would also give the region “ownership” in UNCC.

“Like it or not, athletics have a lot to do with capturing the public's imagination about public institutions,” Dubois said. “It opens doors for research partnerships – for student internships. It gets the public to pay attention to … your academic enterprise.”

Dubois said his decision was the hardest he's had to make as a university head. The issue, he said, consumed 80 percent of his time the last six months.

Now it's up to Rose's department to make the team real.

“I've done my part,” he said. “I have other responsibilities, and I intend to get back to them.”

Many students and graduates praised Dubois for his “due diligence.” Brad McConnell, a 2002 graduate in civil engineering, marveled at his thoroughness.

“No one can say he jumped in without understanding the consequences,” said McConnell, who committed to two seat licenses. “We all know that the financial costs are huge, but Dubois understands that dividends you get in … school spirit and the way students and the community bond with the school will outweigh those costs in the long run.”

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