Starting football a daunting task for 49ers
By Mike Cranston
Associated PressCHARLOTTE ó The timing could hardly be worse for Charlotte to be leading a major fundraiser ó seeking to raise $20 million so the school can start a football program.
Unemployment is more than 11 percent in a city reliant on the financial industry. Numerous construction projects have stalled or been scrapped. Housing prices have plummeted and discretionary spending slashed.
Yet athletic director Judy Rose managed to smile Thursday as she discussed efforts to end Charlotte’s distinction of being one of the largest schools in the nation without football.
“I can’t say that I’ve had real good nights’ sleep since August, but I am optimistic,” Rose said. “We’ve got to get to the right folks, the right companies. It’s our job to sell this.”
So far the effort has come up woefully short. The initial deadline for selling 5,000 permanent seat licenses came with only 1,600 sold. It led chancellor Philip Dubois to tell the board of trustees the program start date of 2013 may be delayed.
The trustees will revisit the issue in September.
“It’s fairly risky to go ahead at this time if you don’t have to,” said Max Muhleman of Charlotte-based Private Sports Consulting. “This is an especially tough time. There’s no area that I’m aware of that’s seen increased spending or increased giving.”
Rose is undeterred. With the PSL deadline moved to October, the school of 22,000 students will soon begin a media blitz of print, television and billboard advertisements. City business heavyweights Johnny Harris and Mac Everett will host an event Monday night at Quail Hollow Club to try to round up volunteers to sell PSLs.
“I’m so competitive that I’m like, ‘We’re going to get this done,’ ” Rose said. “It’s going to happen because it needs to happen for this university. Is there a potential delay? I can’t say that there wouldn’t be.”
Already the grandiose plans have been cut back. When the trustees voted in November to begin football, it was contingent on raising $45 million, which would include building a 15,000-seat on-campus stadium. That would allow the program to begin in the NCAA’s lower-tier Football Championship Subdivision.
Since then Dubois told the board they may renovate the school’s track and field complex and bring in temporary bleachers to get the program started. That would reduce the initial expense to $20 million.
That may still prove to be unattainable. When the initial football plans were made, there were 5,600 PSL reservations pledging $1,000 each. Then the economy sank. Once the payments were due, fewer than a third wrote a check, leaving only 1,830 PSLs sold as of Thursday.
“Initially I was very disappointed,” Rose said. “But the realist in me said, you know what, the economy is totally different. Our world has changed so much. You look at the unemployment rates. I know in my heart the people that signed up want football for Charlotte.”
Being without football has been a long-running debate at the school, best known for the Cedric Maxwell-led run to the 1977 Final Four. Since then Charlotte has bounced around four leagues, moving in 2005 from Conference USA to the Atlantic 10, a non-football league including mostly Northeastern schools.
“Each year we delay there could be missed opportunities,” Rose said in debunking calls to scrap the football plans until the economy rebounds. “I’ll throw this out: Would we be in the Big East, like South Florida, if we started football when South Florida did?”
The South Florida model is what Charlotte hopes to follow. It would include a short stay in the FCS before moving to the top-tier Football Bowl Subdivision.
Charlotte is now a long way from that.
“The payoff is being in your seat in a football stadium that nobody knows what it’s going to look like and playing at a level nobody can really relate to yet,” Muhleman, the sports consultant, said. “Is it more like being Wofford? It’s certainly not like being Notre Dame.”
Rose recently told her coaches they have to cut their budgets by five percent because of sluggish donations and fundraising. Now she’s trying to coax donors who have never given to the school to buy $10 million in football PSLs, which will include more flexible payment plans.