We wonder about it every autumn Saturday afternoon. It is a question we all want answered. We are all dying to know. Why does George Mason University not have an NCAA Division I football team?
“Football must fit strategically within the vision of the university,” said Tom O’Connor, director of athletics and assistant vice president at Mason.
For years, the university has wrestled with the desire to start a football program.
For years, most of the factors informing the decision of whether or not to start a team can be attributed to cost. That remains the case today, and as the landscape of college athletics continues to change, so do those costs.
“Cost is the biggest issue,” O’Connor said. “It is very costly to be successful in a spectator sport like football.”
The university’s 2010 estimate of the potential expenses associated with a football program included operating costs, the cost of additional women’s sports programs, potential conference movement and the cost of a stadium.
Where Do We Play?
If Mason does decide to start a football program, the greatest cost factor will arise from the conference and division the team would play in.
Division I college football is split up into two subdivisions: the Football Championship Subdivision, formerly known as Division I-AA, and the Football Bowl Subdivision, formerly known as Division I-A, which is the top level of college football.
If the team were to play in the FCS, it would presumably join the CAA, which is where all of the other Mason sports compete.
But if Mason were to immediately jump into the FBS, it would have to move into a larger conference, such as the Big East.
There is a dramatic difference in the costs of playing in the FCS and FBS.
According to the 2010 estimate, the total annual costs that the university would incur playing in the FCS was estimated at $12,367,167 versus $30,048,700 playing in the FBS.
Title IX and Gender Equity
If Mason adds a football program in either division, the university would have to either cut an existing men’s team or add more women’s teams to be in compliance with Title IX.
The university would elect to add women’s field hockey and golf.
The university would also have to add scholarships to existing women’s programs.
The additional costs of the new and existing women’s programs were included in the total annual costs estimate.
Construction costs for a football program’s facilities and stadium must also be considered. George Mason Stadium cannot accommodate a Division I football game.
The university would have to build a new stadium and additional facilities.
“We would do it like we do everything else at this university, and that is first class,” O’Connor said.
The size, design and cost of a new stadium would be heavily dependent on which league the team chooses to play in.
In order to accommodate an FCS football program, the university would require 25 to 35 acres of land for a 15,000-seat stadium, with parking and additional facilities that would cost approximately $64 million.
For an FBS program, Mason would build a 40,000-seat stadium with parking and facilities on 45 to 55 acres of land at a cost of approximately $170 million.
During past considerations of a football program, the university marked the Recreation and Athletic Complex (RAC) and West campus as potential locations for a stadium.
Today, no potential locations have been decided on.
Rumors Surrounding football
A number of rumors have arisen with all of the speculation surrounding a Patriot football program.
One rumor has it that concerns about tailgating were a primary reason for not starting a program.
“Tailgating is not much of a problem or concern. It’s something you manage,” O’Connor said. “We’ve done a pretty good job managing it with Homecoming basketball games.”
Another rumor that has circulated around campus is that the Washington Redskins offered to help finance the construction of a stadium, provided that they would be able to use it to host their off-season training camp.
According to O’Connor, those rumors are completely false.
He added that the Redskins only inquired about using the current Mason facilities for their training camp, but the team decided against it because of limited space.
Benefits of Football
Although football is a costly endeavor, the addition of a program could benefit Mason immensely.
A football program could raise school spirit, as well as build a stronger sense of community on- and off-campus.
A football program would provide students a richer college experience and also encourage alumni to return to the university.
A Division I football team would garner greater media attention, which would raise the profile of the university as well as its other athletic programs. The attractiveness of a football program would also have a positive impact on enrollment.
“I would love to have a football team for all those reasons,” O’Connor said.
O’Connor added that the decision could not be based on emotional factors.
“I have an obligation to do what’s best for the university. It cannot be an emotional decision,” he said.
Potential for the Future
Football is not in Mason’s plans for the near future. According to O’Connor, football must fit into the serious priorities of the university.
The process of gaining approval to start a program requires the administration to submit a proposal to the university Board of Visitors, which would vote for or against it.
The BOV has voted against a football program in the past.
Football is a sport that requires a variety of components to be successful and all of those components would have to be in place in order for the university to sign off on a team.
“If we do it, we have to do it right,” O’Connor said.
Asked if the university fears the risk of failure, O’Connor said, “We wouldn’t go into it with that mindset. We would have to be successful.”
Incoming university president Angel Cabrera recently said that he would support the acquisition of a football team if the university is able to afford it.
Of course, financing such a program is no simple task and would require aggressive fundraising, outside donations and additional student fees.
The university estimated in 2010 that student fees required to help fund a football program would amount to $515 per student for an FCS program and $1,252 for an FBS program.
If the administration were to submit a formal proposal to the BOV, it would first have to conduct a feasibility report that would explore both the potential costs and revenues of a football program.
The university has yet to conduct a study on revenue potential, but one thing to note is that there are very few Division I FBS athletic programs that actually turn a profit.
According to a 2010 NCAA report, only 14 of the 120 schools competing in the FBS profited from their athletics programs.
O’Connor said it would take four to four and half years from the BOV’s approval of a football program before the school would see a team on the field.
The school would need time to find coaches, fundraise, recruit and build necessary facilities.
Whether or not an NCAA Division I football team is in Mason’s future remains to be seen.
But it is clear that such a program would be a costly endeavor, and if it were to happen, the university would go all in with the intention of being the best.