Gridiron Fever

FIU administrators think spending millions on a football program will do wonders for their school, and they'll sideline anyone who disagrees

Lee sent the e-mail from the computer he uses in his cubicle-size office on the University Park Campus. A satellite photo of the state of Florida hangs on his wall, and a Dilbert cartoon is pinned to his bulletin board. He sports a thick yellow beard and bushy eyebrows. Academic walks through Fairchild Tropical Garden have tinted his skin to match the pink seersucker shirt he wears with khaki pants and sneakers. He has taught at FIU for nineteen years. And he loves sports.

"I sat on the athletic council," Lee explains. "I chaired the committee that hired Shakey [Rodriguez] to be our men's basketball coach. I attend softball games and baseball games, and I often ask my students why they don't attend more games themselves."

Lee believes that spending millions of dollars on football will deprive other sports teams and academic programs of their share of limited resources. Football also places an unfair burden on students, who shell out almost a million dollars every year to pay for it, especially at a public university where many must save their pennies to make ends meet. "I know how students can struggle," Lee says. "I know the students who say, 'This textbook is too expensive so I'm just going to do without it this semester.'"

Lee argues that football can't thrive at FIU for one simple reason: Nobody will want to watch it, at least not when the Dolphins, Canes, and possibly even the Arena-league Florida Bobcats are playing a better-quality game. Not with competition for the recreational dollar coming from the Panthers, Heat, Marlins, Fusion, and a new WNBA team, not to mention the beach, malls, nightclubs, and the rest of South Florida's many attractions. "We don't have the kind of market you need for a team," Lee contends. "Fans are not going to be breaking down the doors to get in. We have to find these people somewhere."

Just consider the direct competition. The University of Miami is an enduring power, the winner of three national championships in the past fifteen years. Last season was the Hurricanes' best yet under coach Butch Davis, a team that featured Edgerrin James, the first running back selected in the National Football League draft. The last game of the season the Hurricanes played UCLA, the number-one team in the nation. But the Orange Bowl didn't come close to selling out.

As evidence there's room for more football in South Florida, FIU rounded up more consultants and asked them to conduct a phone survey of 300 alums and 200 students. The survey by Schroth & Associates found that 34 percent of alumni and students would "definitely" attend at least one game, and that 64 percent "probably" would. One-third of the respondents said they would either definitely or probably purchase $125 season tickets, though only six percent, a mere eighteen respondents, indicated they would "definitely" purchase season seats.

Based largely on those numbers, FIU is projecting an average home attendance of between 10,000 and 12,500. With 30,000 students and some 60,000 alumni running around South Florida, attracting 10,000 to a showdown with Bethune-Cookman College should be a cinch, right?

Wrong, says Lee, who dismisses the Schroth survey as inconclusive. Forty percent of the students polled weren't even aware football was being planned, he notes, "indicating how disengaged from campus life the typical student is." He highlights several factors he believes will translate to a barren FIU stadium on Saturday afternoons: declining attendance at high school games, thin crowds at professional sports events and at the Orange Bowl, and the South Floridian's reputation for being a fickle fan.

He also suggests that because FIU's students are "nontraditional," they won't show much interest in football. The school's student body is predominantly Hispanic and not so attuned to the mystique surrounding college football, Lee points out. "College is not a leisurely process of self-discovery for many FIU students," he says. His e-mail critique amplifies this observation:

"The typical student at FIU is around 27 years of age, takes eight course credits, lives off-campus (often with family), works part- or full-time, and is of a cultural/racial background different from most students at other state institutions. Twenty percent of these students are not seeking degrees, and a third take courses at other campuses. They also come from the urban region with the weakest per-capita income in the state."

FIU's students are too busy to attend games, he asserts. In addition to their school assignments, some work at two jobs. During the 1997-98 school year, for example, the university's biggest sports draw, men's basketball, averaged just 805 fans. Men's soccer registered the second-highest average at 610. "There's supposed to be something special about football," Lee says, "something that will make them jump out to support it. I doubt it."

Top administrators are well aware of Lee and his widely circulated critique, and concede that he makes some strong arguments. But they vehemently disagree with his conclusion. "David Lee makes some very valid points and we respect him a lot," says Paul Gallagher, the vice president for business and finance. "I don't think I could write a biology paper as well as him. But I think I know the numbers on this a little better."

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