Florida Memorial to Reinstate Football – Are HBCUs Returning to Sports' Money-Making Glory?

Florida Memorial University will formally announce the return of a Lions football team tomorrow afternoon, after last week announcing a board of trustees vote to reinstate the program after last playing a down in 1958.

School officials said that football, reestablished in partnership with the city of Miami Gardens, will be a “game-changer” for the school’s efforts to build enrollment and philanthropic support.

Board Chairman-Elect William McCormick struck the right note with his comment on the move.

“As a member of the board of trustees, we have the responsibility to make prudent decisions that will expand and sustain our historic footprint. Today, the rebirth of football on the campus of Florida Memorial University will provide new and exciting opportunities for our students as well as positively impacting our local community.”

Most FMU alumni will likely cheer a move that brings a vital element of college culture back to the campus, which can support gains in alumni giving, student recruitment, and corporate partnerships. But McCormick’s emphasis on the school having a prudent approach to bringing back football is the primary point in all dialog surrounding the announcement. Within the sector, athletic expansion has always been a scary prospect for administrators.

In 2012, Spelman College withdrew from NCAA membership citing costs for participation and the need for the school to promote women’s wellness through campus-wide health initiatives. A year later, Saint Paul’s College closed due in large part to deficits created by its football program, which had been discontinued two years prior.

But several HBCUs are growing more comfortable with the notion of using athletics as a driver for growth. Last month, Shaw University and rival Saint Augustine’s University announced an agreement to share SAU’s stadium for home football games. The agreement saves money for the Shaw Bears, eliminating the need to pay for games at municipal stadiums in Durham. It generates revenue for SAU for days when the stadium is not in use by the Falcons and promotes for access for HBCU football for alumni and supporters in Raleigh throughout the college football season.

The agreement is miles away from where Saint Augustine’s was projected to be when the school reinstated its football program in 2002. Last fall, Allen University reinstated football after alumni raised more than $500,000 and pledged to support the athletic enterprise. The team attracted 50 players and yielded a profit thanks to the new enrollment and auxiliary services attached to the games.

The school is considering adding two more sports to achieve the same goals.

Outside of the HBCU community, schools like Grand Canyon University are finding athletic positioning to be a critical part of institutional growth. GCU transitioned from for-profit to non-profit status in July 2018 and now could experience increased money-making opportunities with games against in-state public institutions like Arizona State University.

The role of football in the history of HBCUs is undeniable. The financial costs which have burdened institutions with debt are also etched into the history of the sector. But are HBCUs, particularly smaller private schools, figuring out how to get external funding to push institutional earning potential forward?

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