The petition has led to briefcases and laptops scattered across a conference room.
Somewhere in the papers taped to the glass wall is the start of an answer to a question a thousand student signatures had posed: Can there be football at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock?
The question is being taken seriously about a program that hasn't competed since 1955.
The university and its newly hired chancellor, Andrew Rogerson, announced in July that a feasibility study was commissioned to calculate the cost of a football program and measure whether there's enough financial support.
On the first week of December, a coalition of feasibility firms made a home on the third floor of the Jack Stephens Center to begin the five-month process of completing the $125,000 study.
"The goal is really giving the information back to the university to make an informed decision here," said Michael Miller, the project manager of the primary firm, Conventions, Sports & Leisure International.
Miller's group will identify a football program's personnel structure; its salaries, equipment and facilities, and their price tags; and where the money will come from. Some of that will be identified by looking at peer programs in the Sun Belt Conference, where a potential UALR football program would join the school's other sports.
The average Sun Belt football program has an average expense of $7,092,545, according to the conference members' athletic budgets from Fiscal Year 2016.
That amount nearly would double UALR's Fiscal Year 2016 athletic budget of $9,117,763, but a full football rebuild could cost more.
How much exactly? Rogerson and other UALR officials have deferred to the results of the ongoing study. In the meantime, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette interviewed athletic directors from three universities that conducted feasibility studies within the past decade.
The University of Texas at San Antonio started a program by quadrupling its revenue from citizens and its growing student body, which had "this real cry out" for football; the University of Alabama at Birmingham revived its program by convincing the public football was "good for the community"; and Wichita State University folded its plans for football when its citizens were "not interested in the start-up costs" associated with a program revival.
Their experiences provide an outline for what UALR may find.
'This real cry out'
At first, Lynn Hickey said, her answer was no.
It was the fall of 1999, and she had moved from her senior associate position in the Texas A&M athletic department into her first year as the athletic director at the University of Texas at San Antonio. The school's first-year president, Ricardo Romo, asked Hickey her opinion on the feasibility of a football program.
UTSA was an NCAA Division I public university in the seventh-largest city in America and the second-largest city in a football state. The city-owned Alamodome was vacant and unable to attract an NFL franchise.
"I told the president, 'No,' " said Hickey, who stepped down as UTSA's athletic director in September. "I had been at A&M for 15 years. I knew what football could do, but I also knew the cost and the commitment. And I said if we're going to add something, maybe we look at adding soccer."
At the time, UTSA had an enrollment of 18,608 and an athletic budget of $1.2 million. Hickey said the average age of a student was 28 years old, and the university "had been established as this kind of commuter campus for people who couldn't afford to go to Texas A&M or Texas Tech."
By 2006, enrollment had increased by 52 percent to 28,379, and President Romo unveiled a strategic plan to continue growth. Part of the plan, Hickey agreed, was the addition of a football program.
UTSA's feasibility study with Carr Sports Associates concluded Nov. 29, 2006, that a program would cost $8 million, not including start-up expenses.
Maxed out on nearly every athletic revenue ledger, Hickey met with the UTSA student government to discuss increasing the student athletic fee, which was bringing in only $2 million to $3 million per year.
"We had to have the cash," Hickey said. "There was no other way."
The students answered Hickey's request in September 2007 by voting to double the athletic fee rate from $10 to $20 per credit hour, up to 12 hours. The new rate helped the athletic budget swell to $8.5 million in Fiscal Year 2008.
On Dec. 18, 2008, the University of Texas System board of regents approved UTSA's plan to start a football program, which required the athletic department to raise $15 million over the next five years to cover the start-up costs.
The costs probably didn't reach that high, said Brad Parrott, the assistant athletic director who helped draw up the football plan. He said the athletic department was tasked with making a program as affordable as possible.
The coaching staff spent its first year operating out of a portable trailer. The athletic department leased a local high school field for the first practices, and later teamed up with the recreation sports department on a $1 million artificial turf surface.
The department bought used football equipment from the University of Texas-El Paso. It outsourced most of its game-day operations, such as ticket sales, to independent companies. It "practically begged" for promotions and advertising with local media.
But UTSA had a football team.
"These schools overestimate for a 'start-up cost,' " said Parrott, who retired in June. "In our particular case, we made the promise to the board of regents that we would not take away from the remainder of the university for football. And we didn't."
On Sept. 3, 2011, the Roadrunners beat Northeastern State 31-3 in its inaugural game at the Alamodome before a crowd of 56,743. It set the NCAA attendance record for a new program's debut.
"There was this real cry out for some kind of campus identity," Hickey said. "The best-selling T-shirt in the student union was 'UTSA Football, Still Undefeated.' You know? There was just a cry."
Last year, a similar cry came from the UALR student petition; but the Little Rock campus relates more to the UTSA campus Hickey first saw in the fall of 1999.
Except, UALR's student enrollment is declining. In fall 2016, 11,665 students were enrolled, down from 11,891 the year before and down nearly 10 percent from five years prior.
Chancellor Rogerson has set a "15 in 5" goal, where the university hopes to reach 15,000 students by 2022. UALR's $21 per credit hour student athletic fee is already the highest in Arkansas, and even if the enrollment goal is reached, the student fee revenue wouldn't increase more than $1 million.
"We're well aware of the enrollment, the challenges they've had over the last couple years," said Jay Lenhardt, the principal at Conventions, Sports & Leisure International. "So, you kind of look at the enrollment and the living alumni. I think it becomes apparent that support for football is going to have to be community based and not just UA-Little Rock. That the entire Little Rock community needs to embrace the team."
Good for community
Mark Ingram apologized to the media.
His first act as athletic director at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, he joked, would be flying a helicopter to a remote mountaintop cabin, where he would descend after two weeks, unshaven, with the athletic department's decision on its newly received football feasibility study.
Ingram's first day at UAB was May 18, 2015 -- three days after the university received a feasibility study from College Sports Solutions that detailed what it would cost to reinstate the Blazers football program.
UAB had disbanded its football, rifle and bowling programs in December 2014, after the university found the athletic budget had been $1 million over budget in each of the previous 10 years. UAB then commissioned a feasibility study by CarrSports Consulting -- the same but newly named organization that worked with UTSA -- which revealed the university needed to raise $40 million to maintain a competitive football program.
The university, Ingram said, decided to disband the program instead, and the community "either didn't believe the report" or "wanted an independent review." So, a task force made up of members of the community commissioned a new feasibility study from College Sports Solutions, which UAB permitted.
Ingram said UAB needed to raise $17 million to reinstate football and $22.5 million to build a new practice facility. The Blazers would continue to play at the city-owned Legion Field, but the department needed to replace the 80-yard practice field that had no drainage and the maintenance shed that had been split in half and converted into a locker room and meeting room.
Like UTSA, the UAB students voted in September 2015 for a fee increase of $25 per semester, which is contributing an estimated $3.5 million over five years.
The remainder was covered when more than 800 donors gave $44 million over the next two years, and the Blazers went 8-5 in their return for the 2017 season -- including a 41-6 loss to Ohio University in the Bahamas Bowl.
The entire athletic department had raised just $1.3 million during the 2014 season.
So what changed?
"I think it's the old, 'You don't know what you've got until it's gone,' " said Ingram, a former senior associate in Temple's athletic department. "But we really did not spend a lot of time talking about football."
Ingram leaned on an economic impact study by the Birmingham Business Alliance, which reported that every thousand UAB students made a $50 million impact on the city of Birmingham.
He connected the dots of his belief for donors on fundraising visits: Football drives campus social life; social life drives enrollment; enrollment drives economic impact.
"We went to people who go to Auburn and Tuscaloosa on Saturdays and said, 'Yeah, but you live here. This is where you live,' " Ingram said. " 'So, let's not talk about sports. Let's talk about the community that you live in and why it is important that if you'll support UAB football, that will help ... the community that we all live in.' "
A 2011 study by the Arkansas Economic Development Institute showed 79 percent of students who graduate from UALR will settle in Arkansas. By that measure, an entire graduating class adds approximately $262 million to the state's economy over its lifetime.
Conventions, Sports & Leisure International's Lenhardt said the firm is in the process of sending out surveys to estimate a possible football donor base, which also includes "people who aren't tied to the program ... whether it's in the metro area or a two-hour-drive-time radius."
"Everyone tells us at the end of the day that they'll give money, and we know that's not true," Lenhardt said. "So, we take a lot of pride and go to a lot of lengths to really understand the strength or the willingness that they'd be willing to make donations."
The cement "V" of Cessna Stadium's bleachers stands for "vacant."
Aside from collegiate track meets and the occasional high school football game, the 71-year-old football stadium on the campus of Wichita State University is empty on Saturdays in the fall.
The Shockers were 3-8 in 1986, and they lost about $700,000, according to The Wichita Eagle.
The team never played again.
Wichita State Athletic Director Darron Boatright said the university has conducted eight football feasibility studies since then, and the studies have pumped life into the Shockers football program about as successfully as a defibrillator on a tree stump.
The university's 2016 study with College Sports Solutions estimated a $40 million start-up cost, which included a $28 million renovation of Cessna Stadium and an annual budget of $6 million.
"We felt like that our community was interested in attending, but not interested in the start-up costs associated with making this happen," said Boatright, who was hired in August 2016. "So, the interest level from that standpoint wasn't there at the time. So, there were other priorities that the community was more interested in."
Most of that interest was in the Shockers men's basketball team, which has been to the NCAA Tournament in six consecutive seasons. The concern, Boatright said, was that a football program would create a strain on athletic resources.
A 2014 NCAA study found that expenses exceeded revenue at all but 20 schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The average Sun Belt Conference member lost nearly $2 million on its football program during Fiscal Year 2016, according to data from the institutions.
"When the elephant comes in the room and sits down, you've got to feed the elephant," Boatright said. "And it takes quite a commitment, and those resources are going to have to come from somewhere. It just wouldn't feel right for me to take from one program to add to another for start-up purposes."
Gary Heral, whose family has held UALR season basketball tickets for over 25 years, fears that type of strain.
"I don't know how we can support a big-time football team," said Heral, who with his wife, Jean, donated $150,000 to the Trojan Athletic Foundation in 2010 to support the women's basketball program. "Unless you can find some of the big-bucks guys that want to support it, I don't see how we afford it."
Jackson T. Stephens, the late Little Rock businessman and philanthropist, donated $20.4 million to help build the Jack Stephens Center basketball arena in 2005. His son, Warren, who is now the CEO of Stephen Inc., declined a request for an interview.
Conventions Sports & Leisure International's Lenhardt said the coalition of firms will visit UALR several times before the study is finalized in the spring.
The firm's separate feasibility study on the future of the city-owned War Memorial Stadium, which a UALR football team would occupy, will be released before the football study.
UTSA's Hickey, UAB's Ingram and Wichita State's Boatright agreed the vacancy of War Memorial Stadium will benefit UALR. As would the university's guarantee from the Sun Belt that a Trojans football team can compete in the conference.
The bottom line, they said, is the cost and whether it can be paid.
"I think it's healthy to look and study, always find out what's best for your institution," Boatright said. "When you're an institution of higher learning, I think you've basically signed up to always be progressive and to always be evolving and changing."
Sports on 01/20/2018
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