Commentary

College football arms race crushes a men's soccer program

In November 2019, Appalachian State's Board of Trustees approved another $5 million expenditure added to the $45 million for the construction of a building, known as North End Zone project, attached its football stadium.

In May 2020, App State, a public North Carolina University with 17,500 undergraduates, dropped men’s soccer, men's tennis and men's indoor track & field programs.

The move was aimed to save its athletics department about $1 million, according to the Greensboro News & Record, as App State Athletics aimed for a $5 million reduction of its next fiscal year budget. Cutting the sports, App State announced, was "in response to the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and in an effort to position App State Athletics for future success."

The men's soccer operating expenses, from the NCAA financial report for fiscal year 2019, were $607,047 (including scholarships), with $44,548 in revenue. But sports economist Andy Schwarz in the News & Observer estimated that the three cut sports had brought in approximately $400,000 in tuition income. App State men's soccer offered 7.66 scholarships and half of the men's soccer roster of 30 players paid full tuition. Schwarz also pointed out that App State will loss $206,340 in funds from the NCAA by decreasing its number of sports programs.

“The correct question for when you're cutting anything from a university is not what does it do for that department's budget, but what does it do for the financial health, the overall health of the university?” said Schwarz.

In July, construction continues on the $50 million North End Zone project, as does the $2.5 million project of replacing the artificial turf in the football stadium and the regrading of a grassy hill behind the south end zone "to bring it closer to the stadium."

In 2014, App State moved its football team into the FBS, the top tier of college football, and competes in the Sun Belt Conference. Upon announcing the soccer, tennis and indoor track cuts, Athletic director Doug Gillen -- who in January received a contract extension that more than doubled his annual income to $500,000 in base salary and retention bonus in 2020 -- said: "Since the move to FBS, App State has sponsored the most sports in the Sun Belt and among the most in the Group of Five. This will bring us in line with most of our peer institutions."

Moving to the FBS increased football scholarships from the FCS limit of 63 to 85. And football, a sport with no women's equivalent, also puts enormous expenditures, $3 million worth of athletic scholarships, and 98 players on the men's side of the Title IX scale.

The App State football team's operating expenses, from the NCAA financial report for fiscal year 2019, were $9.75 million, with $5.26 million in revenue -- for a deficit of $4.49 million.

As App State forged on with football-related projects despite the uncertainty of when college football will return amid the pandemic, men's soccer Coach Jason O'Keefe, who rejuvenated the program after arriving in 2016, had to call an emergency Zoom meeting with his returning players -- including nine seniors -- and the incoming recruits to tell them: Their team was no more.

O'Keefe grew up playing youth soccer in Northern Virginia. He attended Washington Diplomats games at RFK stadium and idolized Johan Cruyff.

"I was raised by a single mom, so my teachers and coaches were a big influence," he said. "So I wanted to teach and coach. I went to Greensboro College, because they had a good education program and a very good Division III soccer program."

Upon graduation, he taught history and other classes -- and was an assistant coach in basketball and men's and women's soccer -- at Grimsley High School in Greensboro. He also started coaching at Greensboro Soccer Club with his college coach, Steve Allison. After three years, he left teaching with the aim to reach higher levels of coaching.

"I'd give myself five years, and if it didn't work out, I'd get recertified as a teacher," said O'Keefe, whose early work as an assistant coach included a stint with powerhouse Wake Forest. He got his full-time job as assistant coach at Cinncinnati, in 2006 when it won the Big East title. After assistant coaching stints at Elon, St. Louis and North Carolina, he landed the Appalachian State head coaching job in 2016.

In the late 1970s, under head coach Hank Steinbrecher, later U.S. Soccer's general secretary, Appalachian State was a national power. Nigerian Thompson Usiyan set records for most goals in a season (46 in 1980) and is still the all-time NCAA Division I scorer with 109 career goals.

When O'Keefe arrived, the Mountaineers' hadn't posted a winning season since 2012, despite being a major university in a state that is a soccer hotbed. He changed that in 2018. Last season App State won 11 games for the first time since 2002, scored its most goals since 2009, and posted its most shutouts since 2011. Its 11-7-1 record in 2019 included the Mountaineers' first victory over North Carolina since 1980.

O'Keefe's team also ranked fourth in the nation in community service hours logged by a Division I men's soccer program and racked up academic honors from United Soccer Coaches and the Sun Belt, with seven players posting a GPA above 3.5 and another 10 between 3.0-3.49.

With nine seniors returning, O'Keefe looked forward his fifth season.

"We were primed and ready to take another step, like winning the Sun Belt, making the NCAA playoffs, posting another double-digit winning season," he said.

Instead, O'Keefe had spent the last month helping his players connect and figure out how to continue their college soccer careers elsewhere. His players were sad, shocked and angry when he had to tell them the program was dropped. Now, nearly all are being welcomed by other college soccer programs, and O'Keefe can start trying to navigate his own future.

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App State says  its $50 million stadium project supports the UNC Systems Goals and Metrics because: "An enhanced experience for student-athletes and fans can go a long way in recruiting new students. It also can cultivate donors, which in turn supports scholarships for students needing financial assistance to attend college."

Men's soccer players need not apply.

11 comments about "College football arms race crushes a men's soccer program".
  1. R2 Dad, July 9, 2020 at 12:57 a.m.

    Predictable, but goes against national demographic trends. With fewer kids playing highschool football, seems to me they should have canceled football and kept the rest.

  2. Peter Bechtold replied, July 9, 2020 at 10:45 a.m.

    You're right, R2Dad. The future does not belong to American football,or baseball for that matter. The younger generation is making that clear. As in baseball, however, older white men have been trying to block youth soccer at local boys & girls clubs,without success usually. This is finding its way into Major League Baseball, piece by piece. The real behemoth here is football as an aspect of the culture wars going on. In certain parts of the country college football continues to bring in crowds (and to pay much of the Athletics Dep't bills), but for how much longer ?

  3. frank schoon, July 9, 2020 at 7:18 a.m.

    This is so wrong and so sad.....and I gues mr. Gillen ,the athletic director ,is happy since he  doubled his salary...

  4. Wallace Wade, July 9, 2020 at 10:27 a.m.

    I wonder what is REALLY hampering Men's College Soccer in this Country??? What could it be???

  5. humble 1, July 9, 2020 at 10:59 a.m.

    This relates to the USSF and MLS turning their back on HS and College soccer.  As far as I know soccer Leadership has zero relationship with those entities.  This is just poor strategy.  It's all about getting MLS off the ground and Copa America USA and the World Cup - all of which are financial windfalls - zero about HS and College soccer - which are still - for men - and women - where most young folks play.  Public universities under pressure can drop men's soccer without paying a high price politically.  Just ask Jeremy Fishbein from University of New Mexico.    

  6. uffe gustafsson, July 9, 2020 at 8:11 p.m.

    The $5.6 million in revenue for the football team I assume it incl TV revenues?
    how can you spend over $9 million on a football team?
    explain that to me.

  7. Ric Fonseca replied, July 10, 2020 at 4:25 p.m.

    UG:  It is difficult to explain, however, take the cost to outfit a football player, helmets, pads, shoes, two sets of uniforms, and I betcha that that we can probably outfit a team of 18 soccer players.  And take also the cost of one football coach, and to add insult to injury, the raise the AD received - jeepers, when I was a "lowly AD" at my former community college, not even the nine yeaars I put in would equal the AD's salary - and I was a tenured professor of history with over 30 years ' administering and teaching, and though I did get paid two extra months to cover the summer break and I still betcha that I would've had to teach an extra class to equal his "signing bonus..."

    And to Mr. WW:  If the university is a public institution and not a private one, you could probably find out how much $$$ the W's team "generates" and me thinks that you're possibly decrying what the fact that Title IX mandates.  If App St is a public institution, and of course is a not-for-profit, it is quite possible that you can get their records.

  8. Wallace Wade, July 10, 2020 at 1:20 p.m.

    I wonder how much $ is invested in the Women's soccer program? I wonder how much $ is generated by the Women's Soccer Program? 

  9. Ben Myers, July 10, 2020 at 4:24 p.m.

    Covid-19 has been a come-uppance for overpriced higher education in this country, and we can expect to see more changes both in sports and the original role of education itself.  No surprise that someone yesterday compared an education at Harvard U with Netflix.  One costs $48,000 a year and the other $192 a year. 

    The 500-lb gorilla of Division I football is really the no-cost (to the NFL) minor league for the wealthy who own NFL teams.  Both college and pro generate tons of ad revenue, sale of replica jerseys and other stuff, plus contributions of wealthy alumni supporters of football and basketball, and they add revenue to local economies.  The economic models of college education, college sports, and pro sports are very very likely to change a lot.

  10. Ric Fonseca, July 10, 2020 at 4:27 p.m.

    JUST read in today's LA Times that the California Community Colleges - through the CCAA governing body, has declared that all FALL sports would/will play in the Spring 2021.  Now that is going to be something else to see, the AD's, coaches, players, team trainers, etc., will be up to their elbows figuring things out!!!

  11. Texas 0027, July 10, 2020 at 10:25 p.m.

    These are the reasons Men’s soccer is an easy cut to most Universities.



    1. Although participation amongst younger kids has increased tremendously, they rarely move on passed the recreational level. 

    2. Men’s College soccer is not seen as a top level sport. Top tier players are not attracted to college, unlike the Women’s side.

    3. Title IX

    4. Lack of success of the MNT.

    5. MLS not a top 50 league in the world.

    6. Men’s soccer in the US does not attract the best athletes.  Unlike the Women’s side.

    7. Select soccer is expensive!   Much more than other sports.  

    8. Men's soccer is seen as a niche sport in the US.


    Only success at the the MNT level will this change,

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