Three Reasons Temple’s $100 Million Stadium Is a Big, Bad Idea

Temple University shouldn't build an on-campus football facility. Here's why.

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An on-campus football stadium at Temple University is a really bad idea.

It’s a bad idea for the university. It’s a bad idea for the North Philly neighborhood. And it’s a bad idea for you, the Pennsylvania taxpayer whose support is critical to the university.

But it’s also a bad idea whose time may have come. The Inquirer’s Frank Fitzpatrick on Sunday reported that “if some remaining financial details can be resolved, a go-ahead for a 30,000-seat, on-campus facility could come as early as this spring.”

Fitzpatrick did his reporting from Ohio, where the University of Akron built an on-campus stadium a few years ago and found, contrary to expectations, that it’s not necessarily true that if you build it, they will come. Student attendance has been anemic, at best, and the university has resorted to gimmicks like offering free tuition to try to attract a crowd to games.

“We have to find ways to keep our fan base growing,” Akron’s athletic director told Fitzpatrick.

But that’s not the only reason to be dubious of trying something similar in North Philadelphia. Three reasons a new stadium is a bad idea:

• The era of high-quality mid-tier college football is coming to a close: Income inequality is a growing problem in America — society is increasingly segmented into haves and have-nots, and giant chunks of the middle class are finding themselves in the second group. A similar phenomenon is happening in college football.

Basically, the new college football playoff has helped align the sport so that power schools from power conferences are best able to compete, both financially and on the field. The four teams in this year’s playoff? Traditional powers like Alabama, Ohio State, and Florida State. Oregon is a relative newcomer, but it’s backed by Nike’s deep pockets.

And the big, rich schools are going to see the tide turn ever more in their favor. They’re already getting the TV money. Now there’s talk that they’ll be able to expand the number of scholarships they’re allowed to offer, meaning their bench players will increasingly be would-have-been-starters-at-Temple-quality athletes. They may also be allowed to offer increased subsidies to athletes like stipends and upgraded health insurance.

All of which means it might not be long before college football has two versions: The semi-pro league built among the Power Five conferences, and glorified club teams like you find at tiny NAIA universities.

It’s hard to see Temple making the leap to the first group: The top dozen universities have athletic budgets of $100 million or more already; Temple’s is closer to $44 million. The university can’t afford to keep up.

• The team isn’t even operating in the black as is. Multiple outlets have reported that the athletics department is losing $7 million a year — a number reportedly driven largely by the expense of the football team — which Temple covers out of its general fund budget. The general fund is partially subsidized by the state, which is contributing $146 million to the university’s bottom line this year. Which means, directly or indirectly, your tax dollars are already being used to keep the football team afloat. Why add $100 million in debt — the likely cost of a new stadium — to a program that already can’t get by without your help?

“I would be hard-pressed to name another university that subsidizes its athletics program to the degree Temple does,” then-athletic director Bill Bradshaw wrote to alumni back in 2011, when the athletics budget was just $30 million. “Keep in mind that Temple isn’t required to do this.” Perhaps it’s a good time to ask why it does.

• It’s a bad use of the crowded cityscape. Not that North Philadelphia can’t use some redevelopment, but a college football stadium probably isn’t the best use of that property: At best, Temple would play six or seven home games a year at the new stadium — even if it doubled as a track-and-field site, you’d still end up with a hulking facility (and, probably, parking lots) that go unused the vast majority of the year. That doesn’t seem like a great improvement.

Temple President Neil Theobald is a big believer that college football helps develop a university’s brand. (My colleague Sandy Hingston challenged the idea in Philly Mag’s October issue.) But that’s never really been the case at urban universities like Temple. Of this year’s final Top 25 rankings, only Boise State might plausibly be described as a commuter school. Everybody else? Schools with regional, state, or even bigger fan bases.

Investing in an on-campus stadium, then, is less an investment and more a gamble — one with increasingly long odds against paying off. Owls are supposed to be wise. This idea isn’t.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.