University of Hawaii football can never succeed, but is too big to fail.

The football program is in trouble not just for the moment. It will always be in trouble.

UH football will never make money, get more than a smidgen of student support, or overcome the impossible barriers to success that any of the 60 or so Division I football schools not in the major football conferences face. 

Nevertheless, football will survive here just as it has survived at virtually every other major university.

Aloha Stadium. UH Football vs. UNLV. . 22 nov 2014 ALOHA STADIUM, HONOLULU, HAWAII. photo CORY LUM/ CIVIL BEAT
The Warriors pulled out a dramatic last-second win against the UNLV in 2014, but there were few witnesses in Aloha Stadium. Cory Lum / Civil Beat/2014

The reasons have nothing to do with the unrealistically optimistic, pompous justifications football boosters and high-level university officials give.

Gilbert H. Gaul in “Billion-Dollar Ball,” his recent book about college football, calls these justifications “irrational exuberance”. 

He also uses the term “purgatory” to describe football programs like UH’s. 

Football Purgatory

The University of Hawaii is one of about 60 major university football programs that are not members of the five athletic conferences that essentially control college football.   

These schools are, in Gaul’s terms, in a limbo from which they can’t escape. 

The power conference schools have huge football programs. Even in these leagues, only a very few athletic programs make money, but almost every one of the few schools in the nation that finish in the black come from these conferences.

Power conference schools get the TV mega-deals, and the new college football payoff system is rigged to keep any other schools from participating.

UH is a member of the Mountain West Conference, one of the have-nots in the world of college football. Cory Lum / Civil Beat

The Pac-12, for instance, gets more than $300 million a year from TV revenues. Hawaii is in the Mountain West Conference, which barely gets $11 million.

Power conference schools depend on super-rich benefactors with very deep pockets. Nike founder Phil Knight has given hundreds of millions of dollars to University of Oregon athletics, including a recent state of the art, $42.5 million academic center for athletes.

The problem is excess. Think of the 1 percent.

If the power conference schools are the 1-percenters, then schools like UH represent the people struggling to achieve the American Dream that perpetually remains beyond their reach.

UH is David, without even a slingshot, versus Goliath, with ESPN. 

Problems specific to Hawaii make sustaining a football program even less likely here.

The sources of football revenue that major universities rely on are all exceptionally limited in Hawaii.

Besides TV and bowl game revenues, universities depend on attendance, monetizing their team’s “brand,” large donations, and student fees.

Attendance Will Not Increase As Much As People Think

Attendance at UH football games is bound to get better than it has been this year. How hard is that? 

Long-term, however, there are good reasons to believe that attendance will never reach its old levels because college football is not a big city game, and Honolulu is increasingly a big city.

I grew up and went to college around Big Ten football. Madison, Wisconsin, is a college town and football was part of the college experience. 

Thousands of students marched across the city from their dorms and apartments to the stadium for every home game. It was social life.

2 people sit in an empty section of seats in section QQ north endzone around the 10-yeard-line area during games versus UNLV. HONOLULU, HAWAII. 22 nov 2014. photo CORY LUM
These fans appear to have an entire section of Aloha Stadium to themselves during a UH football game last season. Cory Lum / Civil Beat

Even when the team was mediocre, attendance stayed about the same.

My first teaching job was at Grinnell College a small, highly ranked liberal arts college in a town of 8,000 people in the middle of Iowa. Talk about a football difference. 

Maybe a couple of hundred people would show up at Grinnell games, which stopped for a few minutes whenever the slow freight from Minneapolis to St. Louis rumbled along the edges of the stadium. 

“We have higher Board scores” was a favorite cheer. The team’s best player, Ed Hirsch, a really sure-handed tight end from the Chicago suburbs, is now one of America’s best-known poets

Both these very different programs worked because they fit the environments they were in. 

UH football fits neither of these environments. In fact, UH football lives in an increasingly unforgiving environment.

At its heart, UH is an urban commuter campus. Only a handful of public university teams in power conferences are in big cities. College football once had urban powerhouses. No more.

Urbanization is not just a student issue. Honolulu is much more of a big city place than it was during the years when people turned out for UH games in large numbers. Think of minor league baseball attendance in the 1960s or even football in the 1990s.

For people living here, Saturdays are busier than ever. Furthermore, there are now far more ways to watch football, like checking your smart phone while grabbing some lunchtime samples at Costco.

A Lack Of Big-Time Benefactors

Major football programs depend on big money boosters. As Phil Knight’s activities indicate, the amounts can be phenomenal — tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars from one person. 

UH athletics has no such donors. In fact, the university as a whole arguably has only one. Its donation patterns are much more like an urban university than they are like major universities in college towns

You can argue whether the absence of big donors is a blessing or a curse. People argue about Knight all the time.

The Pac-12 gets more than $300 million a year from TV revenues. Hawaii is in the Mountain West Conference, which barely gets $11 million.

But for good or for bad, major football programs can’t survive without this infusion of private money.  In college athletics nothing big gets built without huge money from private sources.

Power conference universities have all kinds of ways to make money by building on their brand. Selling gear, of course is one of them. Branding is the reason UH green and white has become UH black, green, and white.

Some of the real big-time monetizing action centers on season tickets. Power conferences often raise season ticket prices. They have also attached additional costs for things like the privilege of passing your season tickets on to your loved ones after you die.

Of course, monetizing season tickets works only if the tickets are a scarce, highly desired commodity.   

So much for that revenue source at UH.

Student Fees Won’t Keep On Giving

Whatever the public justification, university administrators raise student fees simply because they can. 

Some particularly desperate purgatory universities operate in a vicious circle: They raise student fees. Students respond by going to games in even fewer numbers than they did before. The program remains in deep trouble and has nowhere else to turn. So student fees are raised again.

Gaul’s book cites particularly flagrant examples of this.

Monetizing season tickets works only if the tickets are a scarce, highly desired commodity. So much for that revenue source at UH.

It’s an act of faith to say that this vicious circle of confiscation will not happen at UH. But it is hard to imagine that the university would have the nerve to do this now or in the future when the Board of Regents is under so much pressure to reduce the educational costs for students.

There is an economically simple solution to all of this. Have the Legislature appropriate the money that makes up for the losses. UH officials have tried to get the Legislature to move in this direction, but legislators have shown no real interest. So far they prefer to act as if there is another way out.

And why not? Subsidizing UH athletics requires that legislators publicly rid themselves of irrational exuberance about big-time football and quit pretending that the perpetual athletic department deficit is all UH’s fault.

They dread the concept of a permanent subsidy, but given the increasing revenue disparity between power and purgatory schools, the subsidy is likely to grow bigger over time.

Football Will Survive Anyway

Despite all this, UH football will survive just as it has in all the purgatory schools.   

The reason has to do with a fundamentally difficult dynamic in democratic politics and the typical response to this dynamic.

From a political standpoint, those who support football may be in the minority but they are passionate and often powerful — an “intense minority,” in the words of the political theorist Robert Dahl.

How to deal with intense minorities is one of the toughest questions in politics. One way is simply to find a momentum that keeps you out of big trouble and let things slide just enough to keep your head above water. 

That is a common political response to conflict. Think of the way the Honolulu City Council has dealt with vacation rentals or how President Obama over time dealt with the issue of same-sex marriage.

Those who support football may be in the minority but they are passionate and often powerful — an “intense minority,” in the words of the political theorist Robert Dahl.

And it’s the strategy that drives policymakers regarding football, not just in Hawaii but also at all football purgatory schools. 

Like always, the response to UH football will be a combination of irrational exuberance and the blame game. 

From the standpoint of those having to make the decision about UH football’s future, the long-term consequences of getting rid of it might be beneficial, but those consequences are well down the road.

On the other hand, the short-term blowback would be passionate and nasty. When it comes to making tough decisions, acting definitively can have significant costs. 

In 2014, the president of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, an urban purgatory school that aspired to play football with the major players despite its terrible game attendance and huge financial losses, tried to eliminate football. 

What followed was six months of tumult, backlash and organized protests. The president backed down.

In its look at this attempt, the journal Inside Higher Education called UAB’s football program “too big to fail.”

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