For several years, N.C. Central and Winston-Salem State universities have laid the groundwork for moves to Division I athletics - spurred by the intoxicating new level of prominence it promises.
But these two public universities, which square off in football today in Winston-Salem, are on divergent paths.
NCCU has made steady progress and recently gained entrance to the Division I Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, a crucial step on the path to full Division I status.
WSSU, which had already been admitted to the same conference, recently announced plans to scrap its bid for big-time athletics. The move roiled fans but was backed by university leaders exasperated with the financial toll the move was having on academics.
Since beginning its push toward Division I five years ago, WSSU has run up a $6 million athletics budget deficit; by 2012, that deficit was projected to reach $12 million or more. The trend meant further subsidizing athletics with money that could otherwise go to academics. A few months ago, Chancellor Donald Reaves pulled the plug. WSSU, which had not yet become a full-fledged MEAC member, will leave the Division I conference and return to the Division II Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association.
"It wasn't even close to being self-supporting," said Reaves, a former chief financial officer at both Brown University and the University of Chicago. "If it were in range, that would be one thing. But it wasn't even close."
Meanwhile, NCCU's athletics budget has been balanced - or better - in recent years, thanks to a steady stream of private donations and revenue drawn from campus sporting events, two financial advantages WSSU lacks.
"The arithmetic is very different for the two schools," said Erskine Bowles, who as president of the UNC system has kept an eye on both schools' processes.
The move from Division II to Division I is a quantum financial leap. It requires more scholarships, larger facilities and more teams and coaches.
The payoff? Bigger games against better opponents, increased television exposure and the prospect of high-profile athletic glory that prompts alums to donate more money.
WSSU began its process in 2004, and from the start knew the cost would be hefty. Along with new staff positions and additional travel costs, the scholarship requirements are staggering - from a maximum of 38 in football in Division II to a minimum of 55 in Division I. Additionally, WSSU would have to add five new sports to meet NCAA requirements.
Students would pay for most of this.
At all universities, students pay an athletics fee that helps support the sports program. A basic rule of thumb: the larger the university, the lower the fee - and vice versa.
WSSU, a historically black institution like NCCU, is not a large school. This year the school enrolled about 6,400 students, though because many are online-only students, about 5,000 had to pay the fee.
When WSSU began its transition, it asked UNC system leaders to approve a sizable increase in the athletics fee. The increase was granted and several followed in subsequent years. WSSU students paid $320 in 2003-04; this year, it's $579 and accounts for about 80 percent of the athletics budget.
"It was controversial then, but there was so much enthusiasm from WSSU," said Hannah Gage, chairwoman of the UNC system's Board of Governors. "It was not something that we had perfunctorily approved. There were a lot of doubts, but we did it anyway."
NCCU has more than 8,000 students who pay a slightly lower athletics fee.
There are other differences.
NCCU plays football and basketball in university-owned, campus arenas that generate ticket, concessions, parking, and merchandising revenue.
By contrast, WSSU has long played football and basketball in municipal venues owned by the City of Winston-Salem and, at best, shares profits.
Last year, there were nights the university had to write the city a check after sparsely attended basketball games, said Reaves, the chancellor.
"That cash flow was going in the wrong direction," he said.
Those losses prompted Reaves to move all but one basketball game - the rivalry showdown with North Carolina A&T - from the city-owned Joel Coliseum back to the smaller C.E. Gaines Center on campus.
Another significant problem: fundraising.
About 7 percent of WSSU alumni donate money to athletics or academics. The national average is 11.7 percent, according to the Council for the Aid to Education. NCCU's alumni giving rate is about 10 percent, but is bolstered by corporate donations, an edge WSSU does not have.
The result: Over the past three years, WSSU donors have given about $673,000 to athletics; in the same time period, NCCU has received $2.14 million, the difference-maker for a university taking on the added expense of a more competitive athletics program.
"Private giving is the whole of it," said NCCU Chancellor Charlie Nelms. "We don't do it with public money."
Though WSSU's financial picture is bleak, many boosters cried foul when Reaves scrapped the Division I plan.
Dennis Brayboy, 57, says he donates money and has held basketball and football season tickets for many years. Now, he's so infuriated by Reaves' decision that he's in the market for a new favorite team.
"It's just a big, bombshell mess over there," Brayboy said. "I don't know they'll be able to recover until they get that chancellor out of there."
But Reaves insists he consulted with governing boards, alumni groups and other constituencies - in public - before making the decision. And while some students may lose athletic scholarships as WSSU returns to Division II, they will receive other financial aid in place of it.
Reaves says more alumni need to put their money where their mouths are.
"They're supporters of the athletic program in spirit," he said. "If I were to sit down and match the names of some of the people who have given me an earful with the donor list from the foundation, it wouldn't match up."
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