FANTASY FOOTBALL

Gilbert M. Gaul is the author of "Billion-Dollar Ball: A Journey Through the Big-Money Culture of College Football" (Viking, 2015), a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and a former Inquirer reporter

Let's get this out of the way at the start. I don't care one way or another if Temple builds a shiny new football stadium on its North Philadelphia campus. I am not an alumnus, and I have no emotion invested in the decision.

It's also likely that Temple will get its stadium, if for no other reason than emotion routinely trumps common sense. In the coming months, Temple officials will make many claims about the economic and emotional windfall a new stadium will provide, and otherwise smart people who should know better will play along.

That said, there is almost no economic logic to building a stadium on the Temple campus. The cost is too high and the plan doesn't appear to work without sizable public subsidies. The argument that the stadium will serve as a source of pride and attract more students is unknowable at best. Yes, fans show up when the team is doing well, as now, but what happens when the team struggles and the stadium is half-empty - or worse?

Here, it is worth remembering that the all-time record for Temple football is 438-574. In other words, historically, the team wins just four of every 10 games it plays. Is there any reason to believe a new stadium will rewire Temple's mediocre record? If so, Akron University and Florida Atlantic University, among others, should have winning records. They recently invested $60 million and $70 million, respectively, in new stadiums yet continue to lose impressively. Florida Atlantic is 1-6 this season. Akron is 3-4 and fifth in its division. Both schools lose millions annually at football and often play to the sound of one hand clapping.

Finally, and this may seem paradoxical, but the 35,000-seat stadium that Temple envisions is probably too small to monetize in a meaningful way or generate enough revenue to support its other teams. That's how the business model works at elite football schools such as Notre Dame, Alabama, and Penn State. Those teams have huge stadiums, belong to rich conferences, and collect tens of millions annually in television fees.

By contrast, Temple belongs to a poorer conference, doesn't get much television money, and lacks a large, wealthy donor base. A far more likely scenario is that Temple undergraduates will continue to underwrite the athletic department to the tune of millions in student fees, as happens at other struggling football programs.

So, why would Temple do it?

One explanation is magical thinking. A surprising number of college presidents believe they cannot compete if they don't have a prominent football program and an elaborately appointed stadium. This is the football-as-entertainment approach to education. The presidents maintain that football serves as the "front porch" of their schools and helps to attract more and smarter students. There is, of course, no reliable way to prove this, and the presidents shudder when you ask them the next obvious question: What happens when your team struggles? Do you attract fewer and dumber students?

Another reason Temple will likely go ahead is the arms race that currently distorts college athletics. Coaches and athletic directors are convinced they cannot woo prized high school recruits if they don't offer lavish, state-of-the-art facilities. Witness the recent tsunami in spending on football stadiums, weight rooms, and academic support centers for athletes.

In Texas alone, five universities spent $1 billion on stadiums, topped by Texas A&M's $450 million "renovation" of Kyle Field and Baylor University's new $260 million stadium on the Brazos River. Meanwhile, Notre Dame is talking about a costly renovation of its historic stadium and Penn State is making noises about renovating or building a new stadium in Happy Valley. In that context, why wouldn't Temple boosters and administrators suffer from a raging case of stadium envy?

But here's my real issue with the proposed stadium. Less than two years ago Temple voted to eliminate five sports, citing financial problems and inadequate facilities, among other reasons. That left Temple with just 19 varsity teams - about half the number at a typical Ivy League school and fewer varsity teams than tiny Haverford College. Scores of Temple athletes lost a chance to compete. Today, Temple has no baseball team or men's track and field. Yet, somehow it can now find the money to build a $100 million stadium?

At its core, Temple's plan invites a critical question: Why do universities sponsor varsity sports at all? Is it to offer undergraduates an opportunity to challenge themselves in a meaningful way outside of the classroom, and learn something by playing? Or is it to help market the university, enhancing its brand and Q Score? If the answer is the latter, then by all means Temple should probably build its stadium.

One Temple student quoted in a recent story said a stadium could help lift the university to a "world-class level." Really, I thought when I read the quote, a football stadium? Not the medical school or the law school? Not a famous professor? Temple currently ranks No. 115 among national universities in the U.S. News & World Report's Best Colleges. How many rungs do you think it will climb after it adds a football stadium?

gilgaul@gmail.com