Lawrence A. Wien stadium may have the capacity to seat 17,000 people, but the vast majority of its seats remain empty even during a normal season. Homecoming, a rare Columbia tradition that gathers thousands of students, alumni, and faculty to a football game Columbia often loses, remains one of Columbia Athletics' only opportunities to cement its role as an irreplaceable force in the University—both as a community and a revenue-driver.
Maintaining this connection is integral for Columbia to encourage its alumni to return to campus and hopefully donate on Giving Day, the University’s largest alumni donation push, traditionally just days after a Homecoming game. While significant revenue is driven by the Homecoming game, most of this money is not donated to the department itself—only 14 percent of total Giving Day revenue went to the athletic department in 2019.
Particularly at universities like Columbia, whose endowment has suffered from a lack of alumni connection to campus, Homecoming has remained a key celebration of people’s school spirit. Even when alumni do not feel strong ties to their academic experience, individuals are more likely to donate to a university if they feel a connection with the athletic department, according to experts. The potential of attracting donors who will make individual contributions in upwards of hundreds of millions of dollars has driven numerous financial decisions of universities across the nation, including massive investments in football teams and facilities, even when those teams' consistent underperformance has become the expectation.
In the 1850s, the Ancient Eight realized that people would pay to see collegiate rowing and began charging for races. Soon, it began ticketing football games to the extent that Yale University and Princeton University would expect 25,000 people per game, a number almost unattainable by current Ivy League standards.
“Something that’s really bizarre about American education is that a lot of the alumni connection to their university is through their sports teams,” David Berri, a sports economics professor at Southern Utah University, said. “It’s supposed to be an educational institution, not a sports team. So it’s really bizarre that you take away the sports and you take away the alumni connection.”
This rings true for Paul Marino, CC ’74, a former member of the baseball and football teams. Before the pandemic, Marino bought tickets to attend Columbia men’s basketball games as a way to support the University—something he has been doing for almost 50 years since his graduation.
“I played football here and we had some tough years,” Marino said in an interview back in February. “It sounds corny, but it is my alma mater and I like to support the school in any way I can.”
Berri noted that for many students, the connection to a university stems from a football team rather than the academics. First-year students often have little face-to-face interaction with professors in their introductory classes. While students may be one of thousands in the stands, positive memories at games and the camaraderie surrounding them provide the students with a personalized connection.
“So what people are realizing is that the educational experience isn’t actually that good,” Berri said. “However, the students keep coming to these institutions because they get to go to the football game. Your first-year history class is going to be awful. But what about that football? … The key thing is emotional attachments—that’s what brings the students to campus and what keeps the alumni connected.”
For Columbia, which has the third-worst attendance in one of the worst-attended Division I conferences, the allure of an athletic community has a much narrower reach. However, the number of donors does not typically matter for a university as long as it receives the same amount in donations. Across the country, universities have seen a decrease in individual donors, but overall donations continue to rise. Donors to athletics in particular are known for making some of the largest individual contributions to universities.
Even for non-athletes, the term “Homecoming” signifies the importance of the University in alumni’s lives. The origins of the event date back to 1904 when Edmund James, the president of the University of Illinois, took drastic efforts to rally alumni donations around the university’s financial predicament. James' ambition was to “instill a missionary fervor in the student body,” Jerome Rodnitzky, a history professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, wrote in a 1970 article in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society.
James understood that alumni engagement was key to donations, and he felt that one of the best ways to maintain school spirit was by inviting alumni back to campus to celebrate their time there with an event he would call Homecoming. Today, the goal of Homecoming has remained the same for universities across the country. During that weekend, Columbia is no longer an academic institution, but instead home—last year, 26,881 fans made the trek to Columbia football games; on Homecoming alone, that number was 12,506.
“That may be the only time per year that someone comes back. And it’s not just about the football game. It’s about coming back and hanging out and reliving moments with former classmates of yours or bringing your family to something that you used to enjoy when you were at Columbia,” Mike Miller, Columbia’s associate athletics director for marketing strategies, said.
Men’s sports, in particular, are popular with older, whiter, and therefore wealthier alumni who attended Columbia in the mid-1900s. “Men’s sports are considered popular because that was the only thing that [was] offered. So that’s where the fans were. Women’s sports really didn’t start at the college level until Title IX passed in 1972, so women’s sports are at where men’s sports were in the 1950s,” Berri said in a previous interview in January.
At the time, the University had little to offer in campus-wide events for undergraduates, and even less in alumni events and reunions. Before University President Lee Bollinger took on his role, Columbia did not have a centralized alumni association to coordinate outreach and develop relationships.
As Bollinger enacted his plan to dramatically grow the school’s alumni base, which spurred the foundation of the Columbia Alumni Association, he also dedicated more money to Columbia Athletics than any president in University history. Within his first two years, Bollinger increased the budget for sports by over $2 million.
“I’ve been involved with the athletic program for 35 years as an alum, and they’ve come a long way, just like the University has come a long way,” Marino said. “When I was here, there was not a lot of support for athletics from the University and there wasn’t that much support for the college. … Since Bollinger became president, that’s changed pretty dramatically.”
With the support of the University president, Athletic Director Peter Pilling has made it a priority to reinvigorate the football program and alumni base. He hired head coach Al Bagnoli, one of the most successful football coaches to ever work in the Ivy League, and together, they oversaw the $10 million construction of the Bubble at Baker.
However, these contributions do not mean that the entire department is well-funded. Support for Athletics is split between the University itself and the alumni, who donated one-sixth of the department’s total expenses last year for Giving Day. A large percentage of this revenue comes from donations made physically at Homecoming, known as gate revenue, and it is doubtful how much of that amount the Ivy League can make up during the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to Berri, athletic departments across the country will generate less than half of what they did last year. But the threat of team cuts that departments currently face is often not legitimate. Instead, universities may leverage these cuts to funnel more money into higher revenue-producing sports like football and basketball.
“You cut a soccer team. That’s $500,000. That seems kind of silly that clearly isn’t something that’s going to cover the budget shortfall. They do that because it frees up money in the future that they now spend on football and football is what generates,” he said.
The pressure to dedicate more funds to a football team can come from the fact that an underperforming team has ramifications not only for the athletic department but also for the university president. According to Berri, football is a constant topic among university presidents, and the performance of a team shapes the types of conversations they will have—either remarks on the teams' failure or congratulations on the team’s success.
Bagnoli acknowledged the importance of Homecoming after last year’s blowout win: “There’s an added importance when it’s a home game, and it’s an Ivy League game. And there’s even more importance added when it’s a home game, it’s an Ivy League game, and it’s a Homecoming game. We really picked a good time to play our best football of the year,” he said.