Alabama St. Looks to Division I

Monday, May 15th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama State is bidding to become the first historically black institution to compete in Division I-A football.

The move will hinge on raising more than $90 million in corporate financing for a new stadium and a Black Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.

``We would be to black folks what Notre Dame is to Catholics,'' said Donald Watkins, who chairs the board of trustees' athletics committee. ``That's how we would be recognized around the nation. We will be breaking a color barrier.''

ASU trustees in an 8-2 vote approved a proposal Friday that calls for selling naming rights for everything from a 40,000-seat stadium to its various seating sections. The university then filed a declaration of intent with the NCAA to make the move.

Watkins, who spearheaded the project, said the investors would be asked to provide the funding, with no debt incurred by the 5,500-student school. The Hall and museum would be the first devoted exclusively to black college sports figures.

Not everyone was sold on such ambitious aspirations for a small university that has struggled to compete in the Division I-AA Southwestern Athletic Conference. The Hornets haven't had a winning record in football since 1995 and are on their third head coach in four years.

Trustees Joe Reed and Lanny Vines voted against the measure, questioning Watkins' contention that the university won't face any financial risk.

Reed called the plan ``voodoo financing.''

``I don't believe a school with 5,000 students can finance itself in Division I-A,'' Reed said. ``I think the proposal sounds good on paper, but whether it can be done is altogether different.

``I think we ought to try to conquer the SWAC first.''

Vines also feared Alabama State would be left holding a multimillion-dollar bill if it wasn't able to meet the NCAA's requirement of four years of 17,000 ticket sales.

``If this thing falls through because of ticket issues, I say Alabama State is in a heap of financial problems,'' Vines said.

Alabama State hired financial consultant Jim White of Birmingham to explore the financial viability of the proposal and got a positive response.

``I think the risk for Alabama State is very small and the potential benefit is very large,'' White said Friday. ``We believe there's a good chance the finances can be raised — not 100 percent, maybe not even 50 percent — but a good chance.''

Watkins' plan is to borrow from the script of a growing number of professional and college teams that have used corporate sponsorship to finance stadiums. The plan was modeled after Louisville's 42,000-seat Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. The stadium was built in 1998 with $15 million in donations from fans and the athletic department's $18 million bond issue. Corporate sponsors took care of the rest.