Students, Alumni & Community Strengthen Allegiances to FIT & UCF
By Carl Kotala
The football program at Florida Institute of Technology (FIT) will begin its second season in the fall, but the impact it has already shown both on campus and in the local community has been quite impressive.
An economic study recently done by FIT shows visitors who came to Melbourne to attend football games in its inaugural season spent $1.06 million on lodging, dining, gas and retail (merchandise and food) among other things. Not only that, but sales of all FIT-licensed items, from clothing to jewelry to memorabilia, increased an eye-popping 178 percent from the 2011-2012 (non-football) academic year compared to the 2012-2013 year. Through the first eight months of the current academic year, that number was still climbing, rising nearly 34 percent in that timeframe.
That is, however, just part of the impact football has brought to the campus. It has helped energize the student body, brought more attention and investment into the other sports, such as soccer, and has had a tremendous effect on the school’s alumni.
“It’s really reconnected a lot of alumni with the school, which makes sense,” said Bino Campanini, FIT’s vice president of alumni affairs. “You graduate from the school, you have a connection with, say, the business school or the engineering school, but what else do you have that’s a global connection that everyone can identify? That’s what sports does, and in America, the No. 1 sport is football.”
UCF Captures Attention
UCF moved into its on-campus football home, Bright House Networks Stadium, in 2007 with a nationally televised game against the University of Texas. Since that time, the school has also seen a marked increase in the attention it receives from its alumni as well.
“When I travel around the country and I meet with UCF alumni chapters, there is a significant number of alumni who show up to those events who have all graduated within the last five to six years,” Athletic Director Todd Stansbury said. “It’s extremely noticeable because where I’ve been in the past, you’re always trying to figure out how to get your young alums engaged. This is the first time where it seems like the alums that are the most engaged are our younger alumni. I feel it’s because of the on-campus experience they had once football was being played on campus.”
While it’s too early to tell what kind of impact UCF’s move from Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference will have on the school, Stansbury said there has been a noticeable increase in energy around the campus, which is understandable considering their outstanding season and historic victory over Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl.
Instead of playing schools like Southern Mississippi, Tulane and UTEP, the Knights are facing schools with rich traditions – particularly in basketball – such as Connecticut and Louisville. That not only brings a lot of star power, it also means fans of those teams usually travel well, and that’s good for the local economy, not to mention the buzz it creates on campus and the attention it brings to the school.
“The games and the attendance and the economic impact from that is one thing, but this year, between football and men’s and women’s basketball, we played on national television 29 times,” Stansbury said. “Just the exposure it gives the institution as well as the community to get that kind of a national presence is pretty impactful because we are, in the grand scheme of things, still a relatively new brand in higher education at the national level.”
Expansive Growth at FIT
FIT President Anthony Catanese has said he wanted to bring football to the school in order to give the students “a complete college experience.” However, football is not the only sport that has expanded at Florida Tech since Dr. Catanese’s arrival nearly 12 years ago. The school has gone from 10 sports to 22 (two more than the University of Florida) and seen tremendous growth in other areas.
From the 2003-2004 academic year to the 2012-2013 year, enrollment has gone from 4,890 to 15,992. Full- and part-time faculty has jumped from 366 to 650. New facilities have been constructed and acquired, totaling $123 million, including student housing, new academic buildings and campus improvements.
In addition, annual operating revenues went from $86.6 million to $168.9 million and funded research nearly doubled from $27 million to $54 million. Outside research and training contracts, known as extramural funding, went from roughly $30 million to $120 million.
Florida Tech’s growth makes it an exciting institution to be a part of as current students know, and returning alumni are finding out. The school has made a big push to promote its homecoming celebration, including a Homecoming Fest in Downtown Melbourne. Now that it has a natural hook – a football game – to help attract fans, the event went from drawing roughly 8,000 people two years ago to nearly double that last year.
Partnerships through Community and Alumni
With more than 5,000 graduates in the area, the FIT Panthers have a lot of local support to draw from. That’s the same at UCF, where the Knights are working to educate their merchandise partners and local businesses that there are a lot of UCF grads who make their living in Central Florida and therefore contribute to the local economy not just now, but years from now.
“The vision for the future is twofold,” Stansbury explained. “One is to use our partnership with ESPN to further elevate the brand of UCF and UCF athletics. The other thing is that while winning games is important, because that’s the business we’re in, ultimately the success of our program will be judged on what our student-athletes are doing five and 10 years after graduation. The fact that a majority of them are going to stay here in the Central Florida region means that we have the ability to make a real long-term impact on our neighborhood.”
That is, after all, what it’s all about. The impact of a school’s athletic program may be felt economically, or socially, but it is felt by all those around the surrounding community as well. It can also open the eyes to people all around the country that this school is the place to be.
“I think athletics provides a portal to the institution and gives UCF a platform to introduce people to what’s happening on this campus, beyond just the athletic competition,” Stansbury said. “People are either coming to campus for games or tuning us in on television. We’re able to introduce them to the university and all of the great things the university is doing.”