ATLANTA — For years, Georgia State University struggled to shed its commuter college reputation by building dorms and a student center, hoping to draw more activity to the sleepy downtown Atlanta campus.
The bookstore had trouble selling T-shirts. On evenings and Saturdays, the campus was a ghost town. Homecoming – held in the spring, not the fall – was a joke among students and alumni.
That's when the 30,000-student university made one of the costliest decisions in higher education: starting a football team. Now the campus is awash in the university's bright blue, alumni who've not been to campus in decades flock to games, and students are calling downtown their home.
"Football is just a staple of all universities across the South, and the fact that we now have a football team and we're in the heart of downtown Atlanta, it just brings a certain bit of oomph to our university," said Tony Price, a senior, as he readied to go to the Panthers' Homecoming football game a few weeks ago.
"The first day they played their football game, I felt the value of my degree ... " Price said, before his friend, senior Sam Chukwuma, jumped in excitedly.
" ... go up. It did, I felt it," said Chukwuma.
The university has spent $8.6 million in the last two years on the team – all from private donors and a special student fee collected each semester. That's a hefty tab for a state university amid the worst economic recession in modern history, but university President Mark Becker says the football program is worth the cost.
Alumni association membership has nearly doubled to 3,300 in seven months. Student applications hit a record 12,091 for this fall.
And the money is rolling in: Donations since the football team was announced in 2007 are up 16 percent compared with the three years prior. Giving to the football program alone has reached nearly $3 million in that time.
"People are talking about Georgia State. If we had done that with a targeted advertising program, we could have spend a lot more money and not been as successful. And we wouldn't have a football team to show for it."
Turnout for the first game last month was 15,000, with 4,300 students. The team is averaging about 18,000 fans per game during its first season, with full-blown tailgating parties in the parking lot outside the Georgia Dome, home of the Atlanta Falcons.
One student even wrote a song and made a video about the change on campus, hoping to encourage his classmates to celebrate their university's new found spirit.
"When we hit the field, it's more than the game because the game brings us closer and that should be the aim," raps Brandon "Frenchy" French, a 22-year-old marketing major, in his song "Blu-Blitz."
"Whenever we on campus, make us feel like a family. We are but now we got more reason to understand it, reason to be involved and be a part of it all," he says, dancing in his blue and white face paint with the school's Panther mascot.
The Panthers are 5-4 so far this year, including a four-game winning streak that ended last weekend. They play two more games this season, including a match against last year's national champion, the University of Alabama.
The gamble on a football program is not always successful for colleges, particularly cash-strapped public universities. Some – like East Tennessee State University and Western Washington University – have dumped their football programs in recent years because the more than $5 million average annual cost is too much of a burden.
Just a small percentage of the 120 college football programs across the country operate in the black each year, said Dallas Branch, a sports management faculty member at West Virginia University. And the NCAA has found that even the country's biggest college football programs that snag national championships don't see significant increases in applications or donations, even after a winning season.
"It's not for the timid," Branch said.
But other campuses like Boise State University and the University of Central Florida have found the expense of a football program to be worth the buzz generated on and off campus. The experiment, many colleges have found, works particularly well in the South and Midwest where football is more of a religion than a sport for many.
In the five-year period beginning in 2009, at least 20 colleges – both public and private – have started or are planning to start football programs, according to a study by the National Football Foundation. That list includes small historically black private schools like LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis and big urban public campuses like the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.
Boise State is now a football powerhouse – a team that in the mid-90s was known more for its funky blue field than its record – racking up just four losses over the last four years. On campus, despite a student body that is largely commuter, the school is overrun with passionate fans wearing hats, T-shirts, shorts and sweat pants emblazoned with the school's logo.
"It's cool," freshman Mercedes Valdez told The Associated Press last month. "That's our school, that's where we go. We're a part of that."
For Georgia State, having a team means not only recruiting football players, but also recruiting the university's first-ever marching band. Alumna Margaret Franklin – who lives in Colts Neck, N.J., and hadn't been back to campus in years – said her daughter chose Georgia State so she could be in the university's inaugural marching band.
"When I was here, it was very fragmented," Franklin said during a tailgate party at a recent game. She said having a football team when she was in college "would have been a very different experience."
Associated Press writers Nancy Armour in Boise, Idaho, and Kate Brumback in Atlanta contributed to this report.
(This version CORRECTS spending and donation figures in 7th and 9th paragraphs.)