The University of New England in Biddeford plans to add football to its athletic lineup within three years.

Danielle Ripich, the school’s president, said Wednesday that she hopes to have a football team for the 2016 season, or 2017 at the latest. The school, which competes at the NCAA Division III level, also is adding a women’s rugby team beginning next fall, she said.

“This is going to happen,” Ripich told the Portland Press Herald. “I think there are a lot of moving parts right now. But I think this is the right thing to do.”

Ripich is enthusiastic about starting a football program, seeing it as a great investment.

“It elevates the image of the school,” she said. “It is such a community builder. I think it will bring a whole different kind of energy to the campus. Those fall weekends with football are hopefully going to bring the community, the folks in Biddeford and our neighborhood, to the games.”

Her plan comes as football is under fire over head injuries, and one day after the University of Alabama-Birmingham announced it was dropping the sport.

But Division III football is a far different game. The costs are less and the sport is growing at the lower levels. Seven new college football programs began nationwide this fall, two at the Division II level (Limestone College and Paine College), one at Division III (George Fox University) and four in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, an organization of small colleges and universities.

Eight more colleges are expected to launch football programs in the 2015-16 school year, according to the National Football Foundation.

Ripich declined to say how much it would cost to start the UNE program, but said the money would come from the school’s reserve fund for facility and program investments. She said the startup costs would be less than the $21 million spent to launch the ice hockey program, which included construction of an on-campus arena.

The football team would play on the Big Blue Turf, which is home to the school’s field hockey and men’s and women’s lacrosse teams. Football locker rooms would have to be constructed, as well as an expanded laundry room, as part of the Harold Alfond Forum. Bleachers would have to be added to the field, and a coaching staff would have to be hired.

SOME FACTORS LOWER STARTUP COSTS

Steve Peed, athletic director at Maine Maritime Academy, said the startup costs are highest when beginning a football program from scratch, without a field or other athletic facilities. But “if you have student interest and the facilities in place, it’s not that difficult to pull off,” he said.

Maine Maritime, which plays in the New England Football Conference, has had a football team since 1946. Football has an annual budget of $325,000, about 20 percent of the Castine-based school’s $1.6 million athletic budget.

Peed noted that some of the cost of football is offset by the number of student-athletes brought in to play.

“A lot of schools are adding football as (enrollment) drivers,” Peed said. “Say you’re looking at a school that costs $40,000 a year and you look to increase enrollment by 100 students. (With football) you have 100 new bodies.”

UNE offers 15 sports, nine of them women’s programs. School officials would not disclose the size of UNE’s athletic budget.

Its teams play in the Commonwealth Coast Conference, which does not compete in football. But five of the conference’s schools – Curry, Endicott, Nichols, Salve Regina and Western New England – have football teams that play in the eight-team New England Football Conference. That league has no plans to expand until 2017 at the earliest, said its commissioner, John Harper.

UNE could play an independent schedule for one year, or find another league, although Ripich would prefer to have the Nor’easters play against the other CCC schools that have football.

Dennis Leighton, the faculty athletics representative at UNE, said football would add to the school’s strong athletic programs. The women’s basketball team has reached the second round of the national tournament each of the past two years, and other teams also have advanced into NCAA postseason tournaments.

“I think it’s a great idea,” he said. “It’s just going to add to the quality of the whole athletic program and the culture of the university. We have a long history of successful athletic programs and our student-athletes generally perform very high academically.”

Leighton said adding any sport would run into some opposition from the faculty, but that UNE has always taken the right steps when starting a program. “We hire good coaches who recruit good kids,” he said. “And we remind them that they’re students first.”

FOOTBALL COULD BE ‘LEARNING LAB’

Ripich believes the football program also will help the school’s athletic training and exercise science programs. Students would be able to work with the football team and study injuries first-hand, without having to leave campus as they do now.

“We see this as a research and learning experience for them,” she said. “It’s almost like a learning lab.”

Ripich realizes that football’s image is shaky right now, but thinks the sport can be played safely at the Division III level. She sees no problem with adding the sport when other schools might be dropping it.

“I think we often see ourselves going against the trends in higher education,” she said. “We’re growing when other schools are shrinking, we’re adding programs when others are dropping them.”

Ripich said the school will begin looking for a coach in the coming months.

“I look at this as a win-win situation,” she said.

Women’s rugby also is a rugged sport and one that Ripich believes offers much to the campus community. She said a rugby field already has been built and will be ready to use in the fall.

Rugby is not a sanctioned NCAA sport, but it is classified as an NCAA emerging sport, which means its costs and participation numbers can count toward gender-equity requirements.

“I think it’s going to be fun for everyone,” Ripich said. “We’re going to continue to build those programs.”