If FBS schools no longer play FCS schools in football, what are the ramifications?

If you follow college football at all, you probably are familiar with last week’s story out of Wisconsin, where Barry Alvarez was quoted as saying that Big 10 schools would not schedule FCS opponents going forward:

“The nonconference schedule in our league is ridiculous,” Alvarez said on WIBA-AM. “It’s not very appealing…

“So we’ve made an agreement that our future games will all be Division I schools. It will not be FCS schools.”

A couple of quick points:

– Obviously, FCS schools are members of Division I. You would think the director of athletics at a D-1 institution would know that.

– Alvarez claimed that the Big 10’s non-conference schedule “is ridiculous”, yet he is the same AD who in recent years scheduled multiple FCS schools from all over the country, including The Citadel, Wofford, Northern Iowa, South Dakota, Austin Peay, and Cal Poly. The Badgers will play Tennessee Tech in 2013.

Alvarez’s comment drew a lot of attention, understandably so, although it is not a lock that the Big 10 will enforce such an edict. Northern Iowa’s AD was blunt:

I would tell you the loss of the Big Ten schools will be devastating, to UNI and to a lot of our peers. Not just because we wouldn’t play Iowa and have the guarantee, if you think this will stop at the Big Ten…I look at things happening in the equity leagues in fives, and so I have to believe this might lead to additional dominoes…It impacts our ability to generate money in football. It closes the ranks, it closes us out a little bit more.

Samford’s AD had a similar reaction:

If the SEC and ACC make the same decision, we’ve all got to sit back and reevaluate how we’re going to replace our money. If you eliminate those guarantee teams, it puts us in a tough situation at a private school where we don’t get any state funding.

Of course, not everyone is upset. Some in the media welcome the move, eager for what they perceive as “better” scheduling (though suggesting New Mexico State would be a significant improvement over a decent FCS squad strikes me as a bit puzzling). Most members of the college football press/blogosphere, however, understand the potential issues associated with such a decision and the nuances at play. Not all of them do, though — or if they do, they simply don’t care.

The best (worst?) example of this attitude is probably Yahoo! Sports columnist Frank Schwab, who couldn’t be more thrilled with the no-FCS proposal. After writing (in a headline) that “hopefully everyone follows [the Big 10’s] suit”, he added:

…hopefully other conferences (and by “other conferences” we mostly mean you, SEC) stop the practice of wasting a precious Saturday afternoon in the fall on FCS opponents. The FCS teams benefit with a large payday, and that’s great for the bean counters at those schools. It’s not good for anyone else.

It stinks for the season-ticket holders that have to pay for a sham of a game. It’s nothing worth watching on television. The FBS team has nothing to gain, because a win is expected but a loss goes down in infamy. And while the FCS team will get enough money to build a new weight room, the most common result is getting pounded by 40 or 50 points, which can’t be that enjoyable for those players.

Some Big Ten-Sun Belt game in September might not be a ratings bonanza either, but at least it’s better than a parade of FCS opponents.

I thought Schwab’s overall tone was a bit much, to be honest. I sent him a tweet, trying to be as polite as possible:

You seem to have a very flippant attitude about the FCS.

His reply:

Oh, make no mistake, no “seem” about it

Okay, then…

My first thought when I read Schwab’s piece was that it was clearly the work of someone who does not understand FCS football, or who has no connection to it at all (Schwab is a Wisconsin alum). Saying that FCS players can’t enjoy the experience suggests he has never spoken to any of them about it. Most small-school players relish the challenge of “playing up”. In fact, such games are often a recruiting tool for FCS coaches. It’s not all about the money.

Earlier in this post I listed six FCS schools Wisconsin has played in recent years. Of those matchups, the Badgers had to hang on to beat Northern Iowa by five points, were tied at halftime with The Citadel, and frankly should have lost to Cal Poly (winning in OT after the Mustangs missed three extra points). I’m not really getting the “sham of a game” vibe with those contests. Now if you want to talk about the 2012 Big 10 championship game against Nebraska in those terms, go right ahead.

Schwab singles out the SEC as the worst “offender” when it comes to playing FCS schools. I think it is only fair to point out that Big 10 schools currently have a total of 37 FCS teams on their future schedules, while SEC schools have 32. (I’m sure the SEC will eventually add a few more.)

Oh, and to quickly dispose of one canard (which in fairness to Schwab, he does not suggest): some people occasionally claim that allegedly easy FCS matchups have given the SEC a leg up on winning BCS titles, because they play fewer quality non-conference opponents. You only have to look at the Big 10 to see that isn’t the case.

The SEC has played more FCS schools in the past than has the Big 10. However, despite that, Big 10 schools have actually lost more games to FCS opposition since 2005 than has the SEC. In fact, no BCS league has lost as many such games (six) or had as many different schools lose them (four) in that time period.

Not playing FCS schools won’t hide the Big 10’s real problem, which is illustrated to a degree by this article, written in August of 2012:

Iowa has four nonconference football dates. It has chosen to fill two of them this year with games against teams from the Mid-American Conference

The reason for this: The Hawkeyes wanted two games they would have very good chances to win.

That’s not exactly a revelation. But perhaps you aren’t aware of just how pronounced Iowa’s (and the Big Ten’s) dominance over MAC teams has been.

The columnist wrote that the MAC was “the Big 10’s football piñata”, which in years past it may have been. Unfortunately for the Big 10 (and to the undoubted surprise of the writer), it would lose three games to MAC schools in 2012, and that was just part of a trend — MAC teams have beaten Big 10 squads twelve times since 2008. (MACtion, indeed.)

As for the Hawkeyes and the “two games they would have very good chances to win”…Iowa lost one of them by one point, and won the other by one point.

The truth is the Big 10 just hasn’t been that good in football in recent years, which doesn’t have anything to do with playing FCS opposition. Dropping FCS schools from Big 10 schedules won’t change things, either. SEC schools aren’t winning all those BCS titles because they play FCS teams; they’re winning them because SEC schools have the best players and (in some cases) the best coaches.

So what happens if the Big 10 follows through and has its members drop all FCS opponents? What happens if other leagues do the same thing?

You’ve seen the quotes from ADs at schools that would be affected. Then there is this take from agent/event promoter Jason Belzer:

If other conferences follow the Big Ten’s lead and stop scheduling games against FCS opponents, the institutions that compete at that level will have two options: 1) look to make up the funds elsewhere, or 2) essentially be forced to stop competing at the same level as the larger institutions. Because it is  unrealistic to believe that any institution can begin to make up the difference in loss of football guarantee revenue by playing any number of additional such games in basketball, it is more likely that the second option will occur. With the loss of revenue, the gap between schools in BCS conferences and those who are not will continue to grow ever wider, leading to what may be the eventual breakup of the approximately 340 schools that compete at the NCAA Division I level.

How soon this may occur remains to be seen, but the the additional millions in revenue the new college football playoff will provide BCS conferences, coupled with their decision to eliminate the one source in which smaller schools could obtain a piece of those funds, will almost certainly accelerate the timetable for any such  fracturing.

I think that is a distinct possibility. I also think it may be the ultimate aim of the Big 10.

Not everyone agrees that the outlook is so dire, and at least one observer believes there are other ways for smaller schools to generate revenue:

FCS schools can take steps to enhance revenue streams outside of the on-field competitions with big schools. For example, very few schools FCS schools have media rights deals. Yet there are an increasing number of regional sports networks (RSNs) and national networks that are looking for programming. In fact, NBC Sports Network signed a media rights deal with the FCS Ivy League to “broadcast football, men’s basketball. and lacrosse.” FCS schools can and should continue to pursue these deals to be less dependent on paycheck changes…
…many institutions do not lobby at the federal or state level for their athletic programs or rely the schools’ lobbyists for their athletic programs. As schools like UNI receive more state funding, it is unclear how much of that funding will go to its athletic department. Therefore, FCS can and should make larger commitments to lobby on their athletic programs’ behalf, especially if paycheck games are eliminated.

That comes from a blog by a group (or maybe just one individual) called Block Six Analytics. I’ll be honest. I don’t buy either of those options.

I think many smaller institutions already lobby on varsity sports interests, and at any rate in most cases there would be a ceiling for actual results. To use The Citadel as an example, the school has in recent years begun to play Clemson and South Carolina in football on a more regular basis, as do several other FCS schools in the Palmetto State.

This outcome was basically due to a request by the state legislature to the two larger schools, neither of which had any real problem with it. However, The Citadel can’t play Clemson and/or South Carolina every year, since there are numerous other FCS programs in the state (Furman, Wofford, South Carolina State, Coastal Carolina, Presbyterian, and Charleston Southern).

The first point, that FCS schools should have media rights deals…um, it’s not like they haven’t tried. I’m sure the Southern Conference would like to have a profitable contract with CBS or ESPN or Al-Jazeera, but that’s not likely to happen. Even the mid-major conferences that do have deals (like the CAA has with NBC Sports) usually only get the benefit of exposure. That’s great, but it’s not a big cash situation.

I’m trying to imagine what reaction SoCon commissioner John Iamarino would have if he was told that he should go right out and find a big-money media rights deal for his league. Eye-rolling? Uncontrollable laughter?

Speaking of Iamarino, he had some comments on the FCS vs. FBS situation that were fairly ominous:

The only reason to have 63 scholarships is to be eligible to play FBS teams and count toward their bowl eligibility. If those games go away, the entire subdivision would have to look at if 63 is the right number. Could we save expenses by reducing the number of scholarships? It would seem to me that’s one thing that would have to be looked at.

I disagree with Iamarino that “the only reason” to have 63 scholarships is to play FBS schools (but I digress).

I’m guessing it hasn’t occurred to some of the more FBS-focused among the media that there could be a potential loss of football scholarships if the Big 10’s big idea comes to pass. No one thinks that would be good for the health of the sport. It would also be an sizable number of lost opportunities for potential students.

Iamarino doesn’t give a number, but I could see the FCS maximum dropping to around 50, based on scholarship costs and the lost income from not playing those games. That’s not much more than the D-2 maximum of 36.

This wouldn’t be the first time a Big 10 proposal had the potential to eliminate athletic scholarships at other schools, of course. As far back as 1948 the NCAA, then largely controlled by the Big 10, enacted the Sanity Code, an attempt to get rid of all athletic scholarships. It was a rule seen by many as benefiting the Big 10 at the expense of mostly southern schools.

Famously, the Sanity Code would not last long, and it is a pleasure to note that The Citadel was one of the “Seven Sinners” at the heart of its eventual destruction. I would hate to see the school have to reduce opportunities for prospective students after all these years.

Block Six Analytics did make one good point, which is that the FCS schools do have one other string in their collective bow, namely the NCAA basketball tournament:

One may argue that it is madness to have such a seemingly large organization completely dependent on one deal. However, this deal also means the NCAA will do everything in its power to ensure that there are enough Division I basketball programs to continue “March Madness” (also known as the Division I Men’s Basketball Championship). This requires that schools outside of the BCS have basketball programs that compete at the Division I level. In addition, this dynamic may allow smaller schools to actually ask for an increased amount of subsidies from the NCAA – especially given the elimination of paycheck games.

This may be the biggest obstacle to the Big 10 (and other power leagues) breaking away from the NCAA sooner rather than later. There is a lot of money in that tournament, and the event works in part because the country is enchanted with the “David vs. Goliath” component that is traditionally the major drawing card of the first two rounds. A basketball tournament only open to 65-75 larger schools wouldn’t be nearly as valuable (whether administrators at the BCS schools all understand this point is another issue).

Having said that, I have my doubts the smaller schools could extract a larger pound of flesh for their participation in the event.

A couple of other thoughts:

– If the Big 10 eliminates games against FCS schools, it will be harder for its member institutions to become bowl-eligible. This could be even more of a problem if the league moves to a 10-game conference schedule, which is reportedly under consideration.

If dropping FCS schools from FBS schedules was done across the board, there wouldn’t be enough eligible teams for all the existing bowl spots. Either the rules would have to be changed to allow 5-7 teams to play in bowls, or a bunch of bowl games would have to be cut.

– Frank Schwab wrote that a “Big Ten-Sun Belt game in September might not be a ratings bonanza either, but at least it’s better than a parade of FCS opponents”. I believe all but one of the current Sun Belt schools were once FCS (I-AA) programs. It’s not that big a difference from playing these schools versus competing against a quality FCS squad.

In addition, if FBS-FCS matchups go by the wayside, then a bunch of FCS schools will likely move up to FBS — more than are already planning to do so.

It’s possible that Alvarez’s comments to a local radio station are just the rantings of one man. I hope so, but I’m not confident that is the case. I think this is probably going to happen (though perhaps not next year). It will have a limited impact unless leagues like the SEC and ACC do the same thing. Then it will become a problem.

When it comes to maintaining financially stable sports programs, smaller schools already have too many problems.

3 Responses

  1. Excellent post.
    Perhaps I am not realistic, but I would prefer that FCS schools reduce expenses, limit scholarships, and have athletic programs that complement their academic programs. FCS schools need to make an attempt to return sanity to their athletic programs. The Ivy league is the conference FCS colleges need to emulate.
    Let the FBS schools continue their insanity and serve as the minor leagues for the NFL. Educating the three major sport athletes is not the goal of FBS colleges.

  2. I do not believe there is anyone who is more thorough in analyzing athletics at The Citadel. I just wish others would comment on your posts and the comments that others make. Regardless, I enjoy reading you thoughts . Thank you

  3. […] has South Carolina on the schedule annually. Additionally, they host an in-state FCS program, which has important benefits for the state. That leaves just two non-conference games. Every third year one of those games will be Notre Dame. […]

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