Thursday, May 10, 2012

I'm not entirely sure why the Sun Belt exists

I made a passing comment last week regarding my lack of concern for the two meaningless teams that'll be left in the WAC once the football version of the conference finishes getting torn apart next year. What I didn't really consider: There is no future for the meaningless teams left in the WAC. Idaho and New Mexico State have literally zero appeal to anybody as an expansion target and will have no football teams left to play unless they go independent, which seems ... ummm ... doubtful. More on that later.

What they do next is still to be determined but will probably not be an entirely voluntary decision given the lack of viable options. This is from the Idaho Statesman:
The options for both schools are limited, but especially so for Idaho.

So Big Sky commissioner Doug Fullerton, who has been courting the Vandals for the past year, extended a lifeline to keep Idaho's athletic department afloat, albeit in the FCS.

"Playing at the top of the FCS is a better situation than playing at the bottom of the FBS," Fullerton told the Idaho Statesman on Monday. "The success and fan base and excitement you can do (by) staying regional is what college athletics are supposed to be about, unless you can play at the national level."
It's possible -- albeit pretty unlikely -- that Conference USA or the Mountain West will end up a team short of whatever number it wants to reach and extend a lifeline to either Idaho or New Mexico State (probably not both). Barring that, the only real option is ending the facade and getting out of the FBS.

I bolded the first part of the above quote for a reason: I've always wondered exactly what the appeal is of being an Eastern Michigan or a San Jose State and only surviving on paychecks real teams are willing to shell out for a sacrificial lamb. There's obviously a prestige thing that goes along with being D-I, but ... I mean ... does any prospective student/professor/administrator think, "Oh yeah, New Mexico State's a way better school than Northern Arizona cuz I remember that one time when I watched NMSU get murdered by USC." And would any enrollment drop even matter considering the massive savings enjoyed via the drop in expenses/scholarships/salaries?

There was a tangentially related article last week on Grantland about Terry Bowden (the one who ate the original Terry Bowden before taking the job at Akron) that posed the following question:
What is the purpose of "mid-major" football supposed to be? Is it enough to subsist in the gray area between small-time and big-time, or do these schools eventually have to choose a direction?
I thought about that for a while and couldn't really come up with a good answer other than this: Everybody wants to be Boise State. Win a lot, build a brand, market like a mofo, win some more, find a way to get some real TV revenue and hope to become not significantly distinguishable from the bourgeois. That's all I got. I should probably point out that hoping to be the one school that's gone from I-AA (before it was FCS) to borderline national power isn't much of a business model.

There was a really good post last year on MGoBlog that included a couple notable numbers about Eastern Michigan's finances in 2010. What's important is the difference between athletic department expenses ($24.4 million, of which about $5.5 million went directly to football) and external athletic department revenue ($1.7 million), which is the total amount brought in via ticket sales, the MAC's TV deal, sponsorships, etc. EMU would need to multiply its revenue by 15 in order to break even, and since that's not happening, the school is spending just under 10 percent of its general fund to support an athletic department that's getting an average of 5,016 fans (no joke) at its football games.

And please read this:
NCAA rules stipulate a school must average 15,000 fans per home football game to remain in Division I. Eastern Michigan, which averaged 6,401 fans per home game in 2010, uses $150,000 from a distribution contract with Pepsi to purchase tickets from itself at a rate of $3 apiece to remain NCAA compliant.
WHAAAAAAA??? EMU spends $150,000 of its own money -- that's about 8 percent of its total external revenue -- just to pretend to sell enough tickets to call itself an FBS program. I don't see how that can possibly be justified.

On a related note, New Mexico State was sending out pathetic-sounding press releases last year in a desperate attempt to try to get across the 15,000-fan-per-game line and maintain D-I eligibility. Observation: The inability to average 15,000 paying fans over the course of a football season should be reason enough to reconsider your cost-benefit analysis. Attendance isn't necessarily the deciding factor (Central Michigan averaged just over 20,000 fans in 2010 but brought in only about $700,000 more than Eastern Michigan, which is a meaningless amount toward a $25 million budget) but is at least a reasonable indicator of interest, which is largely what will determine the size of the overall revenue package.

BTW, all the public institutions have revenue/expense breakdowns available in the USA Today database. The numbers at the bottom are amazingly bad:
More than half of athletic departments at public schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision were subsidized by at least 26% last year ...

I am not a lawyer or economist and have no real brilliant insight into the value of athletics in academia and all that. My point is a much simpler and more straightforward one: There is no reason anybody in the Sun Belt or MAC or WAC (what's left of it) should be playing FBS football, which obviously requires a huge spending increase due to the extra 25 scholarships, the massively increased coaching salaries, the upgraded facilities, etc. I can't say exactly how much that number can be cut but can give you a recent number from Northern Arizona: Football expenses last year were $2,663,787. That's less than half of what Eastern Michigan is spending and has the added benefit of allowing NAU to offer 50 fewer scholarships (25 in football and 25 in women's sports due to Title IX) and save about another $600,000 in overall tuition expenses.

There's a very, very fat line between the haves and have-nots in the college football. It's tough for me to argue that they shouldn't have football at all given the circular benefit of increased spirit/pride/interest that leads to increased donations that leads to an increase in the overall quality of the school that leads to an increase in enrollment and so on and so forth; it's much easier for me to argue that they should drop down to a level that's more financially viable and ... I dunno ... appropriate? That seems like a good word choice.

Idaho has been a D-I team since 1997 and in that time has gone to two bowl games -- both in Idaho -- and has a record of 39-104. Again: What's the point?

At least the Big Sky is offering a cushy and logical landing spot (for Idaho, anyway) that would represent a negligible drop-off in quality for every sport other than football. The only alternative: Giving it a go as an independent, which means no TV revenue (not that the WAC is bringing in a whole lot right now), no bowl tie-ins (and zero chance of ever getting an at-large bid) and extreme post-September scheduling issues.

It'd probably be possible to fill about half of the schedule with paycheck games and set up a couple home-and-homes with each other as well as maybe BYU and one or both of the service academies, but it'd be (a) really difficult and (b) totally pointless since there'd be no conference title to play for and no shot at a bowl game. Existing as a supposedly-but-not-really-D-I program with nothing to play for is not a viable route to long-term survival; whether it'd be a viable short-term solution until Conference X gets raided and a spot opens up somewhere is a lot harder to say. It could probably be managed for a couple years, at which point maybe the best-case scenario comes to fruition and NMSU finds a home in the Sun Belt with the North Texases and Arkansas States of the world and the opportunity to continue losing $15 million a year on irrelevant football. Woo.

That last sentence is the entire situation in a nutshell: The downside is the continued loss of buttloads of money and the upside is ... ummm ... something something recognition something. Translation:

Yeah ... except Phase 3 for the aforementioned programs is known to be "continued loss of buttloads of money," which means the real question shouldn't be "What is Phase 2?" but "Why are we even trying to solve for Phase 2?"

I'm kinda curious to see if/when Idaho and New Mexico State figure that out.


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