Kansas started its 2018 football season by losing to an FCS team. The Jayhawks will continue to lose many games throughout the year, as always. They might only have a shot at one Big 12 win. (They do, after all, still play Texas.)
This will likely make it nine straight years with three or fewer wins. Two FCS teams (North Carolina A&T and Western Illinois) have more wins over FBS opponents (two) as Kansas does over the last three seasons. The Jayhawks have finished in the AP Top 25 once since 1996, and that was during the wildest football season ever. Outside of, like, five seasons, the entire history of Kansas football is devoid of success.
This most recent exercise in Jayhawk football futility led a professor at the Kansas law school to ask a question many have at least thought about: Wouldn’t Kansas be better off dropping football and spending its money elsewhere?
There are reasons schools spend a gazillion dollars on football even when they’re not championship contenders.
If you ask an FBS university administrator, they’ll probably tell you about how football teams lead to huge marketing opportunities for the school. They can produce exposure they’d never get otherwise and engage donors, alumni, and the greater community. And while measuring this exact impact is difficult and complicated, there’s some truth to it.
There’s also the idea that a successful team can lead to more, and more selective, freshman applications. That’s sometimes called the Flutie effect; Boston College saw a spike in interest after the Flutie beat Miami with a Hail Mary in 1984. Officials at UConn and USF made similar points when they decided to invest in FBS football in the early 2000s. The actual academic research on the Flutie effect is mixed, but other schools, like Boise State, have experienced similar bumps.
But for any of that to work, your team has to win sometimes.
Kansas isn’t winning squat. There are no admissions boosts from going 3-9 and hoping for a win over South Dakota. Any exposure the school is getting from losing to Nicholls State isn’t the kind that’s going to boost donations to the ol’ chemistry department.
Fans aren’t buying in either. The Lawrence World-Journal estimates less than 20,000 fans showed up to that Week 1 game against Nicholls. Even if Kansas weren’t terrible, it would be subject to the same national trends that have led to falling attendance across the sport.
Would Kansas save money by dropping football, or at least going down to FCS, where it wouldn’t have to spend as much to compete?
Dropping football also means dropping out millions of dollars’ worth of TV deals and College Football Playoff revenue-sharing. When rumors said Hawaii might drop down from FBS to FCS in 2015, my look at UH’s books suggested it wouldn’t actually save money.
But football is expensive, and it’s probably only going to get more expensive. It’s also a brutal and dangerous sport, and lawsuits could force schools to spend more on player medical care. Other reforms could force them to share money directly with players.
Keeping up with conference peers in athletic facilities is expensive, which isn’t great news for Kansas. Coach contracts are perpetually skyrocketing. An SEC administrator thinks Kansas needs a $30 million infusion to facilities and coach pay to turn the program around.
KU gets more than $34 million per year from the Big 12, making up about a third of its athletic revenue. But the athletic department lost money in 2017 anyway, and expenses have risen faster than revenues over the last decade.
And that’s without yet paying for huge stadium and facility upgrades, like a $350 million facilities push that Kansas has planned. It might be possible that sustaining a difficult short-term budget shock could be worth it for the long haul if it prevented Kansas from taking on unsustainable athletic debt.
What might happen to Kansas basketball and other sports?
Dropping FBS football would likely get Kansas kicked out of the Big 12. Of course, that could happen anyway if the Big 12 breaks apart at the seams in 2025. It’s not clear if the Big 12 would still want Kansas basketball or what it would pay the school without football.
Recently, Gonzaga, Villanova, and Xavier have shown that you don’t have to have FBS football to have an elite basketball program, the thing most Kansas fans really care about anyway. If Kansas were to join, say, the Big East, and scheduled a few former Big 12 opponents out of conference, the hoops team would still have the schedule needed to compete at a high level and get on national TV plenty.
That would be an odd fit, with Kansas being a large, public research institution and the rest of the Big East being mostly urban, private Catholic schools. But it might work, especially if the Big East decided to add UConn, another public school grappling with similar “is FBS football worth it” type questions.
It seems reasonable that the success of KU hoops could help subsidize the university’s other sports. Freed from the enormous debt of football facility upgrades and coaching salaries and buyouts, with the right donor buy-in and leadership, one could imagine the football team playing in the FCS Missouri Valley and competing for a playoff spot, the basketball team staying elite, and the school having more money to spend on other sports, like lacrosse or men’s hockey. It’s at least possible.
Kansas could also just skip the football part altogether. I’m sure they could figure out something to do with that stadium.
It’s not a slam dunk, but Kansas should be considering alternatives.
The best benefits of having FBS membership and football at all are off limits to Kansas unless it can launch a shocking turnaround. It’s not wild to think about possible alternatives if it can’t. And given the rising costs of the sport, Kansas probably isn’t the only university that should be at least considering other options.