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Which teams should leave FBS? Here’s a serious answer

Plenty of schools might be best served by dropping down. Let’s make a rough plan for how it could work.

There are lots of reasons a smart school might consider dropping out of FBS, college football’s top division, and moving to FCS.

The financials of the sport are changing. Coaching salaries are skyrocketing at an ahistorical rate. In a few years, the average head coach salary in the AAC, a non-power conference, could be north of $2 million. Programs are feeling pressure to increase assistant salary pools, with top coordinators easily clearing $1 million a year.

That’s just coaching salaries. There’s also pressure to invest in expensive facility projects and pay analysts, recruiting staffers, and other full-timers. Travel costs aren’t getting cheaper either.

Other future obligations are unclear. The NCAA, its conferences, and its schools might have to defend a class-action lawsuit over concussions. A court case could force schools to spend more on athletes — or even eventually pay players.

That might not be so bad if revenues were rising as quickly as expenses. Attendance has declined all over. With the decline of cable TV, the rise of media fees should slow, especially outside the Power 5 conferences. Many state governments have slowed their support for higher education, leading schools to charge students heavy fees to subsidize athletics.

Many teams aren’t going to win anything significant. They’re often the same ones in financial peril.

To free themselves from that wasteful cycle, an FBS team could consider dropping to FCS. There are a few structural differences between the two levels, the biggest being the different scholarship limits. FBS lets you have 85 full-ride scholarships, while FCS is limited to 63 (and in some leagues, even less than that).

The cost savings over scholarships is suspect (the schools are cutting checks to themselves, after all), but the costs for virtually everything else, from facilities to coaching salaries to support staff, are substantially less. The revenues are smaller too, but for some G5 programs without lucrative TV deals, the future savings may outweigh the costs.

The median non-power FBS football program was losing about $20 million per year a few years ago, according to the NCAA, while the median FCS team was down about $12 million.

That math isn’t perfect for a lot of reasons. But broadly speaking, it gives credence to the idea that playing at a lower level could help mitigate financial losses for some programs.

Dropping down could help a team win more and spend less. Attendance could reveal some candidates.

The NCAA technically requires that FBS teams average 15,000 in paid attendance per game over a rolling two-year period. Schools typically pad their official attendance numbers, but in real life, many schools actually have fewer than 15,000 butts in their seats every game.

In 2017, 34 FBS schools had fewer than 15,000 people actually scan tickets into their average home game. Some schools don’t have to comply with records requests for data like that, so the number could be even higher.

But we know these teams didn’t scan 15,000 fans into their games: ULM, Coastal Carolina, Buffalo, Eastern Michigan, Ball State, UMass, Kent State, San Jose State, Miami (Ohio), Central Michigan, Charlotte, UL Lafayette, Akron, Northern Illinois, UTEP, Arkansas State, New Mexico State, Ohio, Western Michigan, Middle Tennessee, Texas State, Nevada, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, UNLV, Old Dominion, Toledo, UTSA, Southern Miss, Marshall, Louisiana Tech, Wyoming, Connecticut, and Western Kentucky.

A few of these teams have had enough FBS success that it’s probably not worth discussing them as candidates to drop down.

  • NIU’s a perennial MAC contender and made a BCS game once.
  • Toledo’s made bowls seven of the last eight years.
  • Marshall has bowled seven times in 10 years.
  • Southern Miss was highly competitive in the late ‘90s and 2000s.

The jury’s still out on teams that recently jumped to FBS.

Coastal Carolina, Georgia State, UMass, Charlotte, Texas State, Old Dominion, and UTSA might not be suited for FBS. But let’s leave them out of the conversation for now.

That leaves 24 drop-down candidates to seriously look at from this list.

The Western schools here should try to join forces with Big Sky teams and form a couple of smaller FCS conferences. If that can’t happen, at least one of these FBS teams should probably drop anyway.

San Jose State, UTEP, NMSU, Nevada, Wyoming, and UNLV are in difficult spots. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, Wyoming was one of the first real powers from outside a major conference. But the rest of these schools have a combined two AP Top 25 finish in their histories.

You can talk yourself into UNLV’s potential in the Raiders’ new stadium. If you try, you can talk yourself into UTEP succeeding by being the only program in a big city, despite all the hard things about that job. But winning and financial sustainability will likely remain hard for all these schools.

Western schools have to consider geography. New Mexico State’s athletic director has cited travel costs as a factor in decisions about which league to play in. Long commutes across the West could eat into FCS savings, after all.

It could make sense for some of these FBS teams to join forces with the 13-team Big Sky, split that league into two FCS conferences of eight or 10 teams each, and give a school like Utah’s FCS independent Dixie State a home.

But it may make more immediate sense for San Jose State, a school in a high-cost area without much fan support or success and with the smallest revenues in the Mountain West Conference, to drop down regardless. The Spartans would save money and have a more feasible postseason path. The Mountain West could replace them with NMSU or UTEP, or leave that slot open and pay a little more to each remaining member. Everyone wins.

The Midwestern schools could reshuffle, too.

If we’re just using attendance as a benchmark, the entire MAC could drop to FCS. But that isn’t fair, as the MAC’s TV-focused strategy (with games on Tuesday and Wednesday nights) has to depress turnout. If MAC teams played all their games on Saturdays, then Toledo, NIU, and WMU would sell more tickets.

But the MAC’s situation has gotten worse. The state of Ohio no longer produces the same volume of FBS-caliber recruits like it did in the 1960s. The Rust Belt is losing population relative to the Sun Belt and West, sapping potential support for smaller schools. Building fanbases in the shadows of Big Ten programs might only get harder.

One idea: three of the 12-team MAC’s lowest-revenue programs — Kent State, Ball State, and Eastern Michigan — keep their MAC membership in other sports, but play football in the Missouri Valley. To get back to 10 football schools, the MAC could try to woo FCS power North Dakota State. If the Bison don’t want to come, maybe ask UMass to come back.

Failing that, the MAC could just sit tight at nine teams, and play an eight-game, round-robin schedule. Giving fans a chance to see everybody in the league isn’t so bad.

Once North Dakota joins the MVC in 2020, the conference has 13 football teams under this plan. That’s an odd number, yeah, but the OVC currently has nine schools, and there’s no rule against odd numbers. Here’s how that might look:

Kent State gets to focus on basketball. Ball State gets a more feasible postseason path and a chance to build a rivalry with Indiana State. EMU gains an identity as the only FCS school in Michigan. The MAC gets to split its football money among fewer schools. We finally get to see NDSU beat up on Big Ten teams more regularly, or UMass gets more of a path toward football relevance after sitting in independence purgatory. Everyone wins.

Let’s get even weirder for the South. Let’s combine Conference USA and the Sun Belt, and send some other teams to FCS.

ULM and UL Lafayette each report under $30 million in athletic revenue, including other university subsidies. (ULM’s under $20 million.) Given the precariousness of Louisiana’s fiscal health, there’s an argument for cutting costs. Similar arguments can be made for Middle Tennessee, Arkansas State, and Louisiana Tech.

Make a new conference from a group like UAB, North Texas, ODU, Southern Miss, Marshall, Louisiana Tech, App State, Troy, Georgia Southern, Arkansas State, FIU, FAU, Coastal Carolina, and Georgia State.

It’s not like combining Conference USA with another league is a new, radical idea, after all. Heck, other writers have suggested variations of this merger too. Heck, I did once.

Everyone else can start a new FCS conference or spread out among the OVC, Southland, and Big South. That’s a better future for the consumer, the fan, and the TV executive.

Now, I know I said earlier that I’d leave some of the FBS newbies out of the discussion for now. Here, a few do go down to make the numbers work. But if you feel strongly that UTSA, Texas State, or Charlotte should be here, feel free to swap out someone else in this thought exercise. The financials and attendance markers are similar across many C-USA schools.

If that’s too drastic, just send the two Louisianas to FCS (in difference conferences, so they can both call themselves Louisiana), and let the Sun Belt sit at eight teams. The Sun Belt can play a seven-game round robin, with an extra FCS home game per team per season.

That way, everybody can schedule a paycheck game and still keep a home game, helping everybody balance their books a teensy bit more. Everyone wins.

Oh, and UConn also needs to drop to FCS. Or drop football entirely.

I have like, another 1,000 words on that. The AAC could sit at 11 teams, make a run at BYU, kick the tires on Army, or whatever. UConn could focus on basketball. Everyone wins.

Another important group to consider here is the players, who’d lose scholarship slots if a lot of teams dropped down. But there’s a solution.

It might make good sense financially. But if even just five teams dropped to FCS, that would mean DI had more than 100 fewer football scholarships. That’s a significant hardship.

But one way to mitigate the loss of scholarship opportunities for football players would to raise the FCS scholarship limit — maybe to 65, from 63. Two more scholarships wouldn’t break the bank for most budget-conscious FCS programs. Depending on what schools did in FCS leagues that don’t allot the maximum scholarships, that could make up a big chunk of the scholarship slots lost by teams going down from FBS.

Administrators should be unsentimental about cutting athletic spending to control costs. But they should try to make sure players’ scholarship opportunities are shielded.

This sounds like a lot, but it might prove to be a conservative proposal.

Dropping a level is hard. There’s a reason only Idaho has done it in recent memory, and the Vandals dealt with fierce initial backlash from fans.

Just about every program, even the most resource-starved, is one good hire away from cracking .500. And there are benefits to FBS that don’t easily show up on a balance sheet.

But drastic times could call for drastic measures. Idaho bet that in the long run, its athletic department would come out ahead. Others may do well to consider similar bets.