TERRE HAUTE — It seemed so far-fetched.
Internet rumors circulated that Indiana State had been approached by the Sun Belt Conference to bring the Sycamores’ football team into the Sun Belt’s fold.
The Sun Belt is part of the Football Bowl Subdivision. Bowl football. Big boy football … and all it entails.
ISU’s program has turned itself around on the field, with three consecutive winning seasons after scraping the bottom of the Division I ranks for much of the 2000s, a time when the program’s very future was in jeopardy. Progress made since the dark days of 2009, when ISU lost to NAIA Quincy and owned the nation’s longest losing streak, has been monumental.
But this? Bowl-level football?
While the on-field product has stepped it up, there’s little else to indicate ISU is ready for FBS football. ISU still hasn’t come close to filling its small stadium … and Memorial Stadium’s capacity (12,764) doesn’t meet the FBS attendance requirement (15,000) in any case.
Moreover, ISU only recently funded all of the 63 scholarships allocated at the Football Championship Subdivision level. The scholarship limit for a FBS program is 85. How could ISU fund those scholarships, plus, the likely women’s sport it would have to add to maintain Title IX compliance?
Then there are the higher coaches’ salaries and the increased travel commitment to name just a few more ramifications of moving up. Playing football at the FBS level is a complete game-changer for the entire athletic program, not just football.
ISU approached by the Sun Belt? It seemed preposterous.
But in a day and age where the tectonic plates of collegiate athletics have moved rapidly and created earthquakes that have shaken nearly every school at the Division I level, preposterous is the new norm.
And in this case, the preposterous turned out to be true.
“We were contacted by the Sun Belt. While flattering, it’s something we’re not ready for. We may be someday, but we’re not there now,” ISU Director of Athletics Ron Prettyman confirmed to the Tribune-Star.
The question is whether the future of college football will evolve to the point that ISU football will be forced to be move up … ready or not.
Or perhaps, some of the current low-level FBS schools might be forced down to a version of ISU’s FCS level.
As ISU – and the rest of the Missouri Valley Football Conference – move their football programs forward, these are fundamental questions as to how evolution will occur. And it will be an evolution, because there are very few observers who feel college football will look the same in a decade as it does in 2013.
“The million dollar question is to try and guess and anticipate what that future is,” Northern Iowa Director of Athletics Troy Dannen said.
Why change could be coming
The FCS division as it’s currently defined is under potential threat primarily because of a trickle-down effect from the titanic changes made at the top of the FBS level because of conference realignment, as well as the BCS playoff system, which will be implemented in 2014.
As the large conference have grown and raided each other and smaller conferences for members, the smaller conferences at the FBS level – Conference USA and the Sun Belt Conference being chief among them – have dipped into the FCS ranks to help fill their leagues.
Georgia State, Texas State, Massachusetts, Old Dominion, Charlotte, Texas-San Antonio and Texas-Arlington are just a few of the teams that made the move. Some are football start-ups that have spent a brief time at the FCS level, but some have been long-time FCS powers.
Earlier this month, Appalachian State and Georgia Southern – two playoff bell cows of the FCS division – announced moves to the Sun Belt Conference. James Madison and Liberty University are also considering the jump.
The fear for teams that remain at the FCS level is that as more teams move up to the next division, it waters down the competition. The continuing migration of teams could force FCS football into irrelevance.
“Over the last five years, people have been bailing FCS football as fast as they can to get into a bowl division,” Dannen said. “They’re not doing it for financial reasons. That’s a misnomer. You’re going to make more money, you’re going to spend more money. But I think they’re doing it because of an insecurity of where FCS football is headed.”
There are others factors at work too. The Big Ten Conference sent a shot across the FCS division bow – and the MVFC in particular – in February when it was suggested that the league no longer play against FCS competition. Though widely-reported, the Big Ten has not yet implemented such a rule, and other FBS leagues expressed their desire to continue to play FCS teams.
However, if access to playing FBS teams were cut off, it would be a significant financial blow for FCS teams, many of whom depend on the “money game” or two they play annually to balance the books. ISU will be paid over $800,000 in 2013 alone for playing Indiana and Purdue.
If access to that revenue stream was cut off, schools might consider the financial risk of moving up to be worth it to maintain access to that revenue stream.
Moving up and the money
But it’s not as easy as declaring a move up and it’s done. The process is in the hands of the conferences at the FBS level and the division is run as a football cartel.
FCS schools cannot simply move up to FBS of their own volition. Due to by-laws at the FBS level, a FCS team must be invited by an existing conference, and the FBS has capped the number of conferences in its membership. That would prevent the MVFC, for example, from moving up en masse.
If a team is asked to move up, the costs to move up vary, primarily depending on travel obligations, but it would likely cost an athletic program at least $4-5 million more annually to make the move.
That’s a significant chunk of change for MVFC athletic programs, the majority of whom operate athletic budgets in the $10-$20 million range.
That’s just the financial hit for football itself. Because of gender equity and the 85 scholarships required to play FBS football, most schools would have to add an additional, non-revenue women’s sport to maintain compliance with Title IX. That adds to the bottom line.
The benefits of moving up are hard to gauge. Most Mid-American Conference and Sun Belt teams play in low-profile bowls that are money-losing propositions once the travel and ticket-buying obligations are factored in.
Even when a team succeeds at the highest level – as Northern Illinois did with its unlikely qualification for the Orange Bowl in 2012 – there’s not a guaranteed windfall. Connecticut, which qualified in 2011 as the Big East champion, lost $1.8 million when it participated in the 2011 Fiesta Bowl.
“It’s fair to say that the continuing migration of some of the better teams in FCS into FBS is troubling, but we look at the finances and logistics and think it doesn’t make any sense,” MVFC commissioner Patty Viverito said.
“We think playing for national championships is a lot more interesting than playing in bad bowls with nobody present. That being what it is, there are people who find being in the FBS neighborhood attractive,” Viverito added.
Indeed, the immediate costs of reaping the benefits of a bowl are often measured away from athletics. If a university sees an increase in enrollment and donations, playing at the highest level can pay off, even if that money isn’t funneled directly into athletics.
“A school might say, ‘We’re on national TV, and no matter what bowl it is, you’re drawing a hefty audience on national TV and that’s a great commercial for your institution.’ There are things businesses and institutions do that might not always turn a profit, but profits in another way,” Southern Illinois Director of Athletics Mario Moccia.
While costs are comparatively contained at the FCS level, it doesn’t mean schools are financially protected either. The ultimate goal is qualification for the FCS playoffs, but doing so doesn’t carry with it a financial windfall either.
Moccia said that when SIU advanced to the 2007 FCS playoff semifinals and played three home games in Carbondale, Ill., the school netted $28,000. He noted that SIU has never lost money on a home playoff game, but that the margins were in the $5,000 range.
Where do MVFC teams want to be?
The MVFC has been the strongest FCS conference for the last two years. North Dakota State is a two-time defending national champion and four different MVFC schools have been in the FCS playoffs in the last two seasons.
The MVFC is somewhat unique in FCS in that it is a football-only conference and is not the permanent home of its members. Even the full-time Missouri Valley Conference schools that form the core of the league could theoretically take their football elsewhere, as would have been the case in the Sun Belt’s ISU inquiry.
That makes the situation on the ground in the MVFC a bit different than it is for some other FCS conferences.
“We operate football separately so that football isn’t driving membership decisions other than the sport of football. Quite frankly, in this climate of realignment, is a luxury. In that sense, I feel good about where we are,” Viverito said.
Many of the MVFC schools are either geographically isolated, in a small market, or both, which makes them theoretically less likely to be poached. Many of the schools that have moved up were in target-rich environments where Conference USA and Sun Belt had existing schools.
But none of that guarantees that a move wouldn’t be considered or made. Why? Most of the MVFC schools play in the current division because they want to compete in what some call the “second tier” of football.
“The concern is you don’t want to be left behind in the third level of football. All of us have chosen FCS because it’s the second level of football. None of us want to invest the money we’re investing to play a third-level of football,” Dannen said.
Viverito stated it explicitly.
“We want to play at a national caliber level in the second level of football however it’s defined. We know there’s BCS out there, and that’s not what we aspire to be, but we know that we can be nationally competitive at whatever that next level is,” Viverito said.
What that second tier will be is the vexing question. There are two schools of thought.
One is that the BCS schools will form a fourth “super division” and split football from NCAA governance.
“I think the financial driving force of football is moving it towards a select conference. I think that’s obvious, I think everyone can see it, but I think the FCS can co-exist in that environment. I think there will be people that prefer FCS football over that,” ISU football coach Mike Sanford said.
But will FCS be second or third tier? A super division could create a second division comprised of current FBS, non-BCS schools (the Mountain West, American Athletic Conference, Sun Belt and MAC) and consign the current FCS division to a third tier.
The formation of a super division could also, in effect, force out conferences like the Sun Belt, MAC and others into a morphed version of the current FCS division, with strong FCS conferences like the MVFC, Colonial and Big Sky joining with those leagues.
“Whether it’s at the current FCS umbrella or whether it’s the bottom quartile of the current FBS joining the top quartile of FCS. What model is, whatever amount of scholarships it takes, that’s where we want to be,” Viverito said.
Dannen, whose UNI program is a perennial FCS football power, could see the second model play out.
“My hunch is that as those [BCS] schools continue to evolve away from the rest of us, the non-[BCS] bowl schools aren’t going to grow TV revenue, they’re not going to grow from the playoff revenue. They’re not going to grow exponentially like those others are,” Dannen said.
“All of the sudden, the MAC and the MVFC have a lot more in common than the MAC does with the Big Ten. So, I tend to believe we’ll look a lot more alike five-to-10 years out than we do today,” he added.
The fear of football-forced moves has had other consequences, notably on the full-time MVC, which has itself undergone realignment with the departure of Creighton and addition of Loyola University on Friday.
Some non-football MVC schools have feared being left behind in a diminished MVC by the MVFC’s FCS schools that could move up.
“I could make a financial argument that it would basically be a wash if we moved up and played FBS football in, say, the MAC, but we could never do it with all of our sports. Those aren’t options for us. It doesn’t make any sense geographically and I don’t know why the MAC would be interested in us, quite frankly,” Dannen said.
Where does ISU stand?
ISU has its own challenges as it tries to tackle the rapid change that has come to collegiate athletics. It has the lowest athletic budget in the MVC or MVFC.
ISU has set its future course based on the way the current FCS division is defined. It is happy with its place in the current world.
“I’m a big fan of FCS football and I don’t see it going anywhere,” Prettyman said.
“We’re not going to consider doing anything different until we make a big splash at the FCS level. We haven’t been to the playoffs [since 1984]. We’re going to build our program, we’re going to build it methodically, we’re doing it consistently and I think the approach is working,” he added.
ISU’s approach is working as things at the FCS level are currently defined, but what if change is forced upon the Sycamores? Is ISU prepared to make the financial commitment, the facility improvement and the commitment to higher salaries to make it work?
It’s a huge ask for a school that has only recently got football back on its feet, but while Prettyman acknowledged the changes that could be coming, he isn’t fazed by it.
“It’s not a worry. The university is ready to make any adjustments we need to make. We feel good about where we’re at now. Change is part of our business. We’ll address it when it comes to it, but as far as I’m concerned right now I like our level,” Prettyman said.