For years, black college football’s two Division I conferences — the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and the Southwestern Athletic Conference — have been locked in a pitched argument over the FCS playoffs.
Without stopping, really, to consider if there will even be a lower-classification postseason for much longer.
Let’s leave aside the talent drain suffered in the wake of desegregation, and follow the money. As costs keep going up, budgets have tightened, and the higher classification calls. That threatens the viability of the playoffs themselves, whether the MEAC and SWAC participate or not.
A widely circulated e-mail credited to Jim O’Day, director of athletics at the University of Montana, highlights a number of these issues:
Two that jump out: The amount of money these playoff berths are costing smaller university programs. (O’Day estimates that Montana lost a staggering $150,000 in each the last two years it advanced to the FCS championship game.) Also, the continued rumors of a jump to the FBS for stalwart lower-classification powers.
“The FCS playoff system is hurting financially,” O’Day says. “We produced $1.1 million of last year’s budget of $2.5 million. The other 11 games produced less than $1 million TOTAL. The NCAA lost almost $500,000 again, and it will not continue to tolerate to follow this plan. Now we’ve added another round and four more teams. Being on the committee, and as chair, I know this is a major concern to the NCAA – and a last-gasp reason for changing to Frisco, Texas, in hopes of attracting more attention and support.”
This new FCS plan is not without its downsides, O’Day notes: “It won’t help to move the championship back three weeks into January – let alone that it will be taking place 40 minutes away from the Cotton Bowl, which has also been moved to that night. So much for FCS exposure on national television. Just to keep the student-athletes on campus during Christmas will also cost the two schools in the championship an additional $100,000 – none of which is budgeted. And to put in perspective, we LOST $150,000 each of the past two year going to the championship game. Had we won, the incentives for coaches would have put the losses over $200,000 each time. We get no additional revenue for any of this.”
See, as much as we’d like to make this a conversation about college football, it’s really about money.
“We are NOT guaranteed home playoff games. We have been extremely fortunate in the past,” O’Day says. “To put in perspective, we made about $100,000 for the three home playoff games last year – and sent another $1.1 million to the NCAA. A regular season home game nets between $400,000 and $1 million (Montana State, App State, etc.). Being in the WAC, we are allowed 12 games instead of 11 – and 13 when you play at Hawaii. So instead of $100,000 at max, we would be seeing additional dollars… at a minimum of $300,000.”
In that economic climate, it’s easy to see why a number of FCS teams are contemplating a move up to the top classification. With no playoff bracket, players get to function more like regular students — taking exams and going home for needed rest around the holidays. And, again, the money is better for the institution.
“We are NOT considering the health and welfare of the student-athletes, who are having to spend at least one month of playing 4-5 more games — which is permanently damaging their bodies – and hurting their academics,” O’Day says. “This is not fair to them – nor their coaches. This is where all of us are selfish, and want the playoff system vs. a bowl. At the FBS level, there is a month off to recover bodies, take care of academics and finals, and at the end, a reward of a bowl and some fun — and the schools don’t lose money like we do at the FCS level.”
O’Day, like many FCS advocates, remains introspective as the big get bigger on college football’s brightly lit BCS stage.
“Should the FCS fail – which is another possibility, especially with Appalachian State, James Madison, Villanova, Delaware, Georgia Southern, Richmond and others being considered for moves into other conference alliances within FBS conferences – would we be all alone?” O’Day asks. “How many schools in the Big Sky would still be offering football, or would we become a basketball conference? Would it even be Division I, or would we be forced out to Division II? If you don’t have an invitation from a Division I conference, you may have no choice. … As you can see, there are no easy answers – and it is very, very complicated.”