Saturday, April 05, 2014

EKU Eyes the FBS: A Leap of Faith

It's about the company you keep

Thursday afternoon EKU President Mike Benson met with a hundred, or so, members of the EKU community to share ideas about a possible move to the NCAA Football Bowl Series (FBS). EKU is a Division I school, but participates in the lower Football Championship Series (FCS).

In the NCAA, Division I football programs are divided into FBS and FCS. The 128 FBS programs can award financial aid to as many as 85 players, with each player able to receive up to a full scholarship. The 124 FCS programs can award up to the equivalent of 63 full scholarships, divided among no more than 85 individuals. Some FCS conferences restrict scholarships to a lower level or prohibit scholarships altogether.

A move to FBS would require a substantial financial commitment outside of the general budget from donors, and other sources. And EKU is somewhat unique in that, at present, EKU students are not charged an athletic fee.

Benson identified a possible move up to FBS as part of a larger strategy to upgrade the school which includes a newly funded $66 million science building (Phase II), a mid-campus parking structure, razing Combs Hall, creating a new entrance to the school including the construction of a pedestrian mall (green space), and more. There is even a plan (on paper) for the construction of a new College of Education/Model Lab School building in support of the school's implementation of a clinical model for teacher preparation.

Exploration of the FBS move has the support of the EKU Regents, but that's as far as it goes.
  • To move to FBS, EKU would have to be invited to join an FBS Conference; most likely the Sunbelt or the Mid-American Conference. EKU has not been invited to join any conference.
  • To move to FBS, EKU would have to apply to the NCAA for a change of classification in football. EKU has not applied to change classifications.
EKU did receive $15 million in agency bond approval for athletics which will allow for some immediate improvements.

In his PowerPoint presentation President Benson outlined the rationale for considering the move which includes expanded media exposure for the university (which other schools have seen contribute to student recruitment), enhanced diversity of the student population, contribution to the school's retention rate (which is 22 % higher among athletes), improved graduation rate (which is 25% higher among athletes at EKU, which is top in the state). "We live in a society that pays attention to athletics," Benson said. And more interest in EKU = more applications. More successful students = more university revenue.

He pointed to recent articles in USA Today and the NY Times following EKU's remarkable performance against the University of Kansas as the kind of enhanced exposure that draws students.

The nuts and bolts required to put something like this together are considerable. But the calculus is cost/benefit. Increased revenue, enhanced budgets, personnel, facilities, scholarships, guaranteed games (where a small FCS school plays a big FBS school and earns big money)...and more, factor in. 

Western Kentucky University used to be Eastern's nearest comparable school, but there has been some separation in recent years - some amount of it being attributed to their change in athletic programs. WKU reports enrollment is up 13% and as a result receipts from tuition is up 22%.

But not all is rosy at WKU. Facutly Regent Patti Mentor lamented the size and proportions of WKU's budget recently complaining, “We can’t afford this...[and] the situation gets more dire each year.” Minter asked for a report on WKU's football funds. “Is it making money or is it not making money?” she asked. Minter said WKU academic departments are run “on a shoestring,” while the athletic department, through funds provided by the student fee at WKU itself, are considerable. “It’s still entertainment over education,” Minter said. 

Dr. Todd Harch, a newly-elected faculty senator (History Department) said he found the proposal "divisive" and that he had spoken to no faculty members who support the move. Harch cited "a lot of worry about the financial implications" and stated his own preference that EKU move to Division III, eliminate all scholarships, expand the number of sports, and have faculty involved in coaching - suggestions that drew an audible scoff from several at the gathering.  

"I would argue that this is one of those leaps of faith that we have to take collectively. Maybe this was not a convincing presentation in terms of what this could do for our institution in terms of exposure, and reputation, and being associated with a different group of schools that we are more akin to as opposed to more dissimilar. I can promise you that there will be some growing pains at the front end," Benson said.

He pointed out WKU's experience which included losing every ball game in their first year, which is tough on a fan base, but also led to increased exposure, increased support from alumni, from donors, and from the state through increased enrollment.

Faculty Senate Chair Dr. Sheila Pressley reminded the group that she gets a lot of communications from faculty and from her vantage point, "Yes, there are some faculty members who don't necessarily see this as an advantage, but there are some who do. So just to be clear on where faculty stand, it's a little divided. There are some who see there is an association, academically speaking, with the  schools in these conferences...When you seee the other schools that are a part of these conferenc es and you look at their academic performance, parents are making their decisions based on the rigor of those institutions."

"This is one of m any improvements...that we are considering at the university. It's not being made in a vacuum. We are first and foremost an academic institution but the athletic enterprise is an important part to that," Benson said.

Benson told the Student Senate recently,"My job is to make that diploma that you earn at Eastern Kentucky University mean more to you, mean more to an employer, and mean more to a potential investor, and the fact that you take exterme pride in the experience you had at EKU. My job is to imporve that experience, and improve the facilities, and improve our reputation."

Subdivisions in NCAA Division I exist only in football. The NCAA determines whether a school is Bowl or Championship subdivision is by attendance numbers and scholarships. For attendance reporting methods, the NCAA allows schools to report either total tickets sold or the number of persons in attendance at the games. They require a minimum average of 15,000 people in attendance every other year. Fourteen FCS schools had enough attendance to be moved up in 2012. Three of them—Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, and Old Dominion—began FBS transitions in 2013. All had the required FBS conference invitations, with Old Dominion joining Conference USA in 2013, and Appalachian State and Georgia Southern set to join the Sun Belt Conference in 2014.

This from Football Scoop:

The death of FCS football as we know it?

Memo to everyone: FCS has some really good football. Really good. Think North Dakota State, Sam Houston State, Georgia Southern, Old Dominion, James Madison, Eastern Washington, App State, Murray State, Villanova, Towson, Richmond, Lehigh, Eastern Kentucky, Youngstown State, etc... Everyone remembers App State's win over Michigan and James Madison's takedown of Virginia Tech. 

Many, but not all, FCS programs rely upon a "revenue" game to help fully fund their football program (and sometimes their overall athletics department).  Most of these revenue games come from FBS (and typically BCS conference) opponents. For the FCS program, the dollars involved are very important but the experience is also worth it's weight in gold. 

Earlier this season LSU hosted FCS Towson University. As Armen Keteyian of 60 Minutes reported, Towson was paid $500,000 to come to Baton Rouge to face the Tigers. Towson played a great game on national TV. Towson athletic director Mike Waddell said, "There will be more people watching this game tonight then perhaps anything involving Towson University in our history going back 146 years." Waddell later added, "You couldn't buy this type of advertisement nationally." 

There is no question in my mind that the level of play on the field has risen substantially over the past ten years at the FCS level. I don't know how they maintain that without the dollars and exposure associated with playing mainstream FBS opponents. There isn't an alternative avenue these programs could turn to if the money from these revenue games is gone. 

Reduced revenue impacts the number of scholarships the team can provide, the salary pool for qualified coaches and ultimately the quality of players the program will be able to attract. FCS programs will feel this, not only in terms of reduced game revenue, but also in reduced national awareness & publicity that came from "TV" games and ultimately could see enrollment decline as a result. 

Perhaps a better decision for everyone involved would be for the new playoff format to include strength of schedule components from all Division I programs (FBS & FCS). Then, the Big Ten could have simply encouraged their member universities to schedule quality FCS opponents rather than simply banning them from playing any FCS opponents at all. Consider this past season, where do you think North Dakota State (FCS National Champion) would have fallen in an overall Division I strength of schedule analysis? My guess is, they would have been in the top 100, well above a number of FBS programs that found their way on to a number of Big Ten schedules.

Unfortunately, the decision by a major conference to stop scheduling FCS opponents looks like it will have a significant negative impact on FCS football and universities.


Anonymous said...

I think it will be interesting to see how the recent labor board support of student athletes to unionize will impact big time student athletes business. Seems like universities are making lots of big time money to pay coaches, facilities, etc off the efforts of student athletes. We don't expect academic scholarship students to produce revenue, nor do we pay their coaches(professors) at the coaching level.

"Student Athlete" is myth at Division I, level - NCAA is just about controlling and generating revenue anymore.

Anonymous said...

I think it will be interesting to see how the recent labor board support of student athletes to unionize will impact big time student athletes business. Seems like universities are making lots of big time money to pay coaches, facilities, etc off the efforts of student athletes. We don't expect academic scholarship students to produce revenue, nor do we pay their coaches(professors) at the coaching level.

"Student Athlete" is myth at Division I, level - NCAA is just about controlling and generating revenue anymore.

Anonymous said...

If we look at college sports a couple of decades ago, you didn't have this sort of environment. Who is to say it will be the same in 2020's? Money dries up due to over saturated market, changing fiscal conditions, technology advances, commercial rights, student athlete unionization etc then what. We have a giant guarilla that can't reach the bananas in the new forest and we are stuck trying to feed him.

Anonymous said...

So why is it that faculty members don't get bonuses in their contracts when the work of their students associated with their courses results in advancement into national competition or recognition? It is as though academic folks work on some sort of socialist everyone basically get paid the same frame but coaches are on a capitalist market value base where salaries are inflating at a rate well beyond any miniscule increase which professors or staff get. Similarly, how is it that an academic department responsible for teaching courses exists under hiring freezes and required justification for any positions - and athletic teams have multiple specialty coaches. We are being told to teach more classes and cut section numbers that make us less marketable and increase our work load but then you have coaches making much more than I do with speciality coaches for everything from recruitment of volleyball players to guys only working with left handed receivers? Not only is pay out of whack but so is ratio of students served.