SBJ/September 10 - 16, 2007/SBJ In Depth

Schools hesitate to make the leap

While a score of mediocre NCAA Division I-A football teams returned from bowl games to begin counting their money, Appalachian State University, the back-to-back I-AA national champion, calculated its losses.

In two trips to Chattanooga, Tenn., to play in the 2005 and 2006 I-AA national title games, the Mountaineers ran up more than $100,000 in losses, attributable mostly to travel expenses for the team and the band. A $110 per diem from the NCAA helped, but it stopped short of covering all of the costs.

Such is life in the lower tier of Division I football, which now is called the Football Championship Subdivision. Football budgets typically peak at $2 million a year — most are less — and only the best I-AA programs generate more than $1 million in revenue toward meeting that budget. By contrast, the top I-A schools generate $2 million in revenue from a single home game.

But Charlie Cobb, Appalachian State’s athletic director, has seen incremental benefits from the school’s two national championships, benefits that are expected to increase after the Mountaineers’ stunning 34-32 upset at the University of Michigan on Sept. 1.

Appalachian State’s stunning win over Michigan will
renew calls for the school to jump to Division I-A.

Revenue from licensing royalties through Appalachian State’s agent, Licensing Resource Group, have quadrupled to $160,000 annually in the last two years. Donations to the school’s athletic foundation jumped to $1.28 million in 2006-07, a 92 percent increase from 2004-05.

If ever there seemed to be an appropriate time for Appalachian State to consider a move to I-A, now called the Football Bowl Subdivision, this would be it. The Mountaineers’ average home attendance of 20,546 last season would have ranked ahead of 29 Division I-A teams, and their success on the field would seem to indicate that they could competitively handle the transition, evidenced by their win at Michigan, which has been called the greatest upset in college football history.

But as Cobb and other ADs discover when they explore such a move, it’s not all about football. Often, it’s as much about a school’s other sports. Cobb said Appalachian State is comfortable to stay I-AA for now. Other I-AA powerhouses don’t seem any more eager to make the jump, despite the potential financial rewards that include bowl money and potential TV dates.

“Fans are so hungry to say, ‘We’re Division I-A,’ but there’s so much more to it than meets the eye,” said Sam Baker, athletic director at Georgia Southern University, six-time I-AA champions. “You’ve got to have a new league, you’ve got to find out how you’re going to get automatic bids into the postseason for your other sports. Certainly it’s something that generates a great deal of conversation among a small group of fans, but it’s very much more than a football issue.”

Exploring the costs

Most I-AA athletic directors estimate that they’d need another $5 million to $6 million in the budget to support a move to I-A football, much of which likely would come from an increase in student fees. That money would be needed to support the move from 63 scholarships at the I-AA level to 85 for I-A football.

A new conference likely would also mean additional travel costs. For Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, schools in the Southern Conference, they’re able to bus to their league games. Joining a Sun Belt or a Conference USA, whose footprints extend two or three time zones, would cause travel costs to soar for all of the school’s sports.

And that doesn’t cover the capital expenditures that would be required to upgrade facilities, a move most athletic directors deem necessary to compete at the I-A level. Appalachian State is in the midst of a $32 million improvement project on Kidd Brewer Stadium, which includes installing club seats and 20 luxury suites, with a long-range plan for expansion to 30,000 seats.

Other schools, such as the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Georgia State University, are studying the possibility of launching a football program in the next five years.

Charlotte’s plan calls for the athletic budget of $10 million to nearly double by 2012 in order to support football. That would include $6 million for a football budget and another $3 million mostly for new women’s sports that would have to be added to keep the 49ers in compliance with Title IX.

Those increases would fall mostly on the backs of the students through student fees, which would cover about $6 million of the budget increase. The rest would come from ticket sales, game guarantees and corporate and donor support.

As much as $125 million has been projected for Charlotte’s capital expenses to build an on-campus stadium and other improvements. The committee studying football is expected to make a recommendation by early 2008. Indications are that football would start at the I-AA level and move to I-A as quickly as possible.

“Athletics is a major window into the university. It’s the way a lot of people perceive a university,” said Mac Everett, chairman of Charlotte’s football committee and a member of the school’s board of trustees. “Football has the ability to attract students, to attract faculty. If you’re successful, it has the potential to hugely benefit your other athletic programs.”

Unknown potential

The word “potential” is what gives John McCutcheon pause. The athletic director at the University of Massachusetts, which lost to Appalachian State in last season’s I-AA championship game, hears frequently from university stakeholders about I-A football. The school has formed task forces in 1996, 2001 and 2003 to study such a move and each time it’s been tabled. Yet another task force is currently checking into such a move. It has so preoccupied McCutcheon’s time that it’s almost become tiresome.

“We’ve looked at it several times and we’re looking at it again,” McCutcheon said. “It always comes back to the same thing. It’s a question of conference, facilities, operations. Until all of those things align better, it’s going to be a significant challenge.

“Yes, there’s revenue potential. But it’s potential and that’s always an unknown.”

The potential comes mostly in the form of potential revenue growth in I-A football. Revenue from the Bowl Championship Series now goes to all of the I-A conferences. The Sun Belt received nearly $2 million from the 2006 football season, money it used to buy TV time for its football games of the week because it doesn’t have a TV deal.

Middle Tennessee State opted to move to Division I-A,
enjoying the added publicity and exposure
the higher level brings to the university.

There’s also the opportunity for more TV appearances because of networks like ESPN that televise games virtually every night of the week. Schools willing to play on a Tuesday greatly enhance their ability to play on TV. The bigger schools also appear more willing to travel with the 12-game schedules, sometimes swapping a road game for two home games against an opponent. Middle Tennessee State University, for example, will play host to Virginia and Maryland in coming years.

“It’s just a more prestigious category of schools,” Middle Tennessee Athletic Director Chris Massaro said of I-A football. “When we went to the Motor City Bowl, our name was in every newspaper, your scores are on the ESPN scroll, there’s just a lot more publicity.”

That lure to I-A football isn’t likely to fade at UMass, whose neighbor, the University of Connecticut, made the move in 2000 and continues to wield significant peer pressure.

“UConn saw a very significant investment from state funds initially to get their facilities in place,” McCutcheon said. “To think about making that move without an up-front investment, whether from the state, student fees, wherever … it’s not going to come just from the private sector.”

Perhaps most importantly, UConn was already a member of the Big East, which gave the school an entry point into I-A football and access to a cut of the conference’s football revenue. If UMass moves to I-A or if Charlotte creates a program with the intention of playing I-A, both current members of the Atlantic 10 would need a new conference home.

They would also have to wait for the NCAA’s four-year moratorium on reclassification to expire in 2011.

No one-size-fits-all plan

While UConn, the University of Alabama-Birmingham, Marshall University and others represent successful I-A transitions, following the model of another school is risky, said Darin Spease, senior associate athletic director at Charlotte. He was an administrator at Alabama-Birmingham when the Blazers jumped from I-AA to I-A in 1996. He saw how money from the school’s central administration paved the way.

“The medical school at UAB generates tremendous money and they have a lot of discretion on how to use the interest on that money,” Spease said. “It was important enough for them to subsidize the football program. The student fees were a very modest part of that. The bulk of initial football expenses fell on central administration. We don’t have those discretionary dollars [at Charlotte].”

The University of South Florida, which started its program at the I-AA level in 1997 and moved to I-A in 2001, was able to find a home at swanky Raymond James Stadium, where the Tampa Bay Buccaneers play.

While Charlotte has examined South Florida’s model, which includes an NFL franchise in the school’s backyard, the differences are noteworthy. South Florida was able to move into Raymond James Stadium because it’s a public facility, whereas Bank of America Stadium, the home of the Carolina Panthers, is privately owned, meaning Charlotte’s access to it might be more problematic. It’s just one of many considerations when it comes to the pursuit of big-time football. And as Appalachian State found out last week, moving to I-A isn’t the only way to distinguish your program as big-time football.

“You can’t buy the enthusiasm, the excitement, the pride that comes from saying you’re the national champions,” Cobb said two weeks ago, before he found out about the pride and excitement that comes from beating Michigan.

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