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"Fragile" College Football: Montana and the WAC

(Photo Credit: Kurt Wilson of the Missoulian)

You can get plenty of hits on Google if you combine the two words "WAC" and "trouble". But probably not as many as there would have been even just a few weeks ago.

That's because the WAC - who has two teams currently ranked in the Top 25 in Boise State and Nevada - has announced in the next 30 to 60 days that it will be offering bids to four, and perhaps five, potential members.

If you came back from Mars and read these statements, you'd probably think that the future for the WAC is rosy.  Unfortunately for the WAC, however, Boise State and Nevada will be bolting for the Mountain West conference starting in 2011 - and while the WAC might attempt to reload with a combination of basketball-only schools and FCS football-playing schools, make no mistake about it: the WAC is still in a real struggle for its survival.

It's in this atmosphere that Montana athletic director Jim O'Day sent an email to a supporter that rocked the Big Sky, the FCS football community, and even the NCAA.  (more)


First, though, let's take a peek at the WAC and the hand they've been dealt.

Under normal circumstances, the WAC having two teams in the Top 25 would be a cause for celebration. But these are hardly normal times for the WAC.

Boise State and Nevada have announced they're leaving for the Mountain West conference in 2011 (with Fresno State joining them as well) and everyone worth their salt who follows college football knows it.

For the Mountain West, the move had a bit of a retaliatory flair to it - after member BYU flirted with a WAC invite after going independent in football, they poached their two best remaining programs with the Bulldogs and Wolfpack - after the Broncos already bolted.   That doesn't change the fact that the real crown jewel for the Mountain West is still Boise State, however, which gives them something they desperately need - a top-flight program that will help them qualify for a BCS bowl spot.

Everyone knows the story of Boise State - who rose from the Big Sky to the Big West to the WAC, and were the second non-BCS team to crash the big-bowl party (Utah, now part of the Pac Ten Twelve, was the first), with two invites to the big-money Fiesta Bowls in 2007 and 2010, winning them both.  Now the Broncos, starting in 2011, are going to their fourth conference in the last twenty years.

And others see the Mountain West as a conference that - even with the loss of BYU - has a very good chance of getting more BCS money and maybe even a BCS bowl slot when all is said and done.

But fewer people see what the defections will mean to the WAC.

The Sagarin ratings so clearly show that without Boise (No. 3), Nevada (No. 18), and Fresno State (No. 45), the rest of the WAC are barely as good as the god-awful Sun Belt. Of the remaining WAC schools after 2010, Hawai'i (No. 72) is the next-best school in the Sagarin rankings - which is just moderately below two FCS schools from the CAA, incidentally, Delaware (No. 48) and James Madison (No. 65).

That has not stopped WAC commissioner Karl Benson from putting his best face forward, claiming four schools "very, very strong presentations" in applying for WAC membership.  Of those schools, two (University of Denver, University of Seattle) do not sponsor football, and one (Texas-San Anotnio) hasn't even begun to field a team.  The fourth school to make a presentation (Texas State) is undoubtedly the best situated of the four - in the fact that they've have a football team in FCS and the Southland conference for decades and have at least tasted a tiny bit of success, in the form of two Southland championships and a run to the semifinals of the FCS playoffs in 2005.

But Texas State (average attendance in 2009: 12,488) is no Boise State, and despite Benson's intimations to the contrary, there are still a multitude of holes in his rescue plan.

One of the hidden reasons for Boise State's rise in the non-BCS power structure is the fact that Bronco stadium - owned and operated by Boise State's athletic department - hosts the Humanitarian Bowl every year.  Matter of fact, Boise has orchestrated a sweet deal for itself where it requires a minimum number of tickets to be sold, purchase of a corporate sponsorship, and requiring the team and spirit squads to stay in Boise for at least three days in the dead of winter.  UCLA said thanks but no thanks to a Humanitarian Bowl bid in 2001 for these reasons - mainly because their athletic department would have had to pay six figures, win or lose, to participate.

As Boise State goes to the Mountain West, and as long as the Humanitarian Bowl remains in Boise, it seems logical that the bowl would also go into the stable of the Mountain West, which already has the New Mexico, Las Vegas, Poinsettia, Independence, and Armed Forces bowls.  Trouble is, each conference is only allowed five bowls - with the option of a sixth, should the Mountain West force their way into the BCS.

Nobody knows how this will shake out, but it seems likely that as Boise State leaves the WAC, it seems unlikely that the league will stand for long playing games in a stadium that stands as a testament to a school that "outgrew" the WAC.

But Boise State's departure also deprives the WAC from something else - what had become a steady BCS revenue stream.

In 2010, the WAC received $7.8 million from the BCS - which almost entirely was due to Boise State's qualification for the Fiesta Bowl last year.  It seems likely - regardless of expansion - that the WAC will fall well past Conference USA to become the eighth-best FBS football conference.

That doesn't even count the bonuses paid out from Boise's win in the Fiesta Bowl, which also went to the WAC and other teams in the conference.

After 2011 - unless you think Hawai'i, San Jose State or New Mexico can credibly replace Boise in the Top 5 - that money will likely disappear.  Making matters worse, ESPN reserves the right to renegotiate their TV contract with a Boise-less WAC.  That's a big reason why the WAC is suing Fresno State and Nevada for $5 million in an effort to keep them in the conference in 2011 - otherwise, the league could lose bowl tie-ins, BCS money, and the ESPN contract.

All that would need to happen is Lousiana Tech electing to join Conference-USA - or maybe the Sun Belt - and the WAC would lose everything - its conference affiliation in football, its autobid the NCAA men's basketball tournament, everything.  Hawai'i becoming an FBS indpendent and joining the West Coast Conference - something that the Rainbows have been publicly mulling - would also do it.  Times are desperate in WAC land, no matter who tells you any different.

Six football-playing teams.  Diminishing revenue.  Losing bowl affiliations.  Desparte straits for the prospects of staying a part of the NCAA tournament and FBS football.  And yet, schools appear to be lining up to be a part of the WAC - to have a taste of what they think will be big-time football.

*****

Of the four schools to make presentations two weeks ago to the WAC, there were few surprises.  Seattle, a basketball-only school playing currently as an independent, is just thrilled to have some conference - any conference - be "very, very interested" in their membership bid.  For Denver - currently toiling in the Sun Belt conference - the same rule applies.

While one can debate the wisdom of UTSA and Texas State wishing to play FBS football, the truth is that both schools have been very upfront about their wishes to play for bowls rather than playoffs.  Texas State has made a whole fundraising effort around that goal. And UTSA made the unusual step - while they were still a full member in the Southland conference - of announcing their intention of playing as an FBS independent in 2014, causing some bad blood with the Roadrunners and Southland commissioner Tom Burnett.

(While we're on the subject, the question about whether UTSA will be ready for FBS football in any way is ably dissected by Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News: UTSA Plows Through Its Only Open Door.  Of the myriad of issues brought up - not least the fact that they don't have the facilities, budget, or anything else to play FBS-level football - is that due to the need for the WAC to have football teams in place yesterday, UTSA would be fielding a team in the WAC almost entirely comprised of freshmen and sophomores.)

That these schools are falling over themselves to get into the WAC isn't that surprising.  That Montana athletic director Jim O'Day seems to be giving this proposal a fair hearing, however, is.

As a member of the Big Sky conference, Montana is by far a huge fish in the FCS pond.  They've won and amazing twelve Big Sky championships in the last fourteen years.  They've won a national championships at the FCS level in 2001, and seem to be a constant threat every year to win it all.

They have done so with near-universal love with anyone who's had any sort of dealings with the Treasure State, especially in the last 15 years.  In Montana, you're either "Cat" (Montana State) or "Griz" (Montana) - there is no in between.  Sellouts at Washington-Grizzly stadium are commonplace during the regular season - and in the playoffs, where the Griz can get up to three extra home games.

You look at Montana, and you think "successful FCS program".  Stadiums packed with 20,000 fans.  Winning football.  Good times.  It's inherently obvious to anyone who has spent any time watching a game, either in-person or on TV, there.

But O'Day would have at least one booster believing that Montana cannot afford to stay in the Big Sky.  Backing up his argument with some numbers, he lays out a case as to why he would like to join the WAC.

Upon first read, the argument for moving up seems impressive.  But much like the WAC's pitches that it's not really a conference in trouble, upon just a tiny bit of scrutiny his numbers - and arguments - don't hold up.

You can read the full text of the email here.  But I'll highlight the numbers - and the misleading arguments - here.

With state funding flat and student athletic fees holding tight, and with expenses growing year-by-year at a steady pace (at least $250,000 per year alone in just scholarship costs and related room/board costs for out student-athletes), we find ourselves at a cross roads. With revenues presently capped at about $13 million per year, we are having to find ways to cut expenses… and one option may have to be scholarships to out-of-state student athletes if we cannot find new revenue sources. We realize this could hurt our competitiveness as we cannot just take out of certain non-revenue generating sports because of Title IX issues. In addition, our insurance continues to rise, as does rent and travel. We can assume our expenses will jump at least $500,000 annually… and really no new revenue to meet these increases. We have continued to cut our expenses about $250,000 or more per year for the past three years…. But now we are down to the bare bone.

Mr. O'Day seems to think that state funding will remain flat as far as the eyes can see while expenses will keep exploding out of control, but the truth is that as expenses rise, revenues can still rise as well. Basic economics dictates that Montana will either hike up the student fee a little more or charge, say, $2 more per ticket if necessary to stay competitive. Part of his argument is true - expenses to run a football program are growing a lot every single year.  But his one-sided argument - that there is no other way to increase revenue to cover those expenses - rings very hollow, as you'll see.



At the same time, we also have Title IX issues that Montana State does not have. UM has a 54% female population; Montana State is 54% male. We have a 40% female to male student-athlete ratio (we need to be at 54% or close – or spend 54% of our funding on female sports – neither of which is possible with football. Montana State is just the opposite as it needs a ratio of about 54% male, or 54% spending on male sports… thus, not an issue to them). We are struggling with the third and final prong for Title IX compliance, which is currently under heavier scrutiny based on recent Obama Administration interpretation. We will most likely need to add two female sports shortly or face possibly penalty. Those penalties do not affect the athletic programs – but schools in general as their federal funds/grants/research dollars can be impacted – or about $150 million annually at UM that could be at risk. Thus, somehow, we need to find about $2 million more per year (not counting facilities) to run two new programs. Thus, we most likely will need higher student fees to meet these Title IX and related expenses. Doubt it any of this money would help any other concerns (maintaining football funding, facility improvements, etc.). Also, additional institutional support is out of the question…. It is so tight right now.

While I have no reason to doubt his claim that Montana is out of balance with Title IX, his base argument that "with a 54% male-to-female ratio, we need to spend 54% of our money on women's sports" is hogwash. If this were true, collegiate athletics would collapse overnight. The truth is that the accepted ratio is within 5% of the actual ratio - so, for Montana, they could spend 51%/49% in favor of men's sports, currently. (Granted, Title IX activists are pushing for a more stringent 1.5% gap - however, even with the more stringent requirements it still wold be 52.5%.)

But what's so curious about his claim that Montana will need to add two female sports to remain in compliance is the following: how can moving to FBS, where you offer more scholarships and spend more money on football, help their Title IX situation? Title IX is more commonly raised as an argument to drop football, not expand it. Why would O'Day shine a spotlight on Montana's lack of compliance with Title IX?

This does show that there is still some shortfall.  That shortfall will need to be addressed no matter what Montana does.  And spending more on football will make that shortfall larger, not smaller.  Going to FBS will not help this, and will actually make it worse.

Montana is THE school west of the Mississippi in the FCS – and the only one since Boise in 1994 to make the championship game (which the Broncos lost). The Big Sky losing Montana would be devastating to some as they need the traveling Montana fans to attend their contests, and purchase tickets. We are also responsible for the television dollars associated with each of the league schools. For example, KPAX/MTN bid $100,000 to television the Griz-Cat game, the next highest bidder was Max Media at $20,000. Our other games were bid at $10,000 each by KPAX; Max Media pays $2,500 to do Bobcat telecasts. Thus, Max Media is spending more money in production equipment; while the schools are getting the cash from KPAX. By league policy, 60% of the revenue from these telecasts go to the HOME team (not UM), 35% to the visitor and 5% to the league. So how out-of-line is this: Last year, MSU received $60,000 of KPAX’s bid (to do UM games), while Montana received $35,000 and the conference $5,000. These are the reasons why Boise State left the Big Sky in the mid-1990s; why BYU and Texas are doing what they’re doing right now. They want to control their television money. The television money should be following UM, but we get outvoted on this 8-1 whenever it comes up.

This one is interesting for several reasons.

First is the greed of the University of Montana. I understand that KPAX routinely broadcasts Montana games at home, and they're considered the "flagship station" of the Griz. But KPAX outbids Montana State's home broadcast team for the Montana/Montana State game - and the Griz think THEY should get the money? Last I checked, KPAX is an independent entity with their own management. They're not owned or operated by the University of Montana. That Montana expects the lions' share of TV money from a game hosted AT MONTANA STATE just defies belief.

I'm not the only one raising a red flag about this, either. Thanks to Fritz Neighbor of the Missoulian, Big Sky commissioner Doug Fullerton reveals an interesting fact: “About six years ago we changed the TV money at Montana’s request,” he said. “We used to have a much more socialistic approach and used to spread the money throughout the league to help make the teams stronger.”

In addition, Fullerton delivers a death blow to this whining about TV money, saying they "fought to get more TV money and succeeded. “That’s the only time it was ever brought up; there’s never been an 8-1 vote. We’ve never stood in the way of them making their TV money.”

That's some trick: to push for a change to the TV policy of the Big Sky, and then turn that around to attempt to cry that the Big Sky somehow was screwing them out of revenue. Obviously, this isn't the case - but fortunately, that has been debunked very effectively.

But that's not even half the whopper that he drops when he also makes the claim that Boise State left the Big Sky over TV revenue. When the Broncos elected to jump to the Big West in 1994, it was done after a feasibility study, and it was also done with the idea that the Big West was "more stable" than the Big Sky since the Big Sky's teams were having financial issues. (Speaking of whoppers.) Nowhere was it said in those releases that Big West TV revenue - undoubtedly a piddly amount, if anything - was a part of their decision making process.  TV contracts in 1994 were nothing like how they are today.

-- Football at UM breaks even. We generate $6.5 in revenues; and the expenses associated with football at $6.5. Thus, others are probably losing $3-$4.5 million annually. How long can that continue at some schools?

--- We are struggling to find opponents to play in Missoula…. Cost is high, plus we win 93% of our games here. People do not like to come here. Even Division II schools are asking “guarantees” in excess of $125,000 to come here. That cuts drastically into our revenues.

--- We are NOT guaranteed home playoff games. We have been extremely fortunate in the past. 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.

Aside from the fact that his statement that Montana football "breaks even" when a few paragraphs before he claims that the barbarians are at the gate, is the very curious math and reasoning which he uses to justify going to the WAC.

O'Day complains about getting Division II schools to come to Missoula to play, sometimes paying $125,000 to come. How will going to FBS possibly help - when the guarantees they'll have to pay to get FCS schools to come will probably cost twice that, and possibly more? Sure, they'll get the occasional game vs. Boise State, and (perhaps) get a home game out of the deal, too. But they could get an away game vs. Boise tomorow - and get a guarantee to balance the books - should Montana choose. It's hardly a choice between home games vs. Division II Western State and home-and-homes with Boise.

There is also a huge issue with coming into Missoula for home games. Not all commercial flights go to Missoula's tiny airport. It's likely financial guarantees will be large for anyone coming there - and FCS/FBS guarantees will be bigger than Division II guarnatees.  (It's also probably a big reason why their guarantees to Division II schools are so large.)

O'Day also complains about the money he needs to send back to the NCAA to run the playoffs. It is true that Montana sends $1.1 million to the NCAA to run the playoffs while only netting $100,000 total with three home playoff games - but he makes it seem like the $200,000 that is netted for an extra home game is going to be a golden goose for years to come. Furthermore, if you spend a guarantee to get an opponent to come - goodbye, $200,000.

This also assumes that the existing Griz fans will be patient in the WAC, in a league without Boise State. BCS bowl bids don't seem like they will be forthcoming anytime soon in the current configuration. It could take decades for Montana to reap any benefits - if the WAC is around that long.

The FCS playoff system is hurting financially. 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. 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.

To FCS followers, it's this paragraph that made this go from a regional, Big Sky/WAC fracas to something that is relevant nationally to anyone who loves FCS football and the FCS playoffs.

Did the FCS playoffs last year lose $500,000 last year? I was unable to confirm, nor deny, this figure, but let's assume for a minute that it's true. While it's a big number no matter how you slice it, and a concern to the NCAA, the truth is that the FCS playoffs are not in this game to make money. It's to make a great experience for the best teams in all of FCS. It shouldn't be about "making money".

But if he was so against the playoffs expanding - and the playoffs were such a bad thing for his school - why was he so eager to get four teams from the Big Sky in the playoffs last year?

And why did he vote to expand the FCS playoffs to 20 teams from its current 16 game format?

And calling the new championship in Frisco, Texas a failure before it's even begun is truly irresponsible. He has already doomed it to be a loser before a single game has occurred in this year's playoffs, and categorizing it as "last-gasp" hasn't only gotten my ire, but also the NCAA's as well:

“That drew the interest not only of the commissioners of the other FCS conferences, it got the attention of the people at the NCAA,” said Fullerton, who maintains the death of the FCS is greatly exaggerated and in fact feels the growth of super conferences puts several FBS programs on shaky ground.

“There’s a real concern that the FBS is unsustainable, particularly at the lowest levels,” Fullerton asserted. “The (cost) increase is happening so fast, people are saying, ‘OK, how are we going to sustain this level of football?’ ”

He's right about that, too.  Given the ridiculous bar of the athletic department "making money", precious few Division I athletics departments "make money" - and outside the BCS, zero do.  All non-BCS FBS football really seems to do is explode costs and make your team unable to compete for a national championship.  For all of Boise State's success, their undefeated records have never resulted in a BCS championship - nor have they achieved a profit.

But O'Day's move seems more driven out of spite than anything else: Missoula was in the bidding to be the site of the FCS National Championship game this Spring, when it was announced they lost the bid to Frisco.

Certainly he wasn't thinking about losing money when he floated Missoula as a site for the championship game?

Personally, I think that moving the game after January is a really great thing for FCS and will translate into more exposure for FCS football, not less. When the game was December 19th, frequently the fans from the teams in question had to get their plans together only one weekend in advance for a game in Chattanooga. Giving the game some time between the last week in December and early January not only gives time for fans to get arrangements together, it also gives time for football players to heal.

The extra time could make it into an even bigger bowl game than it's been. That will result in more fans attending the game, more interest - and, hopefully, more money from ESPN, or perhaps some other TV network.

As to Montana losing money in the championship game last year, that's at least partially their own doing:

Yes, UM brought two charters this year, which included many more than the number of people the ncaa pays for (which may be up to about 150 now). UM brings all of its redshirts and injured. Cheerleaders. The band, or some of it. Spouses of the coaches and some athletic dept personnel. Some people have to fly in before the charters comes. Hotel rooms, food. I support bringing all of these people, but for O'Day to describe it as a "loss" is total BS. He approved bringing all the extra people, as UM had also done in prior years.

*****

Contrary to what folks might think, I honestly don't mind if teams want to go from FCS to FBS. That's their choice. I think it might be foolish, but if that's your dream, who am I to stop you? Texas State's bid for the FBS may actually work, and they've longed for a move to FBS for a long, long time. They may even make it there.

But don't send up bogus arguments, bad facts, and misleading statements in an effort to prove how "urgent" it is for your school to go to FBS.

Look, the FCS will have playoffs whether the Griz are a part of it or not. I have no problem with Montana moving up if that's what they want to do - but do it in a honest way.

Don't claim that the FCS playoffs are a FAIL because they're not "making money", because that's not its mission.

Don't whine that the playoffs cost you money when it's not the playoffs' fault, it's your own fault by flying two charters down filled with people that the NCAA will not reimburse.  You ought to know the rules.

Don't cry about Title IX, and then try to put past me that going to the WAC and paying $2 million extra every year is somehow going to be easier than staying in place in the Big Sky.  (And I didn't even mention the added expenses in the WAC that are sure to come up - like, for example, flying the women's bowling team out to Hawai'i out of Missoula - that might be fun for the student-athletes, but won't be making the athletic department any significant money.)

Don't pretend that all of this won't happen without soaking the legislature, hiking student fees, or both.

Nobody is "forced" into FBS for reasons of cost. It's been proven time and again that schools going to FBS will spend more than in FBS than in FCS - if only because you're spending more on athletic aid per year, let alone a bevy of other expenses - Title IX, academic compliance, and a host of other things.

FCS is called cost-containment for a reason. FBS does not contain costs, it explodes costs.

That's why this letter is so disingenuous. It tries to sell the bill of goods that going to FBS is necessary to contain costs. That's a load of baloney. Almost as much baloney as the fact that the WAC is sitting pretty, even after the current state of "expansion".

Comments

Ralph said…
Excellent!

There are so many inaccuracies in O'Day's email, but he wrote it with one intent in mind.

As an Idahoan, I know that BSU actually talked of moving up to D-I (FBS) in the 80's. In 1990 (or 1991), they actually declared they were moving up to compete at a higher level. Unfortunately for them, they never asked or received permission first from the state board of education. It pretty much cost the president his job. They bided their time, and after waiting a couple years, they went through the correct process to move up. They always had "big time" on their mind -- whatever excuse they gave was just that, an excuse.

Regarding the D-II schools that Montana has to schedule -- well, I'm sure some of the Great West schools will have a response to that. Earlier this decade, Montana was signing 1-for-1 deals with these schools, but then they reneged and refused to return the game (offering to buy it out, instead). They figured they could still make more money on a D-II school (with a smaller guarantee) than playing an FCS at home. There were several schools which came together and refused to schedule Montana (unless it was at their stadium first).

I could care less if they move up. Just grow a pair and tell it like it is, don't try to "change history," Griz!
Anonymous said…
For the record, Utah - not Boise State - was the first non-BCS team to crash the BCS party when they demolished Pitt in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl.
francis said…
I don't know if you looked at this but this is the Financial Analysis of the Division 1 Championships for the 2008-2009 year:

http://www.ncaa.org/wps/wcm/connect/3c9398804e0d53f99debfd1ad6fc8b25/Copy+of+Copy+of+Div1_2009_MotherSummarySS+%282%29.pdf?MOD=AJPERES&CACHEID=3c9398804e0d53f99debfd1ad6fc8b25

According to that document, the D-1 Football Playoffs lost $307,929. It is very plausible that the Playoffs lost $500,000 during the 2009-2010 and as a grand total amount for the 2008-2009 year, the NCAA lost $5,459,321 on their D-1 Championships.
Anonymous said…
I think too many people feel like they know too much about what is or isn't the case. Yada yada. I think the real criticism should be leveled on the putz who made the private email public. Jim O'Day is being crucified by some know-it-alls for stating his opinions to a single booster. In the end, it doesn't matter what is in the email, since UM will make their decision based primarily upon what the feasability study finds. Go Griz!
Anonymous said…
a cheap way to get the ball rolling towards Montana going to FBS. If Montana was in the CAA they would be fine with it. O'Day feels they are intitled to more, and might find it at the next level........a risky move

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