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Why Can't FCS Conferences Move As A Unit To FBS?

Unless you've been living under a rock the last five years, you've probably heard about "realignment", or, as I like to call it, "realignmentageddon", in Division I athletics.

Led by Nebraska's departure from the Big XII to the Big 10, the dominoes have tumbles all through Division I, directly affecting pretty much every conference's membership with the exception of the Ivy League.

Central to "realignmentageddon" is football, whose value to television executives is broadly accepted as the reasons why, say, Rutgers and Maryland abandoned decades-long relationships with their old conferences in order to get larger chunks of TV money.

But why is it only individual schools?  Why wouldn't a conference which currently sponsors FCS football just decide, one day, to become an FBS conference?

The short answer is: the NCAA rulebook is written than way.

But the long answer is that the NCAA rulebook, essentially, forces the current FCS and FBS conferences to stay the way things are.

In 2011, the CAA consisted of ten football-playing schools, with one on the way out, and one on the way in.
Three of these schools - Delaware, James Madison, and Old Dominion - were all-sport CAA members and had facilities and fan bases that could entertain a move to FBS.

The Dukes, after their nine-digit stadium renovation, certainly could have moved to FBS right away.  Old Dominion and Delaware, with their large fan bases, could too, with some renovations to their stadiums.

Two football-only members - UMass and Villanova - either had access to, or were negotiating access to, large venues that would allow them to entertain a move to FBS.  (In fact, UMass had already announced their intent to play football in the MAC starting with the 2011 season.)

In the wings, the CAA also was welcoming all-sport Georgia State as an FCS program - who played their home games in the Georgia Dome, the home of the NFL's Atlanta Falcons.

Of the ten current schools and the one incoming school, there were six at that moment that could have potentially moved up, at some point, as a unit to FBS.

Of course, not all of those eleven schools could consider a move to the FBS.  Richmond, who had just made a new on-campus stadium with a capacity of 12,000, seemed quite happy to compete with William & Mary and Towson, with fairly new facilities of about the same size.  New Hampshire and Maine, who were outliers without any pretense of qualifying for FBS status, would find a home somewhere, perhaps with Rhode Island, who had stated their intent to start competing in the NEC in 2013.

But what if Appalachian State and Georgia Southern decided to join the CAA in the winter of 2010?

With the Mountaineers and Eagles, the CAA would have had eight FBS-ready schools in an FCS conference, with the potential of Liberty, another school who have publicly said they were shopping for FBS opportunities, available as insurance.

Might UMass have stayed?  Might Villanova have considered a football-only membership in this new CAA?
Could the CAA have moved up as a unit, and sponsored FBS football?

Pointedly, at the 2010 FCS Summit prior to the FCS National Championship game pitting Delaware and Eastern Washington, CAA commissioner Tom Yeager asked this question of the NCAA members present, which included Greg Shaheen, interim executive vice president of championships and business strategies, and Damani Leech, NCAA director of Division I football.

The answer, which everybody at the meeting heard?  No, the NCAA will not allow it.

Was the move of the entire CAA to FBS Yeager's ultimate end-game in 2010?  All we have is a theory that happens to fit with the facts, but there's plenty of interesting notes that seem to corroborate this - the fact Yeager asked the question, and the CAA welcomed Old Dominion and Georgia State to start up programs, too, that only a couple of years later would be joining the FBS.

There's also the interesting reaction that Yeager had only a few months later, Georgia State announced they were leaving the CAA to join the Sun Belt to play FBS football.
Georgia State's withdrawal from the CAA and CAA Football is predicated on the university's desire to reclassify to FBS football which requires membership in an FBS league. We've been aware that [Georgia State] was having discussions with the Sun Belt Conference as the CAA could not accommodate that desire within [Georgia State]'s timeframe.
Which, of course, implies that the CAA was trying to "accommodate that desire."

So, why couldn't Yeager and the CAA simply will their league into FBS?

For the answer to that, we need to look at the NCAA rulebook under the section of conference membership.
20.02.6 Football Bowl subdivision Conference. A conference classified as a Football Bowl Subdivision conference shall be comprised of at least eight full Football Bowl Subdivision members that satisfy all bowl subdivision requirements. An institution shall be included as one of the eight full Football Bowl Subdivision members only if the institution participates in the conference schedule in at least six men’s and eight women’s conference-sponsored sports, including men’s basketball and football and three women’s team sports including women’s basketball. A conference-sponsored sport shall be a sport in which regular-season and/or championship opportunities are provided, consistent with the minimum standards identified by the applicable NCAA sport committee for automatic qualification. 
It sounds completely logical - eight members playing FBS football, right?  That is, until you discover how to get a school to become a Football Bowl Subdivision member:
20.4.2.1.1 Eligibility for Reclassification. Before a Football Championship Subdivision institution may apply for reclassification to the Football Bowl Subdivision, the institution must receive a bona fide invitation for membership from a Football Bowl Subdivision conference or a conference that previously met the definition of a Football Bowl Subdivision conference.
In other words, in order to become an FBS conference, you need to have eight schools that meet FBS requirements... that require they have a bona fide invitation to an existing FBS conference, or, even more comically, one that previously met the definition.

(When they say "previously met the definition", it doesn't mean that the Big West could suddenly decide, since they sponsored FBS football in 1998, they could pull in FBS schools and make a conference.  In 20.02.6.2, it's specified that a conference is still considered an "FBS conference" for two years after no longer  qualifying for that honor.)

There are literally three paragraphs detailing the qualifications of becoming an FBS conference - the paragraph saying that you need to have eight full FBS members, a minimum number of sports they need to sponsor, and the two year zombie conference rule.  That's it.  There are no other qualifications to remain an FBS conference.

What makes the Sun Belt more qualified to run an FBS conference than the CAA, except for what amounts to a grandfather rule?  Only the fact that they already are an FBS conference has any bearing.  Attendance?  Graduation rates? Academic honors? Profitability?  The NCAA doesn't care.  If you're already an FBS conference, your're an FBS conference.  If you're an FCS conference, you need eight FBS members, who already were invited by other FBS conferences, to become one.

It's a circular dependency that has the effect of ossifying the existing FCS/FBS conference structure in place.  It also allows existing FBS conferences, with nothing more than a nametag, to draft schools - and also dismantle conferences - that have little in common with them, simply because they have "FBS" in the title.

People don't think that this structure has anything to do with realignmentageddon, but it absolutely does.
When the conference structure is ossified and has no meaning, conferences become nametags, pilfering individual schools with no sense of rivalries, fan interest, or even institutional similarity.  The imperative becomes preserving the existence of a conference over creation of something positive in an athletics sense.  That's why we have the AAC stretching from Connecticut to Texas, Conference USA stretching from Virginia to Texas, the Sun Belt reaching from Wyoming to Georgia.

In my opinion, conferences should be able to move from FCS to FBS, or between subdivisions, with real, defined requirements for membership, not just grandfather rules that make no sense.  (Maybe it should be defined by athletics department spending - a certain minimum amount of spending, with no more than a certain percentage of subsidies in the form of student fees or institutional support.)

Until that day comes, though - and it will probably come sooner rather than later - we'll have to see good ideas, like an FBS CAA conference comprising of Delaware, Villanova, James Madison, Georgia Southern, Appalachian State, UMass, Old Dominion and Georgia State, stopped before they can get going.  And all we'll be able to do is wonder what would have been in 2010, if the big names in the NCAA had just said to Tom Yeager, "Yes" instead of "No".

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