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Message to FCS Schools: The Playoff Experience Is What You Make Of It

When you think of FCS playoff success in the 2010s, you have to think of the most successful current program playing FCS football over the last four years: North Dakota State.

The Bison's three national championships speak for themselves, and if you count their impressive playoff run in 2010 as well, their four-year record in the playoffs is as impressive as Youngstown State's and Appalachian State's runs in the last thirty years.

In 2011, the Lehigh football team saw the Thunder Dome (or, if you prefer, the FargoDome) up close, and saw what home advantage can do in the playoffs.  The 24-0 win wasn't the most impressive performance by the Bison ever in the postseason.  However, the hallmarks of the North Dakota State home-field advantage, in the form of false starts and timeouts for the visiting team, were very evident in Lehigh's gameplay that afternoon.

Today I'm taking a look at the process of determining seeds and bids to the FCS playoffs, and I found a system where a different schools have different expectations of the what the playoffs can offer.


This January 1st we saw the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl host the first-ever CFP semifinals for the plus-one FBS playoff.

The Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl are not entities run by, or regulated by, the NCAA.  They are independent organizations that are actually 501(c)(3) charities.

That's right.  Charities.  In theory.

In this excellent report a few years ago by Shawn Assael of ESPN, he details the sausage-making that really hasn't changed all that much.

A quick look at the Sugar Bowl's IRS disclosure form suggests it's very charitable. The filing reports that the organization, which this year directs the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 3 and Monday's title game, gave away $6.21 million in grants in the fiscal year ending June 2010, a princely sum by any standards. But look a little closer, and you'll find that figure is not what it seems. 
The first $6 million of that isn't really a grant. It's a payment to the BCS, which distributes the money back to schools. If you believe in less government and more free market economics, this would appear to be a good thing. The BCS is plowing tax-free money back into higher education. 
Except that's not really how it works. The money that the bowls send to the BCS is actually used to subsidize the high-priced tickets they force universities to buy.

The requirement for participation in the bowls is a clever method that has worked to line the pockets of the bowl executives for decades: make it a requirement for the schools to buy a number of tickets to the games (almost certainly the most expensive ones), which goes into the pockets of the "charity", which then makes a tax-free distribution to the BCS/CFP, which is an "educational mission" - which then distributes the money back to the schools in the form of a check.

The 501(c)(3) then pays executives like Sugar Bowl CEO Paul Hoolahan with that money, who made almost $600,000/year back in 2011.

This is how the College Football Playoff is financed at the FBS level - through multiple organizations, some calling themselves "charities", putting millions upon millions of athletic department dollars, taxpayer money, and TV revenues through the spin cycle and doling it out to participants (and the conference executives of those participants) tax-free.

Suffice it to say the FCS doesn't have that type of money floating around its playoff system on non-profits.

The FCS playoffs are run by the NCAA, and are run in a very similar method to some of their other non-revenue or low-revenue championship games.

The host schools are determined by two factors: seeding and bidding.

A playoff committee seeds the top 8 teams based on their own criteria, and those seeds are guaranteed to host at least one playoff game - their second-round matchup.

Every subsequent round, as detailed by the Bozeman Chronicle, requires the schools to re-bid on hosting the game all the way through the semifinals.

What goes into the bids, and where does that money go?
Bids detail game day costs, Peter Fields [Montana State athletic director] said. For example, he said MSU’s bid included the anticipated cost of snow removal, in addition to the costs of providing security, public address announcers and other expenses that go along with a football game. The NCAA then reimburses the university for those costs, while taking a portion of ticket sales. A percentage of the gate, about a third, goes back to the university, Fields said.
It's kind of a curious system - one that rewards successful schools by forcing them to fork over more money to sponsor more home games the deeper they go in the playoffs.

In regards to the visiting team, the NCAA reimburses them for travel expenses to and from the game for the players and the coaching staff.  When Lehigh flew to Fargo in 2011, many transportation costs were underwritten by the NCAA (but not all of them).

But that also puts the schools in the strange position of needing to minimize the costs of their own home games, sometimes at the detriment of their own home game experience.  For example, the NCAA doesn't cover travel costs for an opposing team's band or cheering squad, and the home teams are disinclined to comp the away schools to allow them to bring, say, an 100 piece band and equipment.

With FBS bowls, there's a "non-profit" that requires the schools to bring these squads whether they want them or not; with the FCS playoffs, especially with the rounds not necessarily broadcast on TV, the incentive is small to provide, in many cases, what makes attending a college football game experience fun.

For some FCS schools with passionate fan bases and larger stadiums, like Montana State and North Dakota State, the bids are the cost of getting on ESPN, and ticket sales generally recoup all the costs.  (Montana State made a small profit from their home playoff games a few years ago, and it's likely North Dakota State in their most recent run also made a modest profit.)

But most of FCS isn't built like Montana State or North Dakota State.  And therein lies the problem.

This offseason, the MEAC has been publicly floating the prospect of declining an automatic bid to the FCS playoffs in order to participate in a bowl game against the champions of the SWAC, another FCS conference that chooses not to participate in the playoffs.  The idea that all schools in the MEAC might get some money from this bowl game - reportedly a six-figure sum - is seen as a major reason to pursue that option, because the FCS playoffs doesn't provide any specific payouts from the NCAA for participation.

There are also genuine concerns that a deep playoff run might cause schools to lose significant money on a playoff run, especially if that school is under-resourced in the first place.

That wasn't the experience of New Hampshire athletic director Marty Scarano, however.

The Wildcats were the No. 1 seed throughout the playoffs, and thus were in a position to bid for three home playoff games.

While acknowledging that it was a "grind" and it was a challenge to host all three games in consecutive weeks, UNH anticipates losing only a modest amount from their playoff run: a low five-figure sum.

"Given we received so much national branding [with national games broadcast on ESPN2 and ESPNU], that is a small price to pay," Scarano told me.

Hosted at Cowell Stadium, or the "Dungeon", as it was called multiple times on all the ESPN playoff broadcasts, is currently under construction to increase the number of seats and to improve the game experience.  That meant the Wildcats were only able to support a maximum attendance of just over 9,000 fans.

"We couldn't draw enough attendance to completely underwrite our bid," Scarano said.

It also meant that the field needed to be maintained and kept up for three consecutive weeks - even in a New England December with freezing temperatures.


Despite those many challenges - and the fact that, aside from Fordham, the visiting playoff squads came from over 1,000 miles away - the Wildcats were very pleased with their FCS playoff experience this season (aside from losing in the semifinals, of course).

It also shows pretty clearly that, when there's a will to make the FCS playoffs work well and promote your University in a positive way, there's a way - as long as you're viewing the playoffs as publicity for your football program (and athletics program) instead of a license to print money and put it in the athletic department's coffers.

Yet at the same time, not all FCS programs are like New Hampshire, either.

In 2003, Colgate was seeded throughout their run towards the I-AA national championship game, and had the opportunity to bid on home games every weekend.  However, when they saw their semifinal game was against Florida Atlantic in warm, sunny Boca Raton, it wasn't a choice - with the Owls already having made the decision to jump to FBS football, and a wish to have home-field advantage, they jumped at the chance to host the semifinal.

It was a decision that made sense for both sides.  Not a lot of Colgate fans were going to make a third trip to Andy Kerr stadium, which saw significant snow in their first two games against UMass and Western Illinois, and it gave that Raider team an opportunity they otherwise wouldn't have experienced in a trip to play a game in Florida - essentially, a Bowl Game that would qualify them for the national championship in Chattanooga.

The selection process made a likely super money-loser into a win/win of sorts for both sides - which is the intent of the bidding process.

But one thing the FCS playoffs did not provide either Colgate or Florida Atlantic was a significant amount of "profits".

In the NCAA men's basketball tournament, each participant and conference gets a financial "share" in the tourney for participation and the length of time they survive and advance.  But this system is financed by the extremely lucrative contract the NCAA has signed with CBS and other networks for the right to air the games.

For the schools of FCS, there is not a significant money windfall in regards to its ESPN's FCS playoff coverage.  The FCS gets a nominal amount of money from ESPN for coverage of the FCS playoffs and ESPN gets to choose the games it will broadcast.  The venues are the seeded home teams in the playoffs (most times) and they determine the details.

The schools' reward is to get broadcast on ESPN, and to most, that's just fine.

But to others, the fact that the only reward is a televised game is a failure of the system, because ESPN, the NCAA and FCS cannot (or simply are not willing to) offer financial shares in the same way it can for basketball.

This is the core issue facing the playoffs today - is the championship a serious revenue-producing entity that should provide extra finances to minimize financial loss?  Or is that job best served by the schools themselves?

There are compelling arguments for both sides.  Certainly, the playoffs should not bankrupt anybody, yet at the same time schools certainly are capable of managing things so that it's a net positive for the school.

*****

Having followed FCS football for so long, to me the playoff bidding process is what each school makes of it.

There are no restrictions as to what a school's money bid could be for the game.

But once the bid is made, they're on the hook for the money.  If the school can't afford the money, or misrepresents the amount of money needed to host a playoff game or all the rules, they could be in trouble.

When done right, a school can get organize enough money to underwrite a positive playoff experience for the home team.  (It maybe could be made a bit more TV-friendly and fan-friendly with, say, ESPN kicking in some money for schools to bring visiting bands and cheerleaders, but that's another topic.)  It even has a flexibility that the bowl system does not offer.

At the same time, there are probably some small things that could be done to make things easier for some schools to cope with the financials of a playoff run - and might even make the playoffs an even better experience for all.

As long as the FCS playoffs are seen as a break-even extension of branding - and not a million-dollar financial windfall that subsidizes its members to stay in Division I - it can work for anyone that wants to make it work.

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