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Idaho's Return To Big Sky Shows How Broken FBS Membership Is

People rightfully can paint me as an FCS football fan.  I love Football Championship Subdivision, the section of Division I where Lehigh and the rest of the Patriot League competes.  I find the quality of the games tremendous, and the emphasis on football and competition as the exact right balance.

From that fact, some might also think I'm performing cartwheels around my office now that the University of Idaho, after they were unceremoniously cast out of the Sun Belt as football-only members, have decided that their only choice to retain football is to join the rest of the Big Sky in sponsoring football at the FCS level, starting in 2018.

You'd be wrong about that.

What Idaho's decision really should be telling us is that the process for switching subdivisions is a senseless, conference-driven exercise that forces schools into making tough decisions that they shouldn't be forced to make.

Let's think of college football hypothetically.

May Or May Not Be Schliberty Fans
Suppose you're a school with FBS ambitions.  Let's call them, for the sake of argument, Schliberty.

Schliberty has massive enrollment, so Schliberty is awash with cash - so much so, that they've made ice hockey arenas for their club-level hockey team and arranged for the construction of an artificial mountain with year-round artificial snow.

Schliberty's chancellor wants FBS football.  FBS football is they way Schliberty chooses to show that they are a premier institution of higher learning.

If the only limiting factor for Schliberty to become an FBS program were the will and the money, Schliberty would simply arrange to spend the money for more football scholarships - note: providing more free education - and they'd just issue a press release saying, "Oh, hey, we now are offering an FBS level of scholarships now.  So we're FBS now.  Notre Dame, care to play us at our place?"

But that's just it - Schliberty can't simply do that.

The only rule there is for FBS membership is that an existing FBS conference needs to like you enough to invite you, or keep you, in their conference.

A prospective school doesn't need to display that it is ready in any way for FBS football.  They do not need to demonstrate that the fan base (averaging over 15,000 fans) or the facilities (a stadium that averages over 15,000 fans) or the finances (can the financials sustain FBS football) to be FBS members.

A fictional conference, let's just call them the Schlum Belt Conference, doesn't want to invite Schliberty to their membership.

Is it because they don't like their chancellor?  Is it because they're afraid Schliberty will take over the conference?  Is it because they feel threatened by the Schlames Sports Network, Schliberty's in-house TV production crew, broadcast nationally?  Is it because they don't like red, white, and blue, Schliberty's school colors?

Possibly, because the Schlum Belt doesn't need to give any sort of good, or rational, reason, even if in every measurable way Schliberty is ready for FBS.

So Schliberty sits, completely ready for FBS football, unable to start FBS football, even though they are willing and able.  That's because the Schlum Belt, and all the other "existing" FBS football conferences, don't want to invite them.

*****

I bring up Schliberty because there's another fictional school I'd like to bring up here - a hypothetical school called "Schmidaho".

The tale of "Schmidaho" is a sad one.

Back in 1986, they and their ostensible athletic rivals, "Schmoise State", went to a conference similar to the Schlum Belt.  

Let's just call it the "Schliite West".

May or May Not be a Schmoise State fan
They left a conference with loads of local rivals, but that conference, let's just call it the "Big Schki", was committed to FCS-level, cost-containment football.  Schmoise State and Schmidaho had been major players in the Big Schki, winning national championships.

But they aspired to play Notre Dame, and in a lot of ways, you couldn't blame them.  They had both seen a lot of success at FCS, then called I-AA, and they both had donors and facilities that could support the added expense of FBS, then called I-A, football.

They couldn't simply spend the money, and then issue a press release saying that they were now I-A, and would Notre Dame please put them on the schedule.  They had to find a conference, no matter how crappy, that sponsored I-A football.

Like the Schlum Belt, Schiite West was a tiny conference without much to offer its membership other than FBS membership.  When Schmidaho and Schmoise State joined, they were waving goodbye to SchmooNLV, a well-to-do school that jumped out of the Schiite West like a rat off a sinking ship.

But something happened to "Schmoise State" during its time in Schiite West.  In combination with a vibrant local government, "Schmoise" because quite the tech hub, attracting lots of investment in the area, and, by association, Schmoise State.  Soon, Schmoise State was having loads of success, and fled Schliite West as fast as they could.

But Schmidaho did not have the same vibrant local government as Schmoise State, and soon, the athletic rivalry disappeared.  Schmoise State left for bigger and better conferences, and Schmidaho was stuck in Schliite West, a football conference on the verge of disbanding.  Even though they won a Schliite West title during the same period as Schmoise State, they couldn't find a way out.

Suddenly, rather than having easy trips to Schmoise for big football games, they found themselves with no rival worth mentioning.  With Schmoise basically wanting nothing to do with their biggest in-state rival for recruits, Schmidaho had to go to the only conference willing to give it a lifeline - the Schlum Belt.

Might Schmidaho have been able to survive if, rather than distributing money through conference TV agreements, I-A instead was run more centrally, like a true professional sports league?  Had that been the case, perhaps Idaho could have gotten 1/125th of a trillion-dollar contract, distributed evenly among all the schools of the subdivision.  But that's not how the NCAA works, where TV agreements are funneled through conferences, some of them very, very, very, very lucrative, and others almost worth nothing.  It's no secret where the Schlum Belts' TV contract lies.

Without some of that revenue trickling to Schmidaho, they essentially needed a conference - any conference - simply to survive.  The Schlum Belt, almost exactly as desperate for members as the Schliite West, when it was still a conference, took them in, even though they had no rivals anywhere close to Schmidaho.

Yet Schmidaho soldiered on.  They believed that FBS football was good for their university and their identity.  Besides, if they moved back to the FCS and the Big Schki, they'd need to spend two years transitioning back.  All that money they had coming in, based on body-bag games with teams like Notre Dame, might be forfeited.  That money kept things afloat.

Schmidaho soldiered on because the Schlum Belt decided that they didn't need Schmidaho anymore.

The Schlum Belt didn't need a reason to drop them from their lineup.  They didn't need to recognize their history (even if it wasn't a deep one), or their loyalty, or their program.  They simply had to have a vote, and if the chancellors of the other schools didn't like them, they could evict them.

And that's what happened.  That's when Schmidaho really was screwed.

No conference wanted to give Schmidaho money, further diluting their share of what TV and NCAA profits there were to go around.  No conference wanted to take on their regional remoteness, requiring more money be spent.

Schmidaho may have wanted to continue in FBS.  But the truth was, without a conference, without a TV revenue stream, Schmidaho couldn't afford to be FBS any longer.  Believe me, they tried everything, even trying to revive a dead-and-buried FBS conference to do it.  But once unsuccessful, after exhausting pretty much every other option, they elected to go back to the Big Schki.

*****

I don't have a problem with a school looking around FBS, and saying "that's not for me", and choosing instead to compete at the FCS level.

I believe that transitions from FBS to FCS should be as simple as declaring it so, that a school should be able to say, "We are transitioning to FCS, and we will be sponsoring 74 football scholarships next year, and 63 the following year," and they should be eligible for conference championships and the playoffs.

I believe FCS shouldn't be a final option for schools, only undertaken because the last of the FBS conferences with invites to hand out kicked them out.  I feel like schools should determine their own destiny.  The way it is set up now, conferences literally control the entire membership.  This is ridiculous, and should change immediately.

Conversely, I still believe in there being a transition period from moving from FCS to FBS, where expenses will be increasing immensely.  Title IX needs to be accommodated.  Academic requirements may need to be strengthened.  And new sports might need to be added.  All of these things take time to implement, which is why there is a transition period.

But the big lesson that should be taken from Idaho's move really should be that something needs to change, now, in terms of FCS and FBS membership.  Having unhealthy conferences acting as the gateway to FBS membership isn't only unfair, it makes a mockery of what subdivisions are supposed to be - collections of rules where certain standards are met.

The Sun Belt has evicted members in good standing, not accepted members who are demonstrably ready to compete in FBS now, and accepted members who have not demonstrated that they are ready in any way for FBS.  To me, the Sun Belt has failed as stewards of FBS membership.

Let schools play where they want to play.  For my school, I want that to be FCS.  Let other schools ask themselves the same questions.  Keep the Sun Belt out of it.

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