By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — One of the biggest complaints coming from the mouths of FCS football fans is the lack of “exposure” of their teams on TV.
Frequently teams have their own local TV deals, like Lehigh with Service Electric 2 in the Lehigh Valley, national TV deals, like Liberty and their Flames Sports Network, or a sort-of consortium of public broadcast stations in the state, which is the case for Montana and North Dakota State.
There has to be an easier way for these teams to get some of that precious TV time – with a little creativity.
With the debut of Fox Sports 1, or the rebranding of the Speed Network into an all-sports broadcast venue, there are four media companies vying for programming on their new stations: the flagship, ESPN and their family of networks, and three deep-pocketed rivals, NBC Sports Network, CBS Sports Network, and Fox.
And, from FCS schools’ perspective, most of their out-of-conference schedule openings are going to be in the month of September.
To fill those scheduling needs, they’ll frequently schedule easier teams, frequently from the sub-D-I ranks and below, to get those home games.
Those games allow for a home opener, of course, but when it comes to “exposure” or national interest, when Eastern Washington takes on D-II Western Oregon, for example, it ends up being the type of game only reserved for the most hardcore of Eagle fans.
In other words, nobody would dream of taking this game and putting it on a national network.
With a little creative thinking, though, couldn’t something be worked out to craft a scheduling arrangement, with a TV deal, that benefits multiple successful FCS programs?
A game like Western Oregon/Eastern Washington is not something that will move the viewership needle nationally. But a Eastern Washington/North Dakota State game might – a matchup of the last two national championship teams, for starters, and one that could be a rematch of the controversial FCS playoff game where the Bison were ruled to have fumbled at the 1 yard line in overtime.
It could feature, nationally, either the Inferno of Roos Stadium in Cheney, Washington, or the thunderous Fargodome in North Dakota – two of the best venues in all of FCS.
Eastern Washington, of course, isn’t going to cancel their game with Western Oregon this season in order to play the Bison under the current landscape.
Why? For starters, the Eagles schedules have all been made, and printed. But more to the point, with things the way they are, if an Eastern Washington/North Dakota State game were to be scheduled between the two schools directly, there would be stumbling blocks.
Both teams would want the home game – after all, that’s where either school is going to make most of its money. And a six-figure guarantee would be expensive for the home school, yet probably wouldn’t cover the visiting team’s expenses.
There would be no “national TV exposure”: the game would be broadcast and produced locally, possibly being picked up by the visiting school’s local stations. While fun for the student-athletes and fans, the game is unlikely to move the needle nationally.
This isn’t just an academic exercise, either. Just this season, Montana State backed out of a game at North Dakota State, a game that was set up years ago, due to the fact that a more lucrative opportunity popped up to play an FBS team on national television. It left Bison fans livid.
If it was a Top 25 matchup on national TV, though, would it have been so easily cancelled by the folks at Montana State?
What if there was a TV deal in place that made a matchup like that make financial sense?
Let’s say you made a pool of teams with the national championship teams from last season (North Dakota State and Sam Houston State), and a pool of top-ranked participating schools from last season (Eastern Washington, Jacksonville State, Central Arkansas, Coastal Carolina, Wofford, and Richmond).
Each of these eight schools agree to keep two potential out-of-conference matchup weekends open. They don’t know whether they’ll be the home team or away team, but they would know that the game would be on national TV on a national network, on a Saturday afternoon, on one of the two weekends they said they had open.
A few years ago, it might have seemed crazy for an Eastern Washington/North Dakota State game to be on national television – the only real option was an ESPN network , and the folks in Bristol weren’t about to drop an ACC game to make way for FCS.
But is it that crazy anymore? NBC Sports Network is practically begging for programming on Saturdays before college basketball season gets under way. The same goes with the CBS Sports Network.
That’s a lot of programming hours to fill (and replays during the week), and an elite matchup between FCS Top 25 teams could rival, or even surpass the ratings of, say, Eastern Michigan lining up against Penn State.
If the deal is right and the dollars are right, would the athletic directors of FCS schools say “yes”? I’d have to believe that it would get serious consideration.
One school would get a home game, and a national game shot in their home stadium. The other would probably get their expenses paid, and more, a national game on TV.
Both schools might need to give up a self-produced, locally broadcast game, but it might be worth it.
Let’s take the teams I used as an example, and graft them onto the 2013 schedule and see what matchups are lost, and which matchups might be gained.
8/31 Central Arkansas vs. Incarnate Word (D-II)
8/31 Richmond vs. VMI
9/7 North Dakota State OPEN
9/7 Eastern Washington vs. Western Oregon (D-II)
9/14 Sam Houston State vs. Texas Southern
9/14 Jacksonville State vs. North Alabama (D-II)
9/21 Wofford vs. Gardner-Webb
9/21 Coastal Carolina vs. Hampton
8/31 Richmond at Central Arkansas
9/7 Eastern Washington at North Dakota State
9/14 Jacksonville State at Sam Houston State
9/21 Wofford at Coastal Carolina
In almost all of these cases, the schools are swapping out a warmup game against a somewhat local school with a game against an FCS Top 25 school, and replacing games of regional interest and making them into games with national, and potentially TV marketable, interest.
Not only might these games pay for themselves, they could serve to be valuable come playoff time for the schools as well.
A Central Arkansas win against Incarnate Word would effectively be invisible to the playoff subcommittee, but a win over Richmond on national television, followed by many, would certainly turn heads.
And equally as important, such a setup would still allow schools to schedule their regular games against FBS opponents. Nobody’s asking Sam Houston State to give up their game against Baylor – just a game against a regional opponent.
Could a consortium be created to make something like this happen, perhaps through the NCAA, or perhaps a committee comprising the heads of the conferences that sponsor FCS football?
Is there an existing body available to talk to the folks at CBS Sports Network, or the NBC Sports Network, to make something like this happen?
To me, it seems like the benefits are so great, and the downsides to everyone so small, that something like this needs to be put together.