By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — Jonas, the seven year old fan of the North Dakota Fightin’ Hawks, was sad.
He had just bought a Fightin’ Hawks jersey – the first kid on his block to get one, now that the nickname controversy was finally past – after having his Dad, himself, also, a long-time North Dakota Fightin’ Hawks fan, streamed live video of North Dakota’s resounding 45-21 win over a school that was 1,989 miles away from Grand Forks, North Dakota, the Cal Poly Mustangs.
“Why, Dad?” Jonas asked his father, as he was tucking him into his bed adorned with footballs, a green and white interlocking ND on his bedspread, twin posters of Errol Mann and Jim LeClair flanking him on both sides of his room.
“Sadly, son,” his Dad said, “I do know why. I will try to best tell you the tale best I can. It’s not a happy story, but let me tell you why. You deserve to know.”
Jonas sat up in his bed.
“You know our North Dakota Fightin’ Hawks play in a conference called the Big Sky Conference. One of those teams in our conference is Portland State. You may remember that exciting game when we watched them on the stream, when they were playing 1,554 miles away in Oregon. It sure was fun when we beat them 19-17.”
“I remember, Dad.” Jonas said. “It wasn’t as fun as when we beat Wyoming to start the season, but that was pretty great, too. We actually drove to the one in Wyoming. We sure had a great time with the family, grilling steaks in the parking lot, and then watching us beat Craig Bohl’s Cowboys. Not so smug now he’s in the FBS, huh?
“But Dad, why is Portland State in the playoffs, and our Fightin’ Hawks are not? How?”
“Well, son, you have to remember that the NCAA is very limited by its budget
to put on the FCS playoffs.”
“A few years ago, the head of the FCS committee of the NCAA said that only $2.5 million was budgeted for the FCS playoffs.”
“That’s not a lot. How do they get the money?”
“Well, what they do is… solicit bids for the schools in the playoffs to cover the expenses.”
“What does that mean, Dad?”
“Well, son, let’s say Montana and Colgate are matched up in the first round of the playoffs. A few weeks before the end of the regular season, the NCAA asks Montana and Colgate if they want to make a bid to host a game. Once they’re matched up, they open the envelopes and compare the amount of money in both envelopes. If Montana’s envelope is bigger than Colgate’s, they get to host the game.”
“Wait a second, Dad. They bid on the playoff game before they even know that they’re in the playoffs?”
“That doesn’t make much sense.”
“It does to the NCAA, son. See, the NCAA’s main motivation is to get as much money as possible from the FCS schools. A school that can generate more money in fan attendance will generate more money for the FCS playoff budget. For example, Colgate’s stadium can only host 9,000 fans, while Montana averaged 23,000 a few years ago. The NCAA would much rather Montana host a playoff game than Colgate, because then the NCAA will get a bigger part of the revenue from the game.”
“Wait – the schools don’t get to keep the money? Even though they pay the expenses to pay the hot dog vendors and everything?”
“No, son – the NCAA takes that money in order to do things like pay for the other teams’ buses, so they can get to the stadium, and pay for a hotel for them to stay in. That’s all a part of the NCAA’s FCS budget.”
“Didn’t I read somewhere that the NCAA made $753 million in television money in 2013? So why don’t they just use some of that money to pay for these expenses, instead of having the schools have to fork over the money that they are making? Let me get out my calculator..” Jonas pulled out his calculator. “$2.5 million is less than 1% of $753 million dollars in TV revenue…”
Jonas’ dad calmly took the calculator from him. “The NCAA works in mysterious ways, son.”
“So, Dad, even though this bidding thing, this NCAA taking the money thing, this still doesn’t explain why we don’t get to see our beloved Fightin’ Hawks in the playoffs.”
“Follow me,” Jonas’ dad said.
Jonas and his dad went over to the computer, and went to Google Maps. A line came up to show the distance in miles between the two schools.
“The distance between us and Dayton is 1,020 miles,” he says.
His Dad then typed in Macomb, Illinois, and Dayton, Ohio. The line shifted.
“377 miles, son. That’s why we won’t be watching a playoff game.”
“I don’t understand, Dad?”
“See, the NCAA has this rule that, if a school is 400 miles or less from each other in an NCAA championship, the NCAA will reimburse a bus ride to and from the city.”
Jonas fell silent.
“That’s why the FCS playoff bracket is set up for North Dakota State, our bitterest enemies, to potentially play three teams that are bus rides to Fargo. It’s also why Duquesne is set up to face William and Mary, and the winner is set to play Richmond, and why The Citadel is playing Coastal Carolina with the winner to play Charleston Southern. They are bus trips.”
Jonas’ eyes became downcast as he started to fully realize why the Fighting Hawks were not selected.
“Had North Dakota been the final team,” his dad sadly relayed to him, “Dayton would have had to fly up here to Grand Forks, North Dakota. The NCAA would have had to pay for that, and it would have cost them more money.”
“But DAD,” Jonas said, his voice getting lower and more sullen, “there is NOTHING fair about this! I thought that the playoffs were all about putting the best teams in the playoffs and then finding out where they should play, and then playing! You keep telling me Dayton is the weakest team in the playoffs! If they are, maybe Western Illinois should be playing us instead!”
“Dayton gets an automatic bid to the playoffs because they won the Pioneer Football League,” his Dad said, sadly. “They have to play somewhere.”
“But Western Illinois, they’re only 6-5! They didn’t beat any FBS teams, like we did! They didn’t beat any seeds, like we did! You told me that when our Fightin’ Hawks went 7-4, they would make it into the playoffs over any team with six Division I wins! Why, Dad? Why?”
“I don’t know.”
“And Dad, if they really were trying to make everything regional, why didn’t they just have us play South Dakota State, with the winner playing North Dakota State? Those are all bus trips.”
“I don’t know, son. Maybe they didn’t want to set up a rematch. After all, we both played North Dakota State already this year.”
“Are you KIDDING, dad?” Jonas said. “There are rematches all over the place. The Charleston Southern second round game is guaranteed to be a rematch. Colgate at New Hampshire in the forst round is a rematch. Western Illinois and Illinois State will be a rematch once they beat Dayton.”
“I’m sorry, son,” his dad said, a tear forming in his eye. “I once was like you. I, too thought that the NCAA wanted to get the best teams in the playoffs and then pick terrific matchups in order to figure out who the real national champions should be. But I don’t believe in that anymore.
“I’m starting to believe something else – that it’s all about making the bracket as cheap as possible, that, for the want of hitting some arbitrary $2.5 million budget number, that the folks picking the FCS tournament bracket would simply rather take a less qualified team like Western Illinois to fit in an extra bus trip. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the NCAA isn’t really trying to make the best possible playoff with the best possible teams at all – they’re simply trying to make the cheapest possible playoff by making it so regionalized that the regular season doesn’t seem to matter at all.”
“Good night, son,” his Dad continued. “I know things really suck now, but tomorrow will be a better day, and next season, hopefully, we will beat Bowling Green, Stony Brook and coast through our Big Sky schedule and win the autobid. I know that’s small comfort now, but maybe by next year the NCAA might see the mistakes that it’s making, that simply opening up a budget line in the NCAA’s budget might not only make the FCS playoffs a bigger deal and generate a lot more interest in Division I college football, but also might be a bit more fair next time, too, for a team like us.”