By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. —Looking back, it probably shouldn’t have been such a surprise that Georgia State’s stay in FCS would be short, even though they were full members of the CAA in all sports.
The writing had to be on the wall in February, when a gushing feasibility report by Georgia State business school grad Russell White all but told Georgia State to jettison the Colonial Athletic Association, home of the toughest football conference in all of FCS, and join the conference that had been their home before, the Sun Belt.
In the whirlwind courtship that was Georgia State’s wooing by the Sun Belt, they were promised it all – more money, more “exposure”, prestigious bowls.
In other words, they were seduced by the Big Lie that refuses to die.
“GSU is well-positioned to make a transition to FBS”, the February feasibility report noted, and “that the Sun Belt would be the best fit,” according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who obtained a copy of the report via the Freedom of Information act.
Neatly for Panther fans with ambitions for non-BCS-level FBS football, it coincided with the move of Karl Benson in becoming the Sun Belt commissioner, replacing the retiring Wright Waters.
Until last February, Benson was the commissioner of the WAC, and he held that post for fourteen years after abruptly leaving for the Sun Belt job.
Benson’s most recent claim to fame has to be his overseeing of the WAC as it got raided for its most marketable schools, most notably Boise State, as BCS conference realignment has run roughshod over the entire Bowl Subdivision.
To his credit, though, he kept the WAC together by offering invites to FCS schools with dream to play non-BCS-level FBS football.
Two schools, Texas State and Texas-San Antonio, took Benson up on his offer to join the WAC before he jumped ship to be the commissioner of the Sun Belt – even though “the likelihood that the WAC will survive the next year with all of its football-playing members still intact is highly doubtful,” according to a report from KLEW TV in Idaho.
“The new mega-conference, formed by the merger of Conference USA and the Mountain West, will look to add more programs to fill out a desired membership of 18-24 teams, the report noted. “The new mega-conference will no doubt consider teams from the Sun Belt and WAC.”
Reinforcing this outlook is the fact that Texas-San Antonio was already willing to jettison the WAC, In a report on CBSSports.com, it came out in mid-March that the Roadrunners had an informal invitation to be a member of the Sun Belt, in essence following Benson into his new conference. But UTSA was holding off accepting as they waited to see if the Conference-USA/Mountain West merger might result in an invite to that league instead.
After Benson took the job over at the Sun Belt – citing “security” as a reason as to why he was choosing to jump conferences – his first priority had to have been to woo the Panthers, who didn’t just think of the Sun Belt as a stepping stone to a BCS conference, but as a long-term home for all their sports, as the feasibility report stated.
“Oftentimes, when people visualize the idea of moving up, they have visions of the very top end of the BCS, the SECs, the ACCs of the world,” CAA commissioner Tom Yeager said in relation to Georgia State’s ambitions. “When in fact, their entry into that division are at a much, much lower level. Oftentimes, those types of consulting reports are as much as a validation of where they are as they are the public’s assumption that we are moving up.”
Despite Yeager’s warnings, the Panthers’ and Sun Belt’s courtship lasted all of two months.
With blinding speed in terms of the pace of most conference moves, Panther leadership started discussions with the Sun Belt even before Benson even officially became commissioner on April 1st.
A CBSSports.com report dated March 28th from Brett McMurphy, citing “college football industry sources”, said that the Panthers were “one of the leading candidates” for the Sun Belt, despite word back in February by Benson himself that his preference would be to have a program that already sponsored FBS football.
Eight days after Benson officially became the Sun Belt’s commissioner, Georgia State held a press conference announcing their move to the Sun Belt in time for the 2013 football season.
“Georgia State is very much looking forward to joining the Sun Belt Conference as the university continues to set new goals for excellence, not just in athletics, but in research and everything that we do, over the next 100 years,” said Georgia State President Mark Becker.
Panthere Director of Athletics Cheryl L. Levick also said: “Under President Becker’s leadership, Georgia State University is growing in size and stature as one of the nation’s leading urban research institutions, so it is only fitting that our athletic program moves to the top level of college athletics. We look forward to an exciting new era in Georgia State athletics. The Sun Belt Conference is a tremendous fit for Georgia State, offering top-quality competition, increased exposure, and the chance to build rivalries with schools in driving distance for our fans.”
They made this jump, interestingly, at a time when the Sun Belt still looks as dicey as ever in terms of an FBS option.
“I’ve said many times today that the smaller the Mountain West/Conference USA alliance ends up being, the better for both the WAC and the Sun Belt. And the larger that alliance gets, the more at risk both conferences (WAC and Sun Belt) become,” Benson himself said back in February.
And with the Conference USA/Mountain West merger still not finalized, a WAC/Sun Belt merger seems like a likely destination if other schools from either conference leave.
What makes the move especially shocking is the money the Panthers will be leaving on the table by exiting the CAA.
The CAA had the good fortune of having two of its schools make the Final Four in basketball during the last six years. As a result of those runs, the CAA enjoys a “share” of revenue from the NCAA.
This money is distributed mostly to the schools that made the runs to the Final Four – George Mason in 2006, and VCU in 2011 – but the other schools still get upwards of $300,000 per school per year simply because they’re a part of the conference and field quality basketball programs.
That is guaranteed money, given to Georgia State, with no strings attached. They don’t have to do anything for that money other than to simply be a part of the CAA.
And that’s on top of other revenues that are enjoyed by the conference in terms of conference TV rights, sponsorship, or other revenue sources.
The Panthers are giving all of that up so that they can join a conference whose champion played in the “First Four” this year instead of the “Final Four”.
Western Kentucky, itself a former FCS school that was somewhat pressured to join the Sun Belt in all sports in 2009, came from behind to defeat Mississippi Valley State 59-58 with an audience that included President Barack Obama and English Prime Minister David Cameron.
(The 16th-seeded Hilltoppers were then toppled by eventual national champion Kentucky, 81-66.)
In the whirlwind two-month courtship of the Panthers, the word from the feasibility study, Georgia State administratiors and Sun Belt representatives seems to only involve one word: revenues.
Ms. Levick, while mentioning all those hoary chestnuts about “top-quality competion” and “increased exposure”, also made the blithe assumption that that the university analysis projected that expected increases in guarantee-game revenues for football, corporate sponsorships and ticket sales will cover the cost of the additional scholarships in 2013.
That Georgia State can’t see the accounting for living in a non-BCS FBS world perhaps should not be surprising, either, since it seems like many athletics administrators who seem to desire these moves must have slept through their Accounting 101 classes.
If they hadn’t, they’d realize that you can’t only look at the revenue side of the ledger while not looking at the costs.
An easy place to start is the added money for scholarships.
When jumping from 63 FCS scholarships to 85 FBS scholarships in football, it’s not just as simple as adding the costs of 22 extra football players. Thanks to Title IX, the school will now need to offer 22 more women’s scholarships as well.
If you figure that cost to be $20,000 per scholarship, that’s $880,000 more on scholarship spending per year. Every year.
Then there’s other athletics department costs – including head coaching salaries.
A report from the Knight Commission, called, appropriately, College Sports 101, states that salary and benefit costs of coaches and athletic departments of the average FBS program is 32% of the spending of the entire department.
At Western Kentucky, a row recently broke out when it was revealed that head coach Willie Taggart, after a 7-5 season (and despite a loss to FCS Indiana State in the same year), just about doubled his annual pay to $475,000 a year – meaning that he became the institution’s highest-paid employee, eclipsing even that of president Gary Ransdell, who only made $360,000.
Teachers, who only saw a modest 1% increase in salary, were in an uproar – and yet, all of Western Kentucky’s coaching salaries in the 2010 season only made up 17% of their entire athletics budget.
In other words, don’t expect Taggart’s salary to dip below Ransdell’s any time soon – and you can probably expect even larger year-to-year increases in the years to come.
Furthermore, scholarships and salaries don’t even begin to catalog the other various expenses – paybacks to the league for bowl payouts, added charter flights to money games against BCS foes, increased academic compliance requirements, facilities improvements – that seem to come with FBS invites.
(While Georgia State wouldn’t have to pay for facility improvements, they will need to rent out the Georgia Dome, which will cost the institution money from their athletics budget.)
Admittedly, there are some more revenues for a team being in FBS – but in almost all cases, those revenues are not what puts an athletic department in the black.
“While universities and even the biggest athletics programs are not-for-profit organizations, some can generate significant sums from ticket sales, television contracts, and other sources. Most, however, depend on institutional transfers from general funds, student fees, and state appropriations to cover expenses,” the Knight Commission report states.
The Sun Belt features some schools that are real champions in charging their students student fees to subsidize athletics – namely, fees required for matriculation that go directly towards athletics.
When BusinessOfCollegeSports.com compiled their list of FBS schools with the highest proportion of revenues from student fees, two schools not all that far removed from FCS, Florida International and Florida Atlantic, both appeared in the Top 5 with an eye-watering 71% and 55%, respectively, of their operating budget coming from this type of support.
“The average percentage of total athletic department revenue coming from student fees at [BCS] schools was 4 percent. By contrast, the average [non-BCS FBS] school is relying on student fees for over 25% of their total revenue,” their report noted.
Tellingly, eight of the eleven members of the Sun Belt have more than 25% of their revenue covered by student fees.
That’s not the only financial support for these athletic departments, either. Another source comes in the form of other more direct institutional subsidies. These can come in the form of direct cash transfers from the school’s general fund, or in some cases, state support.
“According to 2007 NCAA financial data, half of all top-flight athletic programs rely on at least $9 million in institutional and governmental subsidies to balance their budgets. Even in the most prosperous conference, its members received a median subsidy of $3.4 million,” the Knight Commission report noted, and “every athletic program in three less prosperous conferences relied on more dollars from their central administrations than they were able to generate on their own” – a list, of course, that includes the Sun Belt Conference.
Even the Georgia State FBS feasibility study clearly acknowledges such subisdies to increase.
“Institutional support would need to increase, but the primary increase would come from externally driven revenue from athletics,” according to the report.
If history is any guide, the last part of this assertion is patently false.
And if you’re still unconvinced that life in the Sun Belt is actually all revenues and no costs, leafing through the strategic plan of the Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks should be a real eye-opener as well.
“With approximately $70 million in planned and completed facility upgrades and steady enrollment in each of the previous three years, The University of Louisiana at Monroe is experiencing a renaissance,” the 45 page report from 2006 proudly states near the top. But when you skim down to the list of “Challenges”, number one is “increased funding to maintain competitiveness”, followed closely by “increasing salary levels” and “increasing staffing”.
“The average Sun Belt school receives 65.6% of its funding from institutional support while ULM received only 47% of its support [in this way], the 2006 report indicated. “In 2004-2005 for instance, Troy University, which also recently joined the Sun Belt for all sports received $7,505,527 from its university allocation and $475,000 from student fees for a total of $7,980,527. This represented over 68% of its total revenues as compared to ULM’s 2004-2005 amount of $2,637,059 or 48%. The amount of institutional support received by Troy was 147% of ULM’s entire athletic budget.”
Think that non-BCS FBS football comes cheap? Think again.
FBS can seem like a siren song for some types of schools – the opportunity to think of themselves as “big-time”, playing in bowl games, and getting on ESPN, even if it’s on a Tuesday.
But the sad reality is the idea that being “big-time” in the world of non-BCS FBS football is really still just a myth.
The bowl games will almost certainly involve the GoDaddy.Com Bowl instead of the Fiesta Bowl, the ESPN games are almost always on Tuesday night, not Saturday nights, and you end up opening up a spending arms race that doesn’t really result in the type money that you’re hoping to generate for your program.
It would be refreshing for a school to just admit this upfront – that being in the world of non-BCS FBS football will cost millions more dollars for the right to pretend that they’re the same as Notre Dame, Michigan and Stanford on weekends in the fall – when their games actually fall on weekends rather than weekdays, of course.
But as countless others before them have done, they sell the move as one that will make more money for the school and give them “exposure” – a move with all upside, and no downside, as if there are no costs to such a move.
It’s the Big Lie that refuses to die.
The truth is that schools end up paying more – a lot more – for the privilege of pretending to be Alabama.
And the so-called financial benefits? In the world of non-BCS FBS, well, they’re still waiting to see them.