The Three Subdivisions of College Football

Boise State Football

By Chuck Burton
Publisher/Managing Editor
College Sports Journal

PHILADELPHIA, PA. —Two seasons ago, UMass announced their intent to play football in the Mid-American Conference, or MAC, and a start to increase scholarship limit spending in order to play what they call Football Bowl Subdivision football.


Last season, Georgia State and Old Dominion announced moves to the Sun Belt Conference and Conference USA, respectively, starting their spending spree.  And this season, it’s Appalachian State and Georgia Southern’s turn to join the Sun Belt.


All these schools think they’re moving into Football Bowl Subdivision, the NCAA-named subdivision whose postseason is a bowl system that is outside the NCAA’s official championship system.


But it’s time to call the subdivision which houses every FCS move-up since 1978 what it really is – the FWS. 


The Football Wannabe Subdivision.


Many people seem to think there are two subdivisions in Division I: FCS and FBS.  In reality, there are three subdivisions, and more and more it’s becoming obvious that this is the case.



Since 1978, the year when the NCAA forced schools to compete in different divisions (Divisions I, II, and III) and different subdivisions in Division I football (I-A and I-AA), 31 institutions of higher learning have played FBS, or I-A, level football after spending at least one season playing FCS-level football.


Some schools, like South Alabama and Texas-San Antonio, only played one or two years of “transitional” years in order to get to their ultimate destination of FBS. 


Others, like Mid-American conference members Ball State, Bowling Green, Eastern Michigan, Kent State, Miami (OH), Northern Illinois and Ohio were forcibly re-classified into FCS for a grand total of one year when minimum requirements were enforced for FBS membership.


(The Ivy League played FBS football in 1978, but then voluntarily re-classified to the FCS level in 1983, along with some current members of the Patriot League, Colgate and Holy Cross.)


All 31 of these schools have something in common.


None of them compete, or will compete, in the Group of Five conferences that essentially control the entire postseason money pot for the crystal trophy plus-one playoff game.


Many might have missed the release from CBS sports where the “group of five” announced they were “working on a deal” to compensate the schools of the FWS, I mean, the other FBS conferences that are outside those group of five, to allow them an $86 million playoff pot to the champions of five conferences: the old Big East football conference(now, possibly, soon-to-be-renamed to America 12), the Sun Belt, Conference USA, the MAC, and the Mountain West.


But isn’t this, essentially, calling those five conferences their own subdivision – separate from the Big 10, Big XII, Pac 12, SEC and ACC, who ostensibly don’t need the $86 million involved in that revenue pot to balance their books?


The “Big 5” are planning to make two payouts: one to the schools of the FCS, and one to the schools of the FWS.  How is this not its own de-facto subdivision?


ESPN’s Brett McMurphy further differentiates the “Group Of Five” as, essentially, FBS, and the rest as FWS as well.


During the 12-year contract for college football’s new playoff format, the nation’s five power conferences (SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and ACC) will earn an average of nearly $75 million more per year than the smaller leagues known as the “group of five.”


From 2014 to 2025, the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and ACC will earn an average of at least $91 million annually, sources told ESPN Tuesday. By comparison, the average for the group of five — Big East, Mountain West, Mid-American, Conference USA and Sun Belt — during that 12-year period will be about $17.25 million annually.


For years many in spirit, if not in practice, have separated the different subdivisions of FBS by those in the Bowl Championship conferences and those outside of it. 


What was new, though, about these particular releases about revenue sharing was that two conferences that were knocking on the door of that cartel for membership found themselves on the other side of it.


When people talk about the huge success stories of FCS football moving up to playing bowls they never fail to bring up the stories of Boise State, Nevada, South Florida and UConn.


Once upon a time, these schools in the Mountain West and the conference formerly known as the Big East were actual players in the national championship picture. 


With a BCS formula that rewarded success and an, effectively, an auto-bid to the Big East champion to play in the big-time New Year’s bowls like the Orange or Fiesta, you could argue that those four schools had honestly hit the big time.  They could compete against Alabama, Michigan or Notre Dame on New Year’s Day.


But that was then.


What gets little mention today is the fact that the Mountain West and the (now) America 12 are now very much lumped together with the other have-not conferences, like the MAC, Sun Belt, and Conference USA.


This now puts every single “successful” move-up stories from FBS on the other side of conferences like the Pac 12 and SEC.


When most people think of a former FCS school making good in FBS, they think of Boise State.


Think the Broncos is now raking in the money?  Think again. 


From last year’s EADA reports, the Broncos entire athletic department was $5 million in the red last season, and have needed to go through a host of fundraising initiatives, from increasing ticket prices 10% a year on average to selling stock in “Boise State Broncos, Inc.” to keep their $38 million athletic department running.


With the BCS formula going away after this upcoming season, too, it’s very open to debate whether Boise State can count on bowl money alone to keep its athletics department running – especially since the program is required to cut football scholarships for the next three years thanks to NCAA violations found in 2011. 


Think the Broncos’ Mountain West conference-mate Nevada is raking in the bucks as well?  While their EADA reports show revenue-neutrality, a closer look shows that the football program’s expenses outpace its revenues by $300,000. 


Like Boise State, their financial situation is set to change by their presence in the FWS without BCS money- meaning one of the Wolfpack’s biggest priorities in the offseason has been to get a fabulous fundraiser to increase the spending on their athletics programs.


The same thing applies to the former FCS members of the conference-perhaps-to-be-named-America 12.


UConn’s phenomenally successful basketball program seems to be carrying along football for the ride.  According to the report, football is $2 million in the red – $13 million in revenues vs. $15 million in expenses.


But again, UConn’s yearly payout of almost $3 million from being a BCS auto-qualifier will be going by the wayside starting in 2014.  The Huskies will now be on the outside looking in, with the tall task of milking a huge amount from fans and donors in order just to remain at the same level.  Jacking up the student fees for athletics seems like a foregone conclusion.


South Florida, who spent the then-minimum amount of time at FCS of three years when starting their program, can say their football program is supporting the school – their reports show a $4 million profit for the football team.  But that was with the $3 million subsidy.  It will be a much larger challenge to keep that up with out that money.


Then there’s TV.


The Mountain West, pays its non-blue-turfed members less than $2 million per season from CBS.  The America 12 just inked a similar contract with ESPN.


That’s a far cry from the $20 million per year the fifth conference in the Group of Five, the ACC, is receiving per year.  Even Boise State, who by far has the best TV deal among to BWS schools, won’t be getting that from their Boise-centric hybrid TV deal with CBS and ESPN.


More to the point, though, saying that these schools are the same as those in the Big 10, who also could be seeing more than $20 million per year in TV revenues alone, seems to stretch the imagination by any measure.


And these four schools have been considered the “success” stories.


Life in the Sun Belt, Conference USA and MAC is even tougher than that of the schools in the Mountain West and America 12.  As challenging as the situation is for schools in those two conferences, the challenges multiply with the other three.


None of the schools in those conferences have athletic departments that kick back money support the school.  Every last school in these three conferences – all 27 of them – are supported by student fees and alumni donations, some very, very heavily. 


New Sun Belt member Georgia State’s athletic programs are more than 80% subsidized by student fees, or $19 million of its $23 million budget.  Eastern Michigan and UMass of the MAC, South Alabama of the Sun Belt and Florida Internation of Conference USA have similar ratios.


All are losing money – and some, spectacularly so. 


UMass, who is renting their stadium free from the New England Patriots, had to spend more than $3 million in increased expenses in their first year in the MAC, according to the New York Times, stoking the ire of rank and file academic staff members who had a hard time getting funding for academic projects.


Louisiana-Monroe of the Sun Belt had an overall athletics budget of $8.5 million in 2010-2011, a budget that is less than that of most FCS schools.  In order to keep the athletics department afloat, the Warhawks are required to play FBS guarantee games just to survive.  The $2 million they received last year to play road games vs. Auburn and Arkansas represented 25% of the entire athletics budget.


The University of Alabama-Birmingham, or UAB, has struggled mightily in Conference USA thanks in part to the sad state of their football program. 


In 2011, attendance dipped below 20,000 per game and the program lost $1.7 million.  One of the popular solutions to this issue is to create a new, 30,000 seat stadium for football that would cost $75 million, but it’s not at all clear where the money to pay for that stadium will come from.


Then there’s TV.


Two of the three conferences – the Sun Belt and MAC – have TV contracts whose terms are not publicly disclosed.  It’s a safe bet that the amount of TV money generated by them is miniscule – if they even generate any revenue at all. 


Conference USA, with it’s new $15 million contract, will pay its members just a little over $1 million per year.  Currently, eight of its twelve members at one time played FCS football – Marshall, Central Florida, UAB, Florida International, Florida Atlantic, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee State, and Old Dominion. 


The TV deals don’t exactly give these schools “prime time” exposure, either.


When they do get broadcast nationally on TV, it’s generally on strange days for college, like Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays or Fridays. 


Prime time on Saturday, up against Notre Dame or Alabama?  Forget about it, if you’re a BWS school.


Furthermore, any postseason trip to a bowl from these minor schools will cost the athletic department boatloads of money, through seating and lodging guarantees and tons of other guaranteed spending that might make the Federal government blush in terms of its audacity.


You need to look no further than the bowls of the last few years, where former FCS schools UConn, Toledo, Ohio, Louisiana-Monroe, and Northern Illinois have had to rely on the kindness of other conference members just to break even in their postseason bowls.  When UConn went to the Orange Bowl in 2011, they famously lost $1.6 million on the deal.


Furthermore, many of these BWS conferences are national in travel expenses while being regional in scope. 


In the MAC, for example, travelling from Temple to Akron requires a flight, and only a certain, small hard-core regional number of Philadelphia-area and Akron-area fans care about that game.  The majority people of Ohio and Pennsylvania, never mind nationwide, probably care a lot more about Ohio State and Penn State than the Owls and Zips.


And it’s not just in football. 


Expenses, too, in non-revenue sports like women’s volleyball and men’s track and field go up as those teams are now flown to championships in other time zones.  What may have once been a bus trip is now a flight.  When the number of sports start to rise, those costs add up fast.


Conference USA, America 12 and the Mountain West have the most sprawled membershisp in all of Division I.  The Mountain West spans three time zones, while Conference USA and the America 12 sprawl from Connecticut to West Texas.


Isn’t it time to call all five of those conferences what they are – wannabes?  The Football Wannabe Subdivision?


They wannabe the Big 10 or SEC, or even the ACC. 


They wannbe a part of the plus-one playoff system. 


They wannabe recipients of TV contracts upwards of $15 million to $20 million a school. 


They wannabe ABC’s or CBS’ game of the week on Saturday nights.


But they’re not. 


In reality, the FWS schools get paid off by the FBS schools – the SEC’s and Big XII’s of the world – to accept their own little subdivision, separate from the “group of five” big boys, and to be happy to be considered, however techincally, as a member of their little club.


In the 25 years since the split of football to I-A and I-AA subdivisions, no FCS school that’s made the move to FBS is a member of the “Group of 5”, the FBS, or whatever subdivision you want to call it. 


In the current collegiate football landscape, where the victors are judged to be the ones with the most money in the conferences that receive the most money from the postseason and TV – every single FCS move-up program has to be judged a loser. 


Yes, even sainted Boise State.   Boise State, just like the rest of the “group of 31”, is still just a wannabe until they’re in the position where they’re a part of the well-paid conferences. 


A member of the Football Wannabe Subdivision, or FWS.  From Boise State to Louisiana-Monroe, the description fits.