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A familiar story caught my eye on Tuesday. Kent State, one of the smallest athletic departments at the FBS level, will reportedly need to cut a whopping 20% from their athletic department budget. Per the Record-Courier:
Golden Flashes Director of Athletics Joel Nielsen has reportedly been asked to trim 20% from his operating expenses, which totaled $29,573,232 in 2019, according to the Kent State University Athletics Revenue/Expense Report submitted to the NCAA and obtained by the Record-Courier via public records request. That would require roughly $6 million in budget cuts.
Approximately a month ago, Kent State announced that campus-wide salary cuts scaled based on earnings will take effect on July 1, the start of the next fiscal year. Nielsen, Golden Flashes head football coach Sean Lewis and men’s basketball coach Rob Senderoff will each have their salaries trimmed by 10% during Fiscal Year 2021, while the other coaches, administrators and staff members face salary reductions ranging from 2% to 7%. Employees earning under $38,000 will not have their salaries reduced.
Sean Lewis already has one of the lowest head coaching salaries in FBS, with a reported base rate of $440,000. To put that into perspective, eight Ohio State assistant coaches make more than that.
Cutting salaries of top coaches and administrators does save some money though. The Record-Courier estimates Kent State will save about $800,000 from those cuts. But $800,000 is a far cry from the $6 million the department needs to eliminate.
The university isn’t considering cutting any sports, but other cuts may still be drastic. The Record-Courier reports that Kent State will drop cost of attendance stipends, slash summer school funding, and potentially elect to offer fewer athletic scholarships in certain sports.
It’s unclear exactly what kind of other cuts the football program might face, but it’s reasonable to assume that any sort of cuts to athletic scholarships or cost of attendance stipends will make recruiting more difficult. And that’s a problem, because this is already one of the hardest jobs in FBS. Kent State managed to win their first bowl game ever last season, going 7-6 while playing one of the most difficult out of conference schedules in the country. But it’s really saying something with going 7-6 is one of your best seasons ever. Kent State has posted a record above .500 exactly four times in my lifetime. I was born in 1987.
Historically, Kent State football has not been well supported by fans or the university, and the product on the field has been awful. If they’re already near the bottom of the budget barrel, it’s hard to see how they sustain success if they’re forced to endure more cuts.
One might look at Kent State and wonder, why the hell are they still in this FBS football business anyway? They’re not even coming close to competing for MAC titles, let alone national titles. Plenty of FCS football teams had more fans actually watch their games in 2019 than Kent State had. Why remain at FBS and continue to suck? Why not drop to FCS?
It’s a reasonable question, and one you could ask about several other FBS programs, like UMass, Eastern Michigan, New Mexico State, San Jose State, Akron, UConn, and others.
I honestly think some of those teams, big picture, would benefit from reclassification. But it is very unlikely to happen.
My buddy Chris Vannini over at The Athletic ($) wrote a thoughtful, well researched story on why schools are very resistant to jump down a level. It echoes a lot of the talking points I’ve written about and heard over the last several years. I want to talk about a few of those in a little more detail here.
You don’t actually save very much money, at least, not at the beginning
Even if your terrible football team struggles to sell a single ticket, FBS membership gives you some significant revenue earning opportunities. The going rate for a “buy” game, or a trip your team takes to a rich program, can earn a team like Kent State north of $1.6 million a pop. The product might be terrible (most of these games are over by halftime), but the checks absolutely cash, and are a critical revenue source for the entire department.
FCS teams can schedule “buy” games too, but their going rate is much less. Broadcasters aren’t as interested in them, and fans are less likely to buy tickets to watch them, even if there is no functional difference in team quality between a good FCS team and a bad FBS team. If Kent State, or anybody else, dropped to FCS, their rate for a “Buy” game might drop to $500,000. If you scheduled two of these games a season, you’re looking over a million bucks in revenue, right there.
Plus, FBS schools, even schools in leagues like the MAC and Conference USA, are still getting TV money, money that outstrips what even very successful programs make at the FCS level. Vannini points to the excellent Knight Commission financial database, which shows that even lousy programs like Kent State and Akron will pull in around $3.4 million in revenue from “distributions, media rights and postseason football”, far outstripping what excellent FCS programs like North Dakota State, Montana, James Madison and Eastern Washington might make.
Now, that doesn’t mean there aren’t savings to be had. $250,000 is a pretty good FCS head coaching salary, and over time, a transitioning program may be able to eventually cut their salary pool in half. FCS schools offer fewer scholarships, which might allow them to recruit more full tuition paying students to campus (the actual savings on scholarship costs is mostly immaterial).
Perhaps most importantly though, expenses don’t rise as fast in FCS. Schools are not hiring a small army of social media managers to build digital recruiting operations. Your facility construction pressures are not going to be the same. Your salary expenses will not skyrocket at the same rate as your FBS peers.
I think it is true that there are FBS programs that would not actually save money by dropping to FCS. For example, back in 2015, I wrote that Hawaii probably wouldn’t save meaningful money by dropping to FCS, or even out of football entirely. But over a long enough time period, I do think that some schools probably would.
But that’s over a long enough time period. Who wants to save money 25 years from now when people are angry NOW?
Even if your football program isn’t terribly well supported now, there’s reason to think that dropping down a level would be a politically costly maneuver. Here’s Vannini again, on Idaho’s decision to drop to FCS:
So when Idaho president Chuck Staben decided in 2016 that the Vandals would drop from the Football Bowl Subdivision to the Football Championship Subdivision, opposition was loud.
That’s not to say the opposition was all-consuming or even the majority. Staben maintains that as much as 80 percent of fans who sent an email or a letter favored the move. But those who did oppose the move were unrelenting. They, including players, were especially loud when the Vandals stunned everyone with a 9-4 season in 2016, though they went 4-8 in 2017.
That pushback made an impact. The football program has seen a loss of about 50 percent in ticket revenue and contributions since the move, according to the Idaho Press. Amid the backlash, Staben and the Idaho State Board of Education mutually agreed he would step down as president in 2019. The football subdivision move wasn’t the only factor — his pursuit of the University of New Mexico presidency and sexual harassment and assault allegations in the athletic department also played a role — but the drop to FCS soured some important people.
It’s hard to say exactly how much of Staben’s departure was because of football, and how much was because of the other factors, but it was clearly *a* factor. And with Idaho struggling a bit at the FCS level, and with athletic department donations down, any savings that Idaho will realize may not truly materialize for years. At that point, nobody who pushed for those changes will still be at Idaho to gloat.
Athletics is really only a small part of the entire university budget, and being a university president has to be a really hard gig in 2020, especially if you’re at a tuition dependent regional public school. Do you want to use some of your precious political capital on a project where you won’t get any credit, but you WILL get blame and negative press? Probably not!
For what it’s worth, things might still turn out okay for Staben. He’s reportedly a finalist for the president job at Toledo, and was also a finalist for the job at North Dakota last year.
Every situation is completely different, and conference affiliations muddle the calculations
Idaho was in a bit of a unique position. The Sun Belt voted to kick them out, and the Mountain West wasn’t going to invite them to join, so Idaho was stuck as an FBS independent. No bowl affiliation. No revenue sharing. Just an immediate future full of long and expensive road trips.
By dropping to FCS, Idaho suddenly added multiple opponents in the Big Sky that were bus trips. They already had historical ties to some of those schools. Dropping down would actually save the school on travel, perhaps in a substantial way.
That may not be true for everybody. FCS schools aren’t distributed equally across the US, and a school in the MAC, or perhaps in the South, could potentially have to travel a little more in the FCS level than they might at FBS. Akron or Kent State dropping, for example, could mean they swap trips to Indiana and Michigan with places like Missouri and South Dakota.
That may be doable in football, but if dropping to FCS means that the school also needs to find a new home for other sports, and if that new home means increased travel as well…your entire savings might be a wash.
There’s also the marketing factor…but I am very skeptical of this.
Here’s Eastern Michigan AD Scott Wetherbe, again via the Athletic,
“If we drop down a level, that affects your whole campus,” Wetherbee said. “We went to Ford Field and a bowl game at 6-6 and we got $12.5 million worth of visibility and marketing by going to that football game, filling it up and having people talk about it. There’s this feel-good and pride about Eastern, which we haven’t had very often. Very few things can make that happen.”
I mean, sure, EMU isn’t likely to get a primetime ESPN spot for a game against Pitt if they’re an FCS school. But what does $12.5 million worth of visibility and marketing mean in practice? What does a school hope to get from that money? Sure, having an FBS team make a bowl game means that fans in California and Utah and New Jersey might watch a Eastern Michigan football game and see a few Eastern Michigan commercials, but does that translate into alumni giving? Into new applications? Into increased engagement that is sustainable over time? And if so…are there cheaper ways for the school to market themselves and get that same outcome?
After all, Eastern has played in exactly four bowl games…ever. They’ve never been ranked. They haven’t won more than seven games in a season since 1987. If you’re trying to justify having a football team because of the media exposure you earn when they’re a little above average…that seems awfully expensive and inefficient.
Plus, if we’re being totally honest here, if you’ve watched multiple Kent State, or UMass, or Akron, or UConn football games over the last few years…your real impression is probably watching them lose by 49 to some Big Ten or SEC team, not playing in the Camellia Bowl. And what kind of exposure is that worth? Did Akron enjoy positive press from their football in 2019? Did UMass? Did UConn?
I think back to what UMass president Marty Meehan said back in November.
I don’t like to be 40-point underdogs and obviously it’s not good for the brand….It’s never a good situation to lose by the margins that we are losing by. It’s never a good situation to be 40-point underdogs.
I have to think that whatever marketing benefits a school gets from being FBS are at least somewhat dependent on being a competitive football team.
Short time finances and political cost make dropping to FCS unlikely. But maybe not everything ought to be about money
I hate to sound like a broken record, but I keep coming back to this.
What does a school want to be? What students are they trying to serve? What is the identity and mission of the school? Of the athletic department? How, exactly, is the athletic department supposed to support that mission?
If the mission of the athletic department is to help grow enrollment, then maybe the topline revenues, or even competitiveness of the athletics program, don’t matter as much. As long as those programs bring tuition dollars to the school, and as long as the athletes are safe, small crowds and losing records aren’t a big deal.
Is it to enhance the school’s profile? To serve as a marketing and recruiting tool outside of the immediate home market? Is it to provide a great student experience to retain undergraduates and convert them into donors? Is it to establish who you want your university peers to be?
Those are critically important questions to ask, and those answers, perhaps more than anything else, ought to inform decisions about what the best classification is for your football program.
Inertia and ego are powerful forces in college athletics, so I think it would take unique circumstances and very powerful outside pressure for a school to reclassify *down*. I do think it’s possible, both at the FCS and FBS level. But it’s very difficult.
If Kent State isn’t willing to entertain more structural questions about their football program, I do have one suggestion as to where they might be able to save some money.
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