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Episode 6: Don't brag about APR scores, you big dumb nerd

Good morning! Let’s start the week off right. Let’s talk about Academic Progress Rate. Let’s just jump right into that pure, uncut football nerd stuff.

First, a quick refresher on what exactly APR is

APR stands for Academic Progress Rate, a metric the NCAA uses to allegedly hold schools accountable for how well their athletes actually progress towards degrees. Every student gets a point for staying in school each year, and another point for staying academically eligible. Then the NCAA adds up all the points, divides them by the total points possible, multiples it by 1,000, and there you go, your team gets a score, usually in the mid to high 900s. The NCAA claims that a score of 930 correlates with a 50% graduation rate, and that programs that fail to hit that 930 benchmark could be hit with penalties, including postseason bans.

In practice, this basically never happens to D1 football teams, and when it does, it almost always happens to poorly funded HBCUs who can’t afford a legion of tutors and academic specialists. According to the NCAA database, the only FBS team to catch a postseason ban for APR violations was 2012-2013 Idaho. FBS teams getting any kind of APR penalty, from a docking of practice time, to even just a public reprimand, is very rare, and generally only happens to small programs like San Jose State or Temple.

Big football schools, even if their students are not, in fact, all warrior-poets double majoring in chemical engineering and medieval literature, don’t get penalized for APR violations.

The 2017-2018 scores were released a few days ago, and wouldn’t you know it, every FBS program cleared 930, although a few came kinda close. You can look at the entire APR report, which includes data on other sports, here.

Teams with excellent APR scores can sometimes qualify for bowl games with a 5-7 record if there are not enough eligible programs, so that might be good news for Air Force, Northwestern, Duke, Vandy, Navy, Nevada or Boston College. Clemson and Ohio State are near the top as well, but I have a sneaking suspicion they won’t be 5-7 this coming season.

It’s a bit surprising to see Florida State listed dead last, but as Tomahawk Nation notes, part of that was because of higher-than-usual player turnover after a coaching change (although it also included players not going to class as much as they should have). Florida State isn’t really anywhere close to facing meaningful APR problems with the NCAA, though.

Does this metric actually tell us anything meaningful about academic achievement or progress? Ehhh, not exactly.

More than anything, the APR dings programs that have lots of player attrition. Sometimes, high player attrition is because the staff is not doing a good job recruiting players who can stay academically eligible, or isn’t trying to help them remain eligible. That’s something that should warrant a level of accountability, and what the APR is designed to document.

But other programs, like Hawaii (players getting homesick because they’re roughly a gazillion miles away), or BYU (players going on LDS missions) or Liberty (players realizing they committed to attend Liberty) are going to have higher attrition no matter what. And events that have nothing to do with the classroom, like the ability to go to the NFL, or a coaching change, can also make attrition jump.

The APR doesn’t really tell us anything meaningful about academic achievement, beyond that the student was academically eligible. There’s no accounting for major difficulty (if anything, UNC proved that we can’t assume every class is necessarily on the up and up), or GPA…and a school with resources like an Ohio State or Alabama ought to be able to help nearly anybody carry a 2.0 GPA. And if the APR can improve for 13 years in a row, is it really measuring anything that meaningful?

I don’t really know how to create a better tool for measuring meaningful academic progress, or even how to accurately define that. Different schools have different missions, and work with different populations, and I think that is entirely appropriate. It’s hard to judge how an HBCU is helping kids progress the same way towards a degree as say, Rice does. And no member institution wants the NCAA to get involved in curriculum standards on an institutional level.

But pushing kids into glorified 13th grade curriculums to meet bare eligible minimums doesn’t seem to warrant praise to me, and docking programs that don’t have a small army of tutors, or who have players leave the program regularly for non-academic reasons, doesn’t seem useful either.

This much is clear to me though. Don’t brag about your alma mater’s APR rate. Even if it was awesome, like mine was. It doesn’t really mean anything.

Three different football teams, three very different ticketing strategies

Most college football teams, even really big successful ones, are struggling to maintain ticketed attendance. This has been a trend over the last several years, and how serious a problem it is depends a ton on the program, but it’s generally something almost everybody has to deal with. The reality is probably even worse than the official numbers, since actual ticketed attendance is often a smaller number than what gets reported in the press box and to the NCAA. If you want get butts in your seats, you gotta be creative.

Ohio State, one of the most successful teams in the sport, is one of those teams. Last year, despite winning the Big Ten, the Rose Bowl, and setting a gazillion school passing records, average attendance was the lowest it’s been since 2001. Now, they have a new coach, and a crappy home schedule. Ohio State’s solution? Partial ticket plans.

Previously, you had to give a hefty donation to the school to score season tickets, and trying to buy single game tickets could be very expensive. This seems like common sense to me, and something other programs have done. When you schedule your out of conference games out twenty years in the future, and have to buy some bodybag games to balance the books, sometimes, your home slate sucks. If you want people to come watch you dismantle Miami of Ohio by 54 points, at least make it cheaper and easier.

Granted, the cheapest ticket package is still over $60 bucks a game, so it isn’t cheap, but it’s a start.

So even if you’re as good as Ohio State is at football, you probably need to make changes to help improve ticket sales. Not every team is a good as Ohio State. If you suck, like UConn did last year, you have to be even more creative…like making student tickets completely free.

I love that move, even if it hurts the athletic department bottom line in the short term. The more students you get showing up, the more likely they develop positive feelings for the live-event experience, the more likely they become donors and season ticket holders once they graduate and get jobs. UConn’s administration should be excited enough that anybody wants to watch the 124th ranked team in FBS (if they’re lucky this season). Charging a student literally any amount of money for it seems excessive.

Then there’s UCF, whose AD is actually talking about expanding their stadium! Because too many people want tickets! In an interview with the Orlando Sentinel recently, AD Danny White said:

“It’s inevitable that we’re going to have to expand the stadium,” White said. “It’s built to be expanded and it was originally designed to go to 65,000. We’ll see what that looks like over the next couple of years as we continue to build our waiting list and communicate with our fans and see what they want.

I mean, on one hand, this makes sense. UCF is an enormous school in a growing city that went 25-1 over their last two seasons. If you have a Twitter account, even if you never tweet about college football, UCF fans have found you and reminded you about this.

But amid the strong headwinds that are keeping fans from going to games (a superior experience watching on TV, high ticket prices, lousy opponents, no WiFi at stadiums, etc), a team, and especially a team without huge donor support or a fat TV contract (no, that new AAC deal doesn’t count), talking about expanding their stadium seems unusual to me.

White may very well be correct that it’d make economic sense to expand well beyond the 45,000 seat capacity they currently enjoy. But that’d be an awfully big bet on a program that literarily went 0-12 just a few seasons ago, and where the fanbase is a less developed.

Not saying it can’t be done, or that it isn’t the right move.

But maybe the Knights would enjoy more home-field advantage, and give a better experience for the fans, with a regularly sold out 45,000-50,000 seat stadium, than a 65,000 seat stadium with 53,000 fans in it.

We’ll see how fans respond this season.

Thanks again for supporting Extra Points. We’re off to a great start, and I love all the feedback I’ve gotten on this project. As always, if you have questions, comments, suggestions, I’d love to hear them all. I’m at @MattSBN and Matt dot Brown at SBNation dot com via email. We’re awfully close to 200 subscribers, and once we clear that benchmark, I’ll drop a historical podcast in the newsletter.

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