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Let’s get into it.
There are teams that aren’t hitting the NCAA attendance requirement and nobody seems to care
You may not realize this, but officially, the NCAA requires an average attendance of 15,000 fans per game once every two years to maintain FBS status. If you miss that benchmark, you’re technically at risk of getting booted.
Anybody who has been to a lower level G5 game, or scans Twitter on a fall Saturday, knows there are plenty of programs that don’t average 15,000 a game. According to the official NCAA stats, 14 different programs reported average attendance below 15,000. If you go by scanned tickets, that number is closer to 30, at least looking at data from 2017, thanks to the WSJ.
But nobody is getting booted. And quite frankly, I’ve always wondered why. Chris Vannini at The Athletic ($) dug into it, and wrote a really interesting story.
Essentially, schools can goose their official numbers by distributing the tickets to charities, or by having corporate partners buy them. On paper, it’s basically moving money around different places (which sort of underscores how difficult it can be for folks who aren’t accountants to really understand the complete financial picture of athletic departments). But the TL;DR here is that the number you see in the stands probably isn’t the number you see reported to the NCAA.
So…if the numbers are fake (and to be clear, even big budget schools do this, not just the Akrons and San Jose States of the world)…what’s the entire point of this? Via Vannini:
The idea of the rule was to require investment in football for FBS programs. But that’s already happening, even with losing programs. UMass is undergoing facility renovations, for example. It’s leading to a question asked more and more by administrators: Why does the rule still exist?
“I don’t know if it’s doing what it was intended to do,” Bamford said.
“I think it should go away,” NIU athletic director Sean Frazier said.
“I don’t know if it fits in today’s world,” Kent State athletic director Joel Nielsen said.
The NCAA football oversight committee has discussed the rule several times in recent years, including last month. It opted not to make a change, but it also knows that time might be coming. The problem isn’t going away.
So this is a really good question. Let’s dig into it for a second.
Vannini points this out in his piece, but in a world where college football attendance is falling everywhere, and where smaller programs (especially MAC schools) have to make sacrifices to TV partners that may depress turnout, perhaps attendance isn’t the best benchmark to use.
I’m not 100% sure I agree with this thinking. A major point of having an FBS/FCS distinction at all, besides the biggest schools wanting more policy making autonomy, was to ensure a tiny modicum of an even playing field. If the institutional commitment across a division of football became too vast, it could sap fan interest, damage the value of the TV product, and more.
The requirements were more strict in the late 1970s, when the D1A/D1AA split first happened, (back then part of the benchmarks were a 17,000 attendance requirement, plus stipulations about stadium size and scheduling). Games between power conference opponents and lower level MAC or Big West teams weren’t quite as common as they were in the late 1970s and early 1980s, so that disparity wasn’t quite on display as much as it is now.
It’s pretty clear that now, we don’t just have a massive, massive gap between Ball State and Ohio State, we have one between Ball State and Cincinnati. Not just on the field, but in media rights monies, in attendance, coaching salaries, budget, media attention, and more.
The headwinds and strong and different schools have unique circumstances, but I still think attendance is a good barometer of fan interest and demand for the product. In fact, it should be one of the entire points of having a football team to begin with!
Being on TV is great, and provides a wider net of “exposure”, but at the end of the day, you want folks to go to the stadium, build an emotional connection to the campus and athletic department, become donors, boosters, etc. You don’t sustain an athletic department on out-of-state casual fans, or at least, you don’t if you’re Central Michigan. You do it with your most loyal fans, the people who put your school logo on their car. And if you can’t convince a baseline number of them to show up, over time, I think you have structural issues that should cause you to reevaluate some things.
If attendance benchmarks are thought to be too arbitrary, or insufficient, I hope other benchmarks are set to replace them. Requiring FBS conference membership to jump up from FCS is a good start, since cases like Liberty, where a school has a ton of money and willingness to take financial losses in the face of a higher goal, are rare. Other schools that’d like a chance to join FBS, like Eastern Kentucky, won’t do it without a conference home. If you don’t have the backing of a big religious institution, going independent as an FBS program is a bad idea.
But I hope there are other benchmarks for schools still in FBS. Perhaps the benchmark could be set to the total financial spend on football, e.g. a school cannot be X% lower than the median FBS program for X number of years. I don’t think it should be set to any on-field performance metrics, but a combination of attendance, minimum facility requirements, and financial benchmarks may not be a bad idea.
I think a lot of schools would like to think they can just win their way out of attendance problems. Make enough bowl games, and tradition and buy-in will be created. But as my ex-colleague Bill Connelly liked to say, “hard jobs remain hard”, and winning consistently enough at a place like Louisiana-Monroe, or Kent State, or San Jose State, is almost impossible.
And even that might not be enough. Northern Illinois has done nothing but win for a decade, and they’re one of the 14 schools falling behind. Middle Tennessee has been a regular bowl participant for a decade and has played exciting football, and they’re right in that territory too.
FBS would almost certainly be healthier at 115 teams, instead of 130. It’d lead to better schedules that could bolster fan interest elsewhere, and could help slow the hemorrhaging of money with some perpetually non-competitive football programs.
If the NCAA is unable, or unwilling, to get accurate enough data to enforce the rules on the books, I hope they end up with better rules they’ll actually try to enforce.
I realize hoping for competent NCAA rules enforcement is a ridiculous thing to hope for, but hey, if history is any guide, normally, the NCAA is pretty good at dropping the hammer on the little guy.
Conference USA has reportedly (and smartly) floated the idea of trading some teams
A few weeks ago, I wrote a missive about how I thought the next round of conference realignment would focus on smaller conferences getting smaller, or realigning to contain costs and stimulate fan interest, rather than big conferences expanding to maximize TV markets.
The obvious test case for such a theory? Probably far-flung Conference USA, a league rich in hypothetical TV markets, poor in actualized fan support, and long on geographic distance (and thus, costs).
And lo and behold, reportedly, they’ve at least talked about swapping some teams with other leagues. From the Denton Record-Chronicle:
Several C-USA athletic directors also said they have informally discussed the idea of the conference realigning on a more regional basis by trading teams with other leagues, including the Sun Belt. Those discussions have never progressed to the point where C-USA officially explored the possibility.
Every message board and major Twitter account for Conference USA or Sun Belt fans has floated this possibility, along with several newspaper writers working in Conference USA markets. This is one popular pitch floating around Twitter (well, popular to everybody but Tulane and Memphis fans), but there are plenty of others based on this general concept. I’ve also written about plans to merge the two leagues.
Of course, the very next quote in this story would throw a bucket of cold water on that idea, right?
Keith Gill took over as Sun Belt commissioner in May. He doesn’t anticipate any movement toward regionalization.
“There haven’t been any discussions since I have been in the Sun Belt,” Gill said. “We are really comfortable with the schools we have.”
I mean, maybe, but basically any conference commissioner or university administrator not named David Boren would give you a similar answer on the record. But this quote, even later in the article, really sticks out to me:
“Economics are going to dictate future creativity in college athletics,” Old Dominion athletic director Wood Selig said. “Most of us are not built to sustain the levels of expense that we have witnessed within college athletics the last five years.”
And that’s the key point, in my humble opinion. He’s right!
Kudos to Conference USA for being aggressive in pursuing other avenues to grow their media related revenue after their TV deal cratered post AAC-realignment, but schools are still reportedly taking home less than $500,000 a season, and that’s with their football games spread out among a half dozen platforms. Every foreseeable expense is climbing, and a quick look at the official, reported NCAA attendance figures shows plenty of Conference USA programs near the bottom. You can’t play games in half-empty stadiums, not get fat TV checks, and hope to sustainably grow your program, at least not forever.
Eventually moving towards a more regionally focused league, with a closer institutional similarities between members, may be the only way to both limit expenses and improve gate revenues. Officials at C-USA schools tried to spin the significant geographic, academic and institutional mission differences as a positive, but leagues with such disparities rarely maintain stability for long. This current iteration of the league is only five years old, after all.
I’d be surprised if it lasts another five without some membership changes. Kudos to some ADs for at least floating the idea. The league has not been afraid to try some unconventional ideas. Here’s hoping this one moves beyond the whiteboard stage.