An FCS team just dropped football. Here's why I think that's a big deal
Plus, notes on BYU's TV deal, and sure, let's check in on Liberty
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Okay! Enough of this uncouth selling out. Let’s talk about the college football nerd news.
Jacksonville just dropped football. Like, completely
No matter how slim the odds of success, plenty of colleges are happy to try and join the throngs of big time college football programs. North Alabama, LIU, Merrimack, Dixie State and Tarleton State have either just joined, or announced they’ll soon join the ranks of FCS football, and others, like St.Thomas, Augustana College, may soon join then. None of them are likely to be battling with North Dakota State or James Madison for FCS supremacy in the near future, but that isn’t the point, at least for them.
It’s much more rare that a school decides to drop a level, or even more dramatically, out of football altogether. But that’s exactly what happened earlier this week, as Jacksonville, of the FCS Pioneer League, announced they were shutting down their football program, effective immediately.
Jacksonville isn’t some barren geographical outpost like Idaho. They’re not drowning in institutional debt. And sure, the team stinks this year (they’re 3-9), but they’ve been good in recent memory, and there’s no glaring reason, on paper, why they couldn’t be competitive again.
That isn’t why the program is shutting down. Via Jacksonville.com:
It wasn’t the 5-17 record over the last two seasons. It wasn’t the average attendance of 1,807 at D.B. Milne Field for home games.
According to Jacksonville University officials, performance by players and coaches on the field and support of fans in the stands had nothing to do with JU’s decision on Tuesday to drop its NCAA Division I non-scholarship football program after 22 years, three coaches, 233 games, 118 victories and three Pioneer League championships.
University officials said that after a process of more than a year in studying the strategic and financial value of playing football, it was clear that the operational and administrative resources needed for one sport and 100 student-athletes was coming at the expense of the other 19 sports and 450 student-athletes at JU.
These are times that call for leadership and it would be a failure if we looked away from the opportunity to create a better university,” he (Jacksonville president Tim Cost) said. “These [football players] are outstanding young men. We are pleased to have them part of the university and I hope every one stays and graduates from here. This is not a failure of any team or coach or a won-loss record or an alumni base. But it would be a failure on my part if I didn’t take these things on in a moment when the university had so many good things right in front of it.”
This argument is fascinating to me.
A few quick things here about JU, before we get too far into the weeds. Jacksonville is not a very big school. It has an enrollment of ~4,200 students, near the bottom of FCS. It doesn’t play in a very big stadium. D.B Milne field, which was just renovated in 2014, has a capacity of 5,000, again, near the bottom of FCS. You may have been to a high school stadium bigger than that.
They also play in the Pioneer League, which is notable for a few reasons. For one, it’s one of the most geographically spread out in all of college athletics. There are a handful of other southern schools (Stetson, Davidson), but also includes schools in the northeast, midwest, and San Diego. There are few bus trips in Pioneer League play.
It’s also non-scholarship, which is rare at the FCS level, so even the best teams aren’t going to be long for the FCS playoffs. The league champ, San Diego, lost in the first round to Northern Iowa, 17-3, last week.
The financials of playing non-scholarship football are interesting. On the books, your costs should be much lower, because not only are you not paying for scholarships, but many of those football players are then paying full tuition, in effect making you some money. But the benefits are also much smaller. There’s no TV money. There’s no Flutie Effect. The crowds are modest. GameDay is not coming to town.
And it looks like the school just looked at all of that, looked at how costs, even at their level, were going to continue to rise, and just decided it wasn’t worth it. Again, via Jacksonville.com:
As a private university, the school is not bound by public records laws and does not have to release the finances of running a football program. But athletic director Alex Ricker-Gilbert said even though the program was non-scholarship, the annual cost of playing football ran into “multi-millions.”
“It was a very difficult decision and one we’ve given careful thought and consideration to,” Ricker-Gilbert said.
The issue had been studied for the last “12-15 months” and outside consultants were involved, as well as getting the input, and eventually the final blessing of the JU Board of Trustees and the student and athletic affairs committee.
The school said in a statement that the decision came after “a data-driven evaluation of Division I intercollegiate athletics.”
“Through that evaluation it became evident, due to changing landscape of college athletics and the growing cost to support a competitive Division 1 football program, that the decision needed to be made to no longer have the football program,” Ricker-Gilbert said.
I think I feel comfortable saying it was done about as humanely as possible, if that matters. Jacksonville is offering to put any football player who wants to stay at the school on scholarship, something they didn’t have before. They also said they were “honor employment agreements” with the coaching staff.
I don’t know if it’s possible, with the data we have right now, to conclusively say this decision was right or wrong….but my gut says this is probably the right move. Jacksonville could have decided to go all in a few years ago, when Kerwin Bell was winning conference titles a decade ago, and start offering scholarships. The school decided they wanted to remain non-scholarship, and Bell would go to to win a national title at Valdosta State, and then later, become the OC at USF. If the school wasn’t willing to increase the financial and structural commitment, and was worried about costs…maybe now is a good time to get off the bus.
Regardless of whether this move was right or wrong, I have to admit, I think really taking a close look at evaluating whether a school is really benefiting from college football is strong leadership. As costs, not only in financial, but opportunity as well, rise, every leader of a school that can’t compete for championships ought to ask themselves some tough questions.
What are we really trying to get out of this program? Is it exposure? If so, how do we measure that? Is it alumni engagement? Is it political engagement? Can we achieve those goals in other ways? What are we willing to go without in order to continue our football program?
Without money on football, JU could potentially invest even more in their other (pretty robust) sport offerings, like lacrosse (where they are one of the few D1 programs south of Richmond), baseball (where they beat schools like Florida and Florida State), or basketball. In fact, for a school that size, there’s an argument to be made that a school would get a better marketing ROI focusing on non-football sports. I remember reading a feasibility study for football at Cleveland State (where the school was also considering joining the Pioneer League) that ultimately made the same argument.
Is this the start of a trend? Probably not. Ego and inertia are powerful forces in college athletics, and it takes uncommon leadership, and uncommon political freedom, for an administration to say no to football, even at a smaller, struggling school. But could some other schools use this as an opportunity to ask themselves some pointed questions about their athletic department goals?
They probably should!
BYU reportedly has their new ESPN TV deal
BYU’s TV deal with ESPN ends at the end of this season. The worst-kept secret is that the deal was going to be extended, and the only question was when it was going to be official. I thought things were going to be announced much earlier in the summer, around BYU’s Media Day, but that came and went without an announcement.
Last week, in an interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune, BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe basically said the deal was done:
BYU signed an eight-year contract with an option for a ninth with ESPN to televise home games as an independent and annually send the Cougars to ESPN-owned bowls. ESPN picked up the option for 2019, and Holmoe says they have agreed in principle to another multiyear contract. The TV portion has been settled; they’re finalizing the bowl details
Now, according to one report, it’s even more done.
As far as I can tell, the school has not confirmed this.
I’ve seen a little confusion on the internet about this deal, so let me try to clear up a few things:
1) BYU is a valuable television property. The NATIONAL BRAND thing is a little bit overblown (BYU fans and Latter-Day Saints do live all over the country, and the world, but they’re still concentrated mostly in the West), but the size and depth of the fanbase isn’t. This is a group with a deep tradition, history, and community that cares a lot about their team, which is more than you can say for most other programs in the West. The team has been pretty average over the last decade, but they’re still going to command eyeballs.
2) Even more importantly, they’re a valuable property because of who they play. BYU’s first TV contract wasn’t as appealing a home schedule. The Cougars played plenty of P5 teams, but usually, on the road. Now, more and more of those home and homes are coming up in Provo, and the school has done much better about securing more advantageous home games. Over the next few years, thanks to owning BYU home games, ESPN controls games featuring Utah, Michigan State, Missouri, Arizona, Arizona State, UVA, Baylor and Arkansas, plus some of the best G5 programs in the country. That’s solid TV inventory, especially when you consider you can move BYU to a Friday night, or have them play in valuable late night west coast time slots.
3) ESPN owns 14 bowl games. They’re going to set up a similar arrangement with basically every other independent. This isn’t nefarious or anything. It’s not like ESPN can force the Rose Bowl to take an 8-5 BYU.
4) I don’t know exactly what the financial terms are for this. The industry estimate for BYU’s last TV deal was $6-8 million a year. Given that BYU’s inventory is much more valuable this time around, I’d guess the school will bring in at least $10 million a year, and probably more, depending on the opponent or other factors. I don’t think the school is locking down life changing money here, but enough to be comfortably more than any G5 school is making from their league deal, easily.
5) The nice thing about a longer term deal is that it slows down some of the perpetual existential crisis chatter about BYU football. You know there’s going to be enough money to keep the lights on and hire assistant coaches for the next few years. You won’t need to play your games on PatriotEagleGun.Facebook.com. And don’t worry about the length of the deal, if BYU gets a power conference invite, they have an out in the deal with ESPN.
But if BYU’s goals extend beyond just playing lots of games on national TV, they’re going to have to win more of these games. Maybe BYU’s goals don’t! You can get “exposure” and marketing and a chance for Latter-Day Saints across the country to tailgate and go 7-5 every year and maybe that’s okay! That goes back to what I was talking about before….asking hard questions about what exactly the school needs to get out of football.
What I do know, is that BYU football hasn’t been anywhere close to a Top 25 program since they went independent, and these schedules, while financially lucrative, are difficult. Can they actually win enough of them to matter? Right now, they haven’t shown that they can.
That’s a different question, and probably outside the scope of this newsletter because boy howdy does it seem like I write about BYU a lot.
So let’s write about another religious private school
Let’s talk about Liberty!
Way back in early 2017, I wrote a blog for SBNation.com on Liberty. Specifically, I said their decision to move up to FBS, without a conference, wasn’t a great idea.
I am STILL getting emails and tweets about this story from Liberty fans.
All things considered, this was a pretty successful season for Liberty fans. The team went 7-5. They’re going to play in their first bowl game. And now, Liberty AD Ian McCaw is getting a teensy bit chesty.
“We feel very good about where we are right now,” McCaw stated when asked about Liberty’s current position as an FBS Independent and ASUN member. “Long-term, we do feel that Liberty has Power 5 potential, but that is a very challenging transom to crossover. There have not been, to date, invitations from non-Power 5 schools to join Power 5 conferences. We know that is a steep hill to climb. We are just trying to get better each day.
Power Five potential, huh? Okay.
Part of that thinking, I’m sure, comes from the fact that unlike many G5 schools, Liberty is rich. They have better facilities than most G5 programs, and they’re reportedly about to pay their coach better than most of them too.
Off the back of my napkin, I’d wager that at the very least, that’d mean Liberty would pay Freeze more than $2 million a season. Excellent! Love to give Hugh Freeze more disposable income.
So, if Liberty has a name coach on a fat deal, fancy facilities, and a bowl trip locked up…did I screw up? Was I wrong in 2017? Do I think Liberty did the correct thing now?
A few quick notes:
1) Liberty going 7-5 is an accomplishment! The transition from FCS to FBS is difficult…just ask anybody except maybe Appalachian State. But let’s be serious here. Those seven wins include two FCS wins, two wins over a bad New Mexico State team, a close win over a bad New Mexico team (that just fired their coach), a win over one of worst FBS teams in history (UMass), and Buffalo. The only time they looked okay against an opponent with a pulse was in their loss to BYU.
Liberty finished 84th in SP+ this season. That’d be good for 4th in the Sun Belt, and within shouting distance of 6th. That’s nice for a non Notre Dame/Army/BYU independent, but let’s wait on booking the parade. They’ve created a decent Sun Belt team.
2) The structural problems I wrote about back in 2017 are still mostly there. Liberty played seven games behind an ESPN+ paywall this season, plus another two on FloSports. That’s not national exposure that say, a BYU gets. That’s playing most of your season where most of America can’t see you. And given how terrible Liberty’s home schedules are in the near future, that isn’t likely to change much.
If you aren’t on TV, aren’t playing many meaningful games (Liberty plays two-three P5s a season, mostly regional opponents), and don’t have major bowl agreements locked down, growing the program becomes very difficult. Beating a few other indies and flotsam from the MAC and Conference USA may get you bids to the Arizona Bowl, but it doesn’t meaningfully enhance your profile. And assuming you’ll always win seven or eight games is a big assumption as well.
3) It wasn’t really a secret that other schools were wary of affiliating with Liberty, back in 2017. And I’m not talking schools like Stanford or Oregon or something, I’m talking the Texas States and Arkansas States of the world, not exactly paragons of liberalism. The conduct of university president Jerry Falwell Jr has made that problem even worse. Nobody wants to be the president who has to face his faculty after saying, in public, “yes, we want our university to be considered a peer to Liberty.’
In the post BIG MONEY era of college football, post 1993 or so, nobody has really organically built a program out of independence. Even BYU, which has every advantage that Liberty doesn’t (I don’t think outsiders appreciate the outsized influence BYU has in regular Mormon social life…it’s a way bigger deal than Notre Dame to Catholics, or Liberty to evangelicals), struggles with it. The schools that are signing up for that life right now are doing it more to just survive, rather than thrive.
I don’t think Liberty can buy their way into a league (certainly not the AAC!), and I don’t think they can play their way into one either. And that puts them in a very, very tough spot.
But hey, their existence triggers the libs, so I guess the Liberty admins are happy with it.
I hope Freeze enjoys coaching from his Rameumptom in 2020.
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