It’s no secret Big Ten football means big business for each member school’s athletic department. It should also come as no surprise, then, that such big business has allowed even lower-tier programs in the Football Championship Subdivision to earn a substantial piece of the financial pie.
In 2013, Big Ten athletic departments will pay a combined total of $4,945,000 for the right to play FCS opponents at home. That’s good for an average of $494,500 per game.
Of the 10 contracts, Ohio State agreed to the largest guaranteed payout — $900,000 — to host a Sept. 21 game against Florida A&M. Michigan State’s $650,000 payout to Youngstown State is the second-highest guarantee, and Wisconsin’s $500,000 price tag for bringing in Tennessee Tech ranks third in the Big Ten. Seven of the 10 payouts are below $500,000, with none less than $350,000.
Though Ohio State is able to pay more to visiting nonconference teams because of the revenue it generates from ticket sales while playing in the fourth-largest stadium in the country, each Big Ten program earns millions of dollars off an extra home game — money that easily covers the cost of paying for an FCS opponent. Wisconsin makes roughly $2.5 million on ticket sales alone for each nonconference home game, according to Wisconsin deputy athletic director Sean Frazier.
For FCS schools, meanwhile, the final payout goes a long way toward helping fund their athletic departments.
For instance, Tennessee Tech’s $500,000 paycheck from Wisconsin represents more than 4 percent of the school’s $12 million athletic budget, Tennessee Tech athletic director Mark Wilson said. In previous seasons, Tennessee Tech coach Watson Brown has used some of the money from playing Football Bowl Subdivision opponents to purchase headsets for his coaches. He also bought a video editing system for the entire athletic department.
But the mutually beneficial relationship between Big Ten teams and FCS programs is nearing an unceremonious and contentious end. And that means the money being distributed in 2013 could disappear from FCS athletic department budgets.
In April, Big Ten athletic directors reached an agreement to stop scheduling FCS opponents beginning in 2016. By dumping FCS teams from the schedule, the Big Ten can add a ninth conference game, which stands to improve each school’s strength of schedule — a significant factor when the FBS begins its four-team playoff in 2014. The idea is if every team in the Big Ten has a strong strength-of-schedule ranking, then the league champion will have a better chance of being selected for one of the national semifinals.
“If you want to compete in the championship or want to be in the hunt for a national championship, you have to compete against FBS schools,” Frazier said. “Here at Wisconsin and at many Big Ten institutions, we’re in the hunt. We all have to schedule accordingly. We can’t just schedule institutions that are not at the same competitive level.”
Given the financial ramifications and the clout of Big Ten football, it is a decision with the potential to drastically impact the future of FCS programs.
‘Adjust with what’s thrown’
The trend of scheduling FCS-FBS matchups has grown considerably thanks to an NCAA rule that allowed permanent 12-game FBS schedules in 2006. That rule also allows for one game against an FCS opponent to count toward bowl eligibility each season.
In 2005, before the rule took effect, there were 54 games played between FCS and FBS teams. That number jumped to 76 games in 2006 and reached 106 games in 2012.
During the 2012 season, 79 of 122 FCS teams (64.8 percent) played an FBS opponent, with several playing more than one. And at the FBS level, 101 of 124 teams (81.4 percent) played at least one game against an FCS opponent.
Part of the appeal of playing an FCS school, in addition to a potential victory, is that the contract costs substantially less money when compared with any FBS program. Though Wisconsin is paying $500,000 for the Tennessee Tech game, it will pay UMass $900,000 and BYU $1 million for home games this season, according to the school’s game contracts.
Still, it appears all the past advantages of playing against FCS teams won’t be enough to keep the Big Ten from its change of course.
FCS athletic directors admit the Big Ten’s decision to cease scheduling lower-tier opponents isn’t necessarily a death knell for FCS programs. It is, however, a sign to be aware of what may come.
“The devastating piece is going to be if everybody else follows suit,” Northern Iowa athletic director Troy Dannen said. “We need to play those games. We need them from a financial standpoint.”
Last year, Northern Iowa earned $950,000 in guaranteed payouts from playing Wisconsin and Iowa. With Big Ten teams dropping out of the mix, a school such as Northern Iowa will have to find a way to recoup that money elsewhere — a task that may not always be possible.
UNI is in a better position than most, Dannen said, because the school has Big 12 in-state rival Iowa State scheduled for seven of the next 10 seasons. If the Big 12, SEC, ACC and Pac-12 joined the Big Ten’s stance, however, Dannen said Northern Iowa ultimately would have to look at schools in the Mid-American Conference or Conference USA, which would pay only half as much as Big Ten programs for a guaranteed home game.
And Northern Iowa certainly wouldn’t be alone among FCS teams in scrambling to find a guaranteed payout if the FBS pool were to shrink.
Indiana State plays both Indiana and Purdue in consecutive weeks to open the 2013 season and will earn $850,000 for the two games. Indiana State senior assistant director of athletics John Sherman said the Sycamores, with an annual athletic budget of roughly $13 million, are in the same boat as most FCS programs — at the mercy of their FBS counterparts.
“You just keep your ear to the road, see what’s going to happen and adjust,” Sherman said. “We’ve been able to do that, and we’ll continue to adjust with what’s thrown at us. The money goes right back into our budgets. Being what everybody calls the mid-major schools, that money helps out a lot of athletes here.”
One of the central arguments being used by Big Ten athletic departments in their push to drop FCS opponents is the relative lack of competition in games. Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez was the first to speak out on the topic in February, when he called the nonconference schedule in the league “ridiculous” and “not very appealing.”
Many recent results lend credence to Alvarez’s argument.
Since 2007, Tennessee Tech has played FBS opponents Auburn, Louisville, Western Michigan, Kansas State, Georgia, Arkansas, TCU, Iowa and Oregon in addition to Wisconsin this season. In those nine games, Tennessee Tech is 0-9 and has been outscored, 417-58.
Perhaps the most famous example of the mismatch in college football divisions came last season, when Savannah State lost consecutive games to Oklahoma State and Florida State by a combined score of 155-0.
Collectively, Big Ten programs are 93-8 all-time against FCS teams (.921 winning percentage). Seven Big Ten teams have never lost to an FCS program, and only two — Northwestern and Minnesota — have lost more than once. The average score of seven Big Ten games against FCS opponents last season was 43-9, and five of the seven games were won by at least four touchdowns.
According to Andrew McKillop, who tracks FBS-FCS data on his website FootballGeography.com, FBS programs are 585-46 (.927 winning percentage) against FCS schools since 2006.
Those outcomes are why Frazier believes a shift is necessary across the FBS — and not specifically in the Big Ten — when the College Football Playoff takes shape in 2014.
“If we’re playing against FBS opponents, and we’re put in the same category as those other institutions when trying to win a national title, they should be playing who we’re playing,” Frazier said.
But Dannen takes exception to the idea that FCS schools are somehow ruining a program’s ability to compete for a national championship because facing them results in an automatic blowout. Northern Iowa nearly beat Wisconsin last season before losing, 26-21. And as recently as 2007, Northern Iowa defeated Iowa State.
Dannen also noted the implication all FCS teams hurt strength of schedule is a farce. As an example, he cited last season’s Sagarin Ratings, which used a mathematical formula to rank all 246 teams in the FBS and FCS. Northern Iowa, a traditional FCS powerhouse, ranked No. 92 overall, ahead of Bowl Championship Series conference schools Kentucky (93), Kansas (99), Maryland (101), Washington State (104), Wake Forest (109), Boston College (113), Illinois (126) and Colorado (156). Northern Iowa also was rated higher than 30 non-automatic qualifying FBS programs. And six other FCS programs were ranked ahead of Northern Iowa.
“The Big Ten talks that game, but the strength of schedule component hasn’t even been determined yet,” Dannen said. “That’s an assumption. I think we all know strength of schedule is going to be a factor. But how exactly will it be a factor?
“If it’s truly about strength of schedule, then those five BCS leagues should only play within those five leagues. You can say strength of schedule depends on what argument you’re trying to sell at that point and time.”
While beefing up on strength of schedule is one aspect to the Big Ten’s decision, some have suggested television dollars are another critical component. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, each Big Ten school received a record $19 million in TV revenue last year. And with the Big Ten’s television package set to expire following the 2015-16 season, more attractive games could result in even bigger dollars.
The validity of reasons for the Big Ten dropping FCS teams from future schedules are up for debate. What can’t be debated are the difficulties it will create for FCS programs. It begins with $4,945,000 worth of game contracts being wiped from the books. Where it ends remains to be seen.
“Between the playoff and the scheduling,” Dannen said, “nothing is happening right now at the FBS level that is anything but damaging from a financial standpoint to FCS football.”