By Joe Scalzo
Last week, a group of commissioners from the so-called “Big Five” conferences hinted that big changes are coming to college sports.
New rules. More power. Maybe even a new division.
It’s the type of thing that leaves smaller conferences with lots of damp armpits and even more questions, including this one: What the heck is going to happen to the FCS?
“I don’t have a crystal ball and I don’t how it’s going to play out,” Missouri Valley Football Conference commissioner Patty Viverito said.
“I think anybody who has a clear, concise vision of what’s going to happen in the next couple years is misrepresenting some of their opinions,” North Dakota State football coach Craig Bohl said.
“I don’t know,” said YSU athletic director Ron Strollo, “and no one else does either.”
But not knowing isn’t the same as not caring. If the top half of the FBS goes its own way, it could create a perception that the FCS is little more than Division I’s third tier.
First, some background. With TV revenue increasing (thanks to conferences like the Big Ten starting their own networks and stations like ESPN ponying up bigger bucks to televise games) and conferences feeling more pressure to share some of that wealth with their players (particularly in sports like football and basketball), the NCAA’s biggest fish want changes.
Specifically, the “Big Five” conferences — the SEC, the Big Ten, the ACC, the PAC-12 and the Big 12 — want to make up their own rules, believing that there’s no sense in pretending that schools like Kent State are on the same footing as Ohio State.
That’s bad news for the “Small Five” of the FBS — the American, Conference USA, the MAC, the Mountain West and the Sun Belt — who have several schools that moved up from the FCS level in recent years to compete at the highest level of Division I.
“I think it’s pretty clear the top five FBS conferences look very different from the bottom five conferences and the top half of the FCS looks a whole lot more like the bottom half of the FBS,” Viverito said. “I think it’s very clear they want to spend their money and govern themselves in a way that is unencumbered by the rest of Division I.”
It’s also very clear that the FCS, which has already been wounded by the Big Ten’s decision to stop scheduling its schools, is worried about losing even more luster.
“The part I find challenging is, although the revenue gap continues to grow, I’m not sure the competitive gap has grown,” said Strollo, whose school beat new ACC-member Pitt in last year’s opener. “I think that our level of football has shown over the years that we’re becoming more competitive rather than less competitive.”
Colonial Athletic Association commissioner Tom Yeager spent five minutes of last week’s media day railing against FCS teams jumping to the FBS, in part because his conference has lost Old Dominion, Georgia State, VCU and George Mason in recent years.
Among his points: Since 1987, 19 FCS programs have moved up and none are members of the Big Five. Studies have shown that those schools do end up making more money, but they lose even more — on average between $1 million and $2 million extra.
Those schools also end up adding sports (seven more on average) and losing more football games, with the average winning percentage dropping from 55.7 percent to 44.8 percent after moving up
“Is this a shot over the bow?” Yeager said in the (Newport News) Daily Press, referring to his rant. “Absolutely.”
For every Boise State, which is probably the biggest success story among former FCS schools, there are schools like Marshall and Western Kentucky, which have gone from competing for I-AA national titles to competing for relevance. The same fate could await Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, which announced this offseason they would be jumping to the Sun Belt.
“We’re disappointed that some of the schools like Georgia Southern and Appalachian State have chosen to leave, but we respect their decision and as a subdivision we’ll move forward,” said Bohl, whose team has won the last two FCS national titles. “I do know the Missouri Valley Football Conference is really competitive and there’s a lot of stability in that.”
In fact, the FCS coaches and commissioners believe there’s a bigger gap between the top FCS conferences and the smaller ones which are made up of schools that either don’t offer athletic scholarships or award fewer than the maximum allowed.
But when asked if the top half of the FCS could end up forming a second tier with the bottom half of the FBS, Viverito said it was unlikely.
“I can’t imagine the bottom half of the FBS is going to go along with that kind of realignment without a fight,” she said. “I think we look a lot like those other five leagues. If that’s what the second level of football looks like and how it’s defined, whatever that model looks like, I think we can be part of it.”
YSU, which tried to jump to the MAC in the late 1990s, is committed to staying at the second level of football, “whatever that second level is,” Strollo said.
“That’s where we want to be located,” he said.