College Football Title Pits Rich vs. Richer

By Eben Novy-Williams, Bloomberg Businessweek

NEW YORK CITY (January 8, 2017) – The Idaho Vandals celebrate a
touchdown during a game at the Kibbie Dome in Moscow, Idaho, on Oct. 28,
2017. University of Idaho president Chuck Staben was home with his family
in Boise on New Year’s Day when he got an angry message from an
alumnus. “Are you watching the Rose Bowl?” it read. “That’s the sort of
experience Idaho had before you made your awful decision.”
Almost two years after Staben announced that the Vandals would no longer
compete in college football’s top division and a month after the school won
its final Football Bowl Subdivision game, the angry messages haven’t
disappeared. Neither has Staben’s conviction that lower-stakes football is
the right thing for his school.
“There is this hyper-polarization between the haves and the have-nots,” said
Staben, whose team will compete next year in the Football Championship
Subdivision. “We’re not deciding between the Rose Bowl and FCS. We’re
deciding between being a marginal FBS program and FCS.”
The University of Alabama will play the University of Georgia tonight for
college football’s national championship, a match-up fueled by rabid fans,
talented players and hundreds of millions of dollars. Both schools are among
the 15 highest-earning university athletic programs. Alabama athletics,
which has won four of the last eight football championships, generated $161
million in revenue in 2015-16; Georgia took in $120 million.
The top teams in college football's top division are revenue juggernauts. The
rest are not. Idaho, meanwhile, brought in $10 million across all of its
sports, enough to cover less than half of its budget. The rest came from the
broader university and student fees. The Rose Bowl experience was a
fantasy, and Staben knew it, even if some alumni didn’t.
“That isn’t by any means the kind of thing the University of Idaho is likely
going to attain,” Staben said. “It’s a totally different league, and you and I
and all reasonable people understand that.”

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Though no university has copied Staben’s move, schools across the country
are closely following Idaho’s transition. Staben said presidents at other
schools have called to say they admire his courage. Some would love to do
the same, they tell him, but they’re too worried about the outcry from
alumni.
The backlash is real. Angry fans published Staben’s home address online,
and he said his car and his wife’s were vandalized. Two major donors to the
athletic department withdrew their support. Overall donations dropped
around 50 percent, and Staben estimates that the department will lose more
than $1 million this year.
Longer term, however, he’s betting the school comes out ahead. His
department can now offer fewer sports, spend less on travel and award
fewer scholarships. There’s also less pressure to spend lavishly on football
coaching staffs and state-of- the-art practice facilities.
“We’re now considering whether we can offer student athletes the chance to
study abroad. Can you give them time off from sports to pursue other
interests?” Staben said. “I don’t think you’ll see people doing that at the FBS
level.”
Staben sees an opportunity in basketball, a cheaper sport with its own
national stage in the NCAA Tournament. The school is raising money to build
a new $45 million arena and this week announced a $10 million naming-
rights agreement from the Idaho Central Credit Union. Funds now stand at
$34 million, and despite anger over his football decision, Staben believes the
donors will fully fund the project. “Our future is really really bright,” Athletic
Director Rob Spear said at the announcement.
So far, Idaho remains an outlier. The FBS continues to grow, creating a glut
of schools at the bottom of the division. Of the 112 public universities in the
FBS last year, 45 generated less than $20 million directly from athletics. The
average Southeastern Conference school generated $131 million. All but a
handful of athletic departments need money from the institution to balance
their budgets.

Those numbers are jarring to Russell Wright, founder and managing director
of Atlanta-based Collegiate Consulting, which advised Idaho on its decision.

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Wright’s company is now gently reaching out to some schools at the bottom
of FBS, asking if they might be interested in research on what life would look
like in a lower division.
“Some of these athletic directors have their heads in sand a bit, but I
guarantee that presidents at some of these schools are watching,” Wright
said. “When you’ve got a $30 million budget, and your football program goes
4-8 every year, and attendance is 5,000 a game, that’s unsustainable.”

Russell Wright