Smith Counter: The Little Guy Can't Compete
Point/Counterpoint: Smith on how the smaller schools can't hold up
Zemek, I think you present a really interesting case, and I'm glad that you're willing to take the side of the small schools, since I'm pretty clearly on the other side of the issue. That said, I disagree with a few of your fundamental stated assertions:
1) That the smaller 1-A schools being in over their heads is a situation not of their own making.
2) That it's unreasonable to expect any member school to make radical adjustments in a short time frame (defined as a decade or so).
3) That schools in the lower rungs of 1-A need to be shown a way in which they can live within their means and thrive, and that on some fundamental level, everyone else owes it to Idaho, New Mexico State, etc., to help them thrive.
4) That it's somehow wrong for the power programs to tell Idaho, New Mexico State, etc., that they can't play big-boy football.
I'm also going to throw in another unstated assertion that seems to inform your perspective as well, since I think it's an important one:
5) That the current rule set does not already artificially skew the 1-A marketplace to prop up the small schools.
Taking them in order:
1) That the smaller 1-A schools being in over their heads is a situation not of their own making.
2) That it's unreasonable to expect any member school to make radical adjustments in a short time frame (defined as a decade or so)
Since these are in my mind related, I'll take them together. First of all, the smaller 1-A schools being in over their heads and not really able to compete is hardly a new thing; from what I can tell they haven't been able to compete against the "big boys" for decades, so the fact that this is true today doesn't seem particularly noteworthy.
In terms of the marketplace shifts due to TV money, a decade (much less longer) seems a pretty long time for blind inertia to be excusable in pretty much any business; the huge increases in TV money over the last five or so years is a new thing, but the writing has been on the wall since 1984 (or soon after) that basically all the TV money was going to go to the bigger, popular, profitable schools and leagues.
Yes, it's a new thing that the numbers are so huge, but Notre Dame signed their first big TV deal way back in 1991. The SEC started their league championship game way back in 1992. The direction of the marketplace has been reasonably clear for way too long for anyone to credibly claim that they just didn't see a major divergence of TV revenue coming.
And in that regard, how is the fact that smaller FBS schools are unable to compete not of their own making? They've had 20 years to figure out how to make money; if they've failed to do so, then the fault either lies with their leadership (for failing to create or take advantage of opportunities) or the schools themselves (for simply not being valuable). In either case, isn't it their own fault? If not, whose fault is it?
Incidentally, the writing is also on the wall with respect to bodybag paychecks. Four of the five power leagues have agreed to go up to nine league games per season, there are more scheduling arrangements between leagues (such as the Big Ten - Pac-12 deal), and it's widely speculated that the SEC will join their brethren before too much longer. With more league games and/or AQ-AQ non-conference games, there's fewer and fewer spots for bodybag games, and this trend seems likely to intensify. I think that non-AQ's should be planning ahead for this, and strongly disagree with the idea that they somehow deserve to be insulated from this market shift.
3) That schools in the lower rungs of 1-A need to be shown a way in which they can live within their means and thrive, and that on some fundamental level, everyone else owes it to Idaho, NM St etc. to help them thrive
Why? Why does anyone need to show them a way to thrive? They've had 20 years to figure it out; if they lack the competence and/or simple market value to thrive, then why do they deserve more support to help them do what they themselves cannot?
If anything, the market has already been skewed to help them (more on this later). As you note, they've been taking six-figure (now seven-figure in many cases) bodybag paychecks, in many cases multiple per year. And some of these programs are still bleeding cash. They rely on additional support from taxpayers, their universities, and even their own student bodies to stay afloat. At what point does this become their own fault and their own responsibility? At what point do we look at these programs as the recipients of wasteful corporate welfare?
I admittedly don't know your politics deeply, but I'm guessing that you're probably not a supporter of corporate welfare in the cases of for-profit corporations. If that is true, then do you support it here, in the case of institutions that are non-for-profit, but fundamentally in the entertainment business as opposed to anything which generates important positive externalities for society?
A university's athletic department is not the same thing as the university, and given that any university could very clearly continue to survive and engage in its socially useful operations without a football program and indeed without an athletic department altogether, it's useful in my mind to separate the two (especially since for many of these programs the athletic department relies on funding from the university, as opposed to generating profits to return to the university).
It's not like the football programs are curing cancer, feeding the hungry, or doing other important work; if they can't support themselves, and if they don't have enough public support (in terms of attendance and people who watch on TV) to stay afloat, why shouldn't we stand back and watch creative destruction work on these programs?
4) That it's somehow wrong for the power programs to tell Idaho, New Mexico State, etc., that they can't play big-boy football
Why is this wrong? Why can't power programs choose who they associate with? Why are the smaller programs somehow entitled to attach themselves to better, more popular programs? I feel like if you're going to make the argument that this is wrong, you need to flesh it out, because right now I can't agree.
In fact, I'll go a step further and argue the other end, that's it's a good thing for the power programs to either walk away, force the small programs back into FCS, or create a super 1-A that is an exclusive, "no one else can get in without an invitation" type club.
For starters, the schools at the highest level could afford to treat their players better, with higher scholarship limits, more financial support, and other benefits such as post-graduation health insurance subsidies, guaranteed scholarships after eligibility is exhausted, etc. Given that the current opposition towards better treatment for players comes almost exclusively from the small schools, if you remove them from the picture, it's almost inevitable that players would benefit (even if you cynically think that power schools would try to back off their proposals, public pressure would force their hand anyway). That's an easy one, but there's more.
Let's say you (like most of the public) want a sensible six to eight team playoff, with relatively little annual controversy (as opposed to the current setup with nearly annual controversy or almost any four-team playoff proposal, since each of them would likely engender about as much controversy on a regular basis). What would need in order to make that happen? Primarily, you'd need to have automatic bids for whatever number of league champions with only a few at-large spots. That means if you win your league, you're automatically in the playoff, no ifs, ands or buts.
Of course, given 124 teams, 11 leagues and a few independents, that's completely impossible to fit inside a 6-8 team playoff. But if there were 4 or 5 leagues and about 60-70 teams? Yeah, that could absolutely work. That would lead to a system with materially less controversy; yes, there still would be some from time to time, but it'd be much less of a dominant issue.
Another key benefit is that it gets rid of most to all of the bodybag games. Maybe you let every school have a warm-up game that doesn't count (even if they lose), but after that you require the games to be inside the group. You'd say goodbye to the massive glut of bodybag games that everyone hates, and say hello to many more interesting and watchable games than we currently get.
A side benefit of this is that connectivity between schools would shoot way up, so that you could more credibly compare USC and Alabama, Michigan and Texas, etc. at the end of every regular season, instead of really just having to guess at it a lot of the time (this would also tend to reduce controversy about at-large bids, since there'd be more common opponents and head to head matchups among teams competing for those spots).
5) That the current rule set does not already artificially skew the 1-A marketplace to prop up the small schools
There are a few very important ways in which the marketplace already skews in favor of the small schools: BCS payouts; bodybag payouts; limits on number of scholarships; and limits on aid. These are all material issues, especially since as noted above, there are plenty of programs hemorrhaging money even with these artificial aids.
Let's discuss the BCS first. In the context of the lower end of 1-A, not a single team from the MAC, Sun Belt, C-USA or future WAC has EVER made it to the BCS, and only in very rare occasions has any of their teams even been slightly close to deserving. And yet every year, like clockwork, every team in each of these leagues gets a BCS check (recent numbers indicated at least $100,000 per school per year, and more for teams actually in a league). That's a fairly decent chunk of change that's basically free money for programs that have, quite frankly, done absolutely nothing to deserve it.
But that's nothing compared to the market-distorting arrangements that result in huge bodybag checks. Taking Idaho as an example, the difference between a bodybag as a 1-A school and a 1-AA is about $500,000, half of the standard $1 million or so bodybag payment. So why does Idaho get $500,000 more per game just from being in 1-A?
There are a couple answers, but the overwhelmingly important contributing factor is bowl eligibility rules. Currently, you have to be 6-6 or better to make a bowl game, and you can only count one game against a AA opponent. So when mid-level AQ teams want to schedule themselves some home wins both to sell tickets and to prop up their record to make a bowl game and keep the program supporters happy, if they're going to have multiple bodybag victims (and many do), then they need to get 1-A victims, and there's a restricted supply. Thus, the bodybag paychecks have gone up due not to any actual prestige or value from hosting Idaho, but instead the oligopolistic market restrictions you'd expect from a guild membership (which is essentially what 1-A is, at least in this respect).
So when it's estimated that dropping down to 1-AA would cost Idaho $1.5 million or more, that's a pure handout just from being in 1-A. And they STILL can't make money.
And that's without mentioning the artificial limits on number of scholarships and financial aid. It's abundantly clear who benefits the most from these limits; the small schools who can't afford to keep up. If schools could have 100 scholarship football players, programs like Alabama and Texas, next-level programs like Tennessee and Penn St; even mid to lower-end AQ programs like Purdue or Mississippi St would presumably be easily able to afford to add 15 scholarships to the annual budget. Similarly, if schools could raise stipends by $2,000 or even more, again those programs would be able to afford it without really struggling (maybe some would have to make some cuts around the edges, but by no means would it be anything close to an existential crisis).
On the other hand, consider a program like Idaho. If they felt like they had to hit the maximum in order to compete (which was the crux of the objections to 2011-96 and 2011-97 from many schools), that's a big hit to a bottom line that's probably already bleeding. So either they simply couldn't match it or they'd have to make major cuts (such as a couple non-revenue sports) just to continue trying to tread water in 1-A.
So in my mind the essential facts for the University of Idaho football program (or athletic department if you want to take a larger view) are:
They're not competitive with the big schools on the field or financially;
About 20 years after Notre Dame signed a big TV deal with NBC, they still haven't figured out how to be competitive financially;
They are fundamentally an entertainment company, not an organization engaging in a socially important or (necessarily) beneficial cause;
They aren't a particularly good entertainment company, judging by their fan support, TV interest, etc;
They benefit from a number of key market-distorting policies in place, that come at the expense of their players (scholarship and stipend limits), fans who want to see good games on TV (thanks to the encouragement of bodybag games), fans of more popular programs who are excluded from bowl games thanks to the 6-win limit, and the big schools' bottom lines (BCS payments that the small schools did nothing to contribute to or earn);
Does that sound to you like a victim... or a parasite? My impression is that you think they're victims (or at least innocents), and that informs your thinking of their moral status and position. To me, however, these programs are basically parasites, and that definitely informs my thinking of their moral status and position.
A couple side notes: first, I agree with you that it's a good idea to decouple football from Title IX restrictions (I think men's basketball should also be de-coupled; I'm not sure if you share that opinion), though I disagree with the idea that that this would solve fundamental issues in football (instead it'd make the distributions of support among non-revenue sports more proportional, which is itself a defensible goal).
Second, I noticed you mentioning relegation. Is that a throwaway idea or a serious suggestion? If it's intended to be serious, I think there are a great many issues with it, but I'm not inclined to spend much time discussing it unless you think that discussion has merit.
This has been a fun discussion so far, and it's always interesting to see your take on things. I look forward to the next round.