LARAMIE — Tom Burman has heard the question enough that he keeps a list right on his desk.
Why, in times when the University of Wyoming is chopping millions from its budget, would the football program not consider moving down a level to alleviate costs?
“I’ll give you this,” he said, handing over the sheet of paper. “I’m having this argument with somebody.”
On the list are two sections: “INSTITUTIONS THAT HAVE JOINED FBS SINCE 1996” and “INSTITUTIONS THAT HAVE DROPPED FROM FBS TO FCS SINCE 1996.”
FBS is short for Football Bowl Subdivision, the premier level of college football within Division I and the level at which Wyoming plays. FCS, or Football Championship Subdivision, is the lower half of Division I and was formerly known as Division I-AA.
“These schools have moved up,” Burman said, referring to the top half of the list.
There are 20 of them: Central Florida, Idaho, Marshall, Buffalo, Middle Tennessee, Connecticut, South Florida, Troy, Florida International, Florida Atlantic, Western Kentucky, Massachusetts, South Alabama, Texas State, Texas-San Antonio, Georgia State, Georgia Southern, Old Dominion, Appalachian State and Charlotte. That does not include Coastal Carolina University, which will become a member of the FBS Sun Belt Conference next year.
“This is the only school that’s gone down,” Burman said of the bottom half.
Idaho, which initially joined the FBS in 1996, will make the unprecedented move from FBS to FCS in 2018.
“These schools all chose to move up, and they knew when they made that decision that their financial investment in athletics, at least for a while, was going to have to increase, and they all did it,” Burman said. “These people aren’t all stupid.”
Per the standard line of parental reasoning, you shouldn’t do something just because everyone else is doing it. If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you jump, too?
But in the world of business, you probably should join all the other businesses in jumping off that bridge, because apparently there’s a pile of money below.
There’s a term for this, said Andy Schwarz, a sports economist at OSKR. It’s called “revealed preference.”
“In economics, it’s very difficult to know what people’s actual preferences are,” Schwarz said. “We can only judge their actions. But when they have a choice between two available options and they consistently choose one over the other, that sort of shows a revealed preference for the one that they choose.”
It’s not just that the schools in FBS are almost never choosing to leave. Other schools are trying to claw their way in.
“So the decade from 2000-2010, I think six out of the 10 years the NCAA had to put a moratorium on new schools entering FBS because so many schools wanted to,” Schwarz said. “And that’s a really weird thing to think about in the context of, ‘But this is a horrible business decision.’ Like, ‘You know what, you guys are begging to make such a stupid mistake that we’re not going to let you.’
“More likely, economics says, actually ... the proof is in the pudding, which is that rational economic actors act rationally. And when we see them all choosing the same choice, either we have to assume they’re all irrational or Occam’s razor says they’re making the smarter financial decision.”
It’s the “50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong” theory, only with millions more dollars at stake.
But what about Idaho?
Maybe all those other athletic programs actually were wrong to chose FBS, and Idaho is the pioneer that will lead dozens of other programs to realize FCS is the way to go.
Like Wyoming, Idaho is a western land-grant university and its state’s flagship institution. But the Vandals’ set of circumstances is not one shared by many other schools.
Their move was set into motion by the Sun Belt deciding earlier this year not to renew Idaho or New Mexico State’s football-only membership in 2018, in large part because of an NCAA rule change that now allows 10-team conferences to hold a championship.
Idaho was not a geographic fit in the Sun Belt, which mainly consists of teams in the South, and the Vandals’ location made it unlikely they would find a new conference home. The Vandals therefore could continue as an independent, as New Mexico State plans to do, but the costs and competitive disadvantages of doing so are severe, as Idaho saw in 2013, when it played for a year as an independent.
The Vandals had incentive to move to FCS, too. For one, Idaho hadn’t moved up all that long ago, having joined the FBS in 1996. More important, the rest of the Vandals’ sports compete in the Big Sky, an FCS conference. By moving down, Idaho had an easy fit and established regional rivals.
“There may actually be a fan interest that those rivalries might be stronger than Sun Belt rivalries,” Schwarz said. “It may make sense for them, but that seems to be, to me, the exception and the other schools are sort of the rule.”
But you don’t have to take his word for it.
Idaho athletic director Rob Spear himself admits that moving down shouldn’t be done for purely dollars-and-cents reasons.
“People that think dropping down to FCS is going to help your financial situation — that’s wrong,” he said.
The move down has created what Spear calls “a $1 million problem.”
“We’re not going to receive any revenues from the College Football Playoff as part of an FCS conference, so that’s a big hit right there, and the game guarantees that you’re going to get from playing FBS opponents is probably going to be cut in half,” he said. “So when you look at the revenues and expenses, even if you’re going to save some scholarship costs and hopefully you’re going to have some travel reduction because you’re going to play more in your geography, the net effect is about a $1 million problem that we have to deal with.”
Plus, there’s the discontent among donors and fans.
“We have a group of people who decided to, when this decision was announced, they walked away,” Spear said. “They’ve essentially taken their ball and gone home, and they’re not going to contribute anymore. Over time, we hope they come back, but initially, we’ve incurred a setback from a donation and ticket sales standpoint.”
If Idaho still had membership in an FBS conference, then the Vandals would be playing FBS football.
Instead, they are the lone team at the bottom of Burman’s list.
“Absolutely, if (we) had stability and a stable home,” Spear said, “I think we would’ve stayed the course.”