JMU Nation wants FBS: Whether it makes sense or not

jmu logoOne thing has been made clear to me the past couple of days: a small, but vocal, portion of the JMU sports fan base wants to see the Dukes football program move up to FBS.

Not that making that move necessarily makes any sense aside from, Hey, if we make the move, we’re big time, right?

To that point, no, JMU isn’t big time if it moves up from the CAA to a generic FBS conference. Even the MAC isn’t much more than a lateral move for JMU, the main benefit of MAC membership for Madison being geographic proximity of its membership relative to the footprint of the other potential FBS suitor, the Sun Belt, whose members stretch across the continent.

From playing for national championships at the FCS level, JMU gets to play for … a shot at a bid in the Little Caesar’s Bowl. FBS bowls that aren’t part of the national-playoff rotation are break-even prospects dollar-wise at best for the schools that participate, so from a bottom-line perspective, the value of a bowl game vis-à-vis the value of a run at a national title is a wash.

And already well-established, by the CarrSports report that JMU commissioned in 2013, is that a move to FBS will end up costing the school more money, $1 million to $2 million a year in additional new expenses above new revenues.

So prestige is a wash, the dollars flow out, not in. One reader commenting on Augusta Free Press this week offered a third benefit that we haven’t done any accounting on: the front-porch factor, the idea that colleges and universities use athletics as a way to dress things up for donors and alums (and prospective applicants).

This argument can be persuasive. Spectator sports exists primarily to make money, but money can be made directly (through ticket sales, merchandise, concessions, TV rights) and indirectly. The CarrSports report projects additional dollars from donors with the move to FBS, though a modest gain, perhaps because even with the prestige that some may feel from the move up to FBS, there would also be some rancor in the fan base about replacing traditional rivals like Richmond and William and Mary with the likes of Akron and Eastern Michigan.

New traditions could be formed with MAC schools, no doubt, but rivalries aren’t forged overnight.

And then one needs to consider academics – yes, it’s a kooky idea, but the U in JMU does still stand for University. Membership in the CAA ties JMU to schools like UR and W&M both in terms of athletic competition but also in terms of academic reputation. At the risk of stirring up another hornet’s nest, there aren’t any URs and W&Ms in the MAC.

Front porch, then? It’s the best argument for moving up, and it’s still not all that strong.

The dollars flow out; prestige is only there if you just can’t wait to see the late-season JMU-Western Michigan game with the stakes on the line being a spot in the MAC Championship Game to determine who gets to challenge Bowling Green for the MAC bid in the Little Caesar’s.

Which, it seems, from a reading of the fan base, does actually get JMU Nation stirred up.

And of course it’s going to happen, eventually. JMU wasn’t able to lure Everett Withers to Harrisonburg because Coach Withers dreamed of being a successful head coach in the second-tier FCS, and the effort wasn’t expended on the project to add to Bridgeforth Stadium to stand pat in the CAA.

It’s fool’s gold that Madison is pursuing, but the glare is blinding more than a few diehards behind their keyboards.

– Column by Chris Graham