JMU athletics looks forward: Let’s hope it doesn’t include effort to go FBS

jmu logoJames Madison University is working with CarrSports Consulting on the development of a comprehensive athletics strategic plan that is expected to be ready for public review in early 2015.

JMU announced this effort last week. There was no word in the announcement about whether the strategic plan might encompass any specifics related to the football program’s place in the Division I pantheon, but there has been talk around the program dating back to the move by the school to upgrade Bridgeforth Stadium that there might be interest in making the move from FCS to FBS.

Which would be a terrible idea, for lots of reasons.

First and foremost, costs and benefits. Off the top, the move up from FCS, the old I-AA, to FBS requires the addition of 22 athletics scholarships to meet the FBS upper limit of 85. But wait: you also have to add 22 scholarships in women’s sports to meet requirements under Title IX, so now you’re at 44. At an average cost of attendance at JMU of $23,834 a year for in-state students and $38,750 for out-of-state students, we’re looking at roughly $1.3 million in added costs just for scholarships.

Edit: A report produced in 2013 by CarrSports indicates that JMU would not need to add women’s scholarships under Title IX if it were to make the move to FBS in football, so we can adjust the numbers in the above analysis to reflect just the costs of 22 additional scholarships for football. Assuming a $30,000-per-head cost for those scholarships for the sake of argument, you’re looking at $660,000 a year in additional expense related to the increased roster for football.

That might not seem like much, but that’s just a starting point. Next issue is finding a conference. Sure, JMU could go independent, but all that would guarantee is that the Dukes would be a team of traveling football dummies playing an endless series of guarantee games against a mix of FBS powers and random non-Power Fives with last-minute scheduling holes.

So the independent route, we can presume, is out. Back to conferences: is there a fit? The MAC would seem at first to be a good fit, especially geographically, and Conference USA might as well, but the issue for both in terms of their interest in adding JMU would be, what could Madison bring in terms of the business model? And the answer is, not much. JMU is saddled by its geography, stuck in the 178th-biggest TV market among the 210 TV markets in Nielsen.

ODU, in its first season in C-USA after making the leap to FBS last year, is in Norfolk, prime Nielsen real estate, the TV market 43rd nationally. That, as much, if not more than, the success of the Monarchs on the field in its brief run in FBS, is why that football program was an attractive add for Conference USA.

So if not the MAC or C-USA, is there another potential home in FBS for James Madison? The only other logical home is the Sun Belt, where former JMU football rival Appalachian State has since landed. The far-flung Sun Belt has teams as far afield as Idaho, New Mexico and Texas, with the concentration geographically in the Southeast.

The TV market issue aside, the Sun Belt could be a good fit for JMU from a pure competition perspective, and with 11 member programs, there’s a clear need for the addition of at least one more to get to a nice, even number for scheduling, division play and the like.

Which then brings us to the question, at what benefit to JMU would this kind of move come? Nothing against any of the programs in the Sun Belt, or for that matter in the MAC or Conference USA, but none of those programs are ever going to rise to the level of being in the mix for a spot in the new four-team playoff that is debuting this year in FBS. Even if it eventually gets to an eight-team playoff, and it will, years down the road, it’s going to be eight teams from power conferences; that’s just reality, with apologies to Marshall.

So you’re JMU, you’re thinking about jumping to FBS, you’re taking on more costs in scholarships, you’re scheduling road trips to Idaho, New Mexico, Texas and all over the Southeast for football, maybe having to do the same for your other sports, if the CAA tells you when you leave football for FCS to take your other sports programs with you, and you’re doing it for, what?

Edit: Overall bottom-line impacts from a move from FBS to FCS, according to the 2013 CarrSports report, has JMU bringing in $4.4 to $5.6 million a year in additional revenues from athletics by fiscal year 2019, with additional costs between $6 million and $6.4 million a year.

JMU has a national championship in FCS football, from back in 2004. It has a very successful women’s basketball program that, hey, kenny brooks has won NCAA Tournament games, and if he can string a couple of them together, who knows, maybe the Dukes can make a Final Four run one year in the near future.

Being an FBS whipping boy does nothing to promote the school to prospective student applicants, another factor to consider in the do we stay or do we go? thought process.

JMU is doing well where it is. It has the nicest football stadium in FCS football, a chance to compete at a high level in the CAA and generally in FCS, and a stable home for its other sports programs.

Which isn’t to say that there isn’t something alluring about going big-time. Just that, when you dive not too deep down into the particulars, it makes absolutely no sense for James Madison to make that move.

– Column by Chris Graham

         
 

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