Moving to FBS a challenge for most

Georgia Southern has been dominant at the FCS level, but will be starting over in FBS in 2014. Dale Zanine/USA TODAY Sports

Conference realignment has ushered quite a few teams into the FBS from FCS, a trend that will continue as schools like Georgia Southern and Appalachian State move to the Sun Belt in 2014.

Those schools are likely chasing the dream -- the $40.6 million median revenue in FBS, as compared to just $3.8 million in the FCS -- but a recent study by the NCAA suggests it could be a nightmare.

Kathleen McNeely, the NCAA's chief financial officer, discussed the findings of an NCAA study on reclassification from FCS to FBS at the College Athletic Business Management Association's annual convention this week.

From 1978 to 2010, 19 teams have made the move up. Few of those have seen increased success on the field, and the additional cost of doing business has many relying more heavily on student fees.

According to the NCAA's study, the average winning percentage of those 19 teams when they were in FCS was 55.7 percent. In the FBS, that fell to 44.8 percent. They've also seen far fewer winning seasons, from 64.4 percent in the FCS to 37.2 after moving up a classification.

Some teams have bucked the trend. Boise State, which reclassified in 1996, has gone from an average of 7.44 wins per season in the FCS to 10 per year in the FBS. Five other schools out of the 19 have seen an improvement, but UConn is the only other school to have seen an improvement of more than one game per year.

Tom Kleinlein, the athletic director at Georgia Southern, says it doesn't matter.

"Go ask someone 100 miles from Statesboro how many national championships we won at the FCS level," he said. "No one knows."

Kleinlein pointed out that the lowest-rated bowl games still routinely garner higher ratings than the FCS national championship game.

Last season, only one bowl game was watched by fewer viewers than the FCS national championship game: the 2013 Heart of Dallas Bowl featuring Purdue against Oklahoma State. That game averaged 943,000 viewers, while the FCS championship game averaged 1.1 million.

Although numerous studies have found revenue increases with a move to FBS, they've also found expenses generally increase at an even greater rate. There's some evidence to suggest being at the top of FCS is better -- both from a financial and student-athlete experience standpoint -- than being at the bottom of FBS. The average revenue for an FBS program in the bottom quartile is $22.5 million, compared to $25.6 million in the top quartile of FCS.

Remember that median revenue of $40.6 million in the FBS? Drill down a little further and you find out the median for AQs is $69.9 million, while it's a mere $9.7 million for non-AQs.

Among other drawbacks:

  • Less opportunity at a title: McNeely said more FCS teams have won national championships in the past 10 years than teams from FBS conferences that are not automatic qualifiers, which would be where a reclassifying team would land. The NCAA says almost 90 percent of national champions in all NCAA sports hail from FBS automatic qualifying conferences.

  • Fewer athletes get a chance: NCAA data shows an FCS school in the top quartile sponsors 23.6 sports, compared to just 16.8 sponsored by the bottom quartile FBS schools. The total number of student-athletes also drops from 639 in the top quartile of FCS to 458 in the bottom quartile of the FBS.

  • Higher student fees: McNeely's presentation said schools reclassifying increase student fees by an average of $1.2 million annually to keep up with the added expenses.

So why reclassify?

"For me, at the end of the day, it's the exposure for our university and growing our university," said Kleinlein, referencing the increased opportunities to play other FBS schools and garner more television coverage.

Kleinlein said it's also not a decision rooted solely in football.

"For us, we're pretty good in some of our other sports. These other sports are constantly having to fight the battle of whether they're a Division I school because of the labeling and association of FBS football."

There's also the concern that schools from the power conferences may no longer schedule FCS schools, a practice disappearing already in the Big Ten, eliminating hundreds of thousands (and sometimes more than a million) in revenue annually earned through guarantees. In addition, guarantees are generally larger for FBS schools than FCS.

Jeff Schemmel, a former athletic director and currently managing director of the college division at JMI Sports, thinks with the playoff on the horizon, now is the time to make the move up, because every conference in FBS will be making more money.

"The money is getting so big from the playoffs now it's clearly -- especially for a school with a budget of $7-8 million -- it's going to be a pretty nice little bump for those guys," Schemmel said.

With the added expenses, however, Schemmel says it's generally a wash, but the exposure is better.

"That's where the prestige factor comes in," he says.

There's also the future to consider amid the growing discussion around the power conferences forming a new subdivision one day, Kleinlein said.

"When I looked at what was going on, my concern became: Eventually, if the big split happens, are we now at the third level as opposed to the second level?"