(Note: This is the third in an occasional series of columns and blogs in which InForum's Mike McFeely will explore the possibility of North Dakota State's football team moving to the Football Bowl Subdivision.)
FARGO — My mid-December column urging North Dakota State's athletic program to prepare for a jump from the Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision, just in case the opportunity presented itself, generated response.
Much of it — though far from all of it — carried this theme: Tap the brakes, big fella.
My thesis was that NDSU should have everything in order in case an FBS league like the Mountain West Conference came calling. This is something NDSU should explore, I wrote. What I did not say is also important. I did not say NDSU should make the leap at any cost. I said it would need to come with the very specific, possibly disqualifying, parameter of being football-only.
Onward and upward! Go FBS 55% We're good where we are. Stay FCS 45%
If NDSU's football team someday gets an invitation to the Mountain West Conference, should the Bison take it or should they stay in FCS?
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Onward and upward! Go FBS
We're good where we are. Stay FCS
As I wrote, it's the college football version of a moonshot.
In other words, if Boise State exits the Mountain West (which is increasingly possible if not expected) and the conference calls NDSU willing to allow a football-only membership (unlikely, but possible), NDSU should make it work. The school's football program would have an opportunity to be the only FBS Group of Five team in an 800-mile radius.
It would be the next logical step in the progression of a football program that's dominated FCS for most of the last decade.
NDSU officials are reluctant to say much about any potential move, although I'm told the topic has been broached. That's not surprising. You'd hope school leaders would be ahead of the curve as it pertains to any potential opportunity.
"As an institution, our job is to always look at opportunities that can help the profile, the brand, the value of the institution," Larsen said.
Still, for many such a jump would be a bridge too far for a regional university in a small market, cursed by geography and with an enrollment (about 13,000) that would be at the low end of the Mountain West spectrum.
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"You have to ask yourself what your goals are," one FBS conference official told me. "What does FBS affiliation bring us that FCS doesn't? Would you sell more tickets? Well, NDSU seems to sell all their tickets already. More TV revenue? Probably, but maybe not enough. Would you have a shot at the FBS playoffs? Not as it stands now, and would your fans be OK with that? Could you handle the expense side of it and could you do it over time? Would you blow up your rivalries and is that worth it?
"There's a lot of questions that NDSU would need to answer. There's a lot that goes into this, way more than the average person might think."
The money angle is daunting enough. NDSU's football budget is currently about $6 million per year, which puts it far above the FCS median and at least a couple of million dollars above most of its Missouri Valley Football Conference competition.
But in the Mountain West $6 million doesn't get you in the door. According to the Knight Commission, a watchdog that pushes for reform in college athletics, the average Mountain West football budget in 2018 was about $14 million and the top-spending football program in the league (Colorado State) had an annual budget of almost $22 million.
Could NDSU boost its football revenue and fundraising by $8 million a year to get to the middle of the league? And could it continue to raise that money, and more, year after year after year?
It doesn't help NDSU's cause that compared to schools in other states it doesn't get much state financial support and student fees that go toward athletics are minuscule. That's unlikely to change, meaning the additional money would have to come exclusively from fundraising and additional revenue.
Some of that yearly money could come from increased TV revenue from the Mountain West's new six-year, $270 million deal with FOX Sports and CBS Sports. Each full league member will realize about $4 million a year from the contract, but a football-only member would receive less. Hawaii, an affiliate MWC member in football, gets a piece of the conference pie and is allowed to negotiate a separate local deal for its home games.
NDSU's current media rights contracts, set to expire soon, bring in nearly $500,000 a year.
An FCS conference official with whom I talked doesn't believe NDSU has the television oomph to be attractive to the Mountain West. If the key to television rights money is the number of screens in a market, Fargo and the state of North Dakota fall far short.
"Can NDSU make the other schools in the Mountain West more money because of their TV impact? Does NDSU drive up the media rights money for everybody else? I don't think they do," the official said.
"I think North Dakota State would be one of the first places they'd call. Even if you compare what they bring to the table right now compared to Rice or UTEP or anybody else they could conceivably add, I think their brand recognition and their ability to enhance their media rights deal is stronger than any other potential candidate," Brown said.
Brown said media insiders he's talked with say thinking has swung from the old model to actual people watching the games on TV, so fan base and brand is more important than market size.
"Your access to markets isn't as important as your ability to draw raw numbers. San Jose State is in a big media market. It's in the Bay Area. Nobody watches them. They drive no actual eyeballs. That doesn't actually make ESPN any money. Boise State, far and away the biggest television draw, isn't really in that big of a market. But what makes them so attractive is that they are nationally known. People know Boise State, they've seen them upset bigger teams, they've had exposure to them for awhile and so you're able to pick up some casual interest among people who aren't involved there," Brown said.
"So when you compare the other five or six schools (in which the Mountain West might be interested should Boise State leave) — and some are going to be at the FCS level and some are at the FBS level — none of them have any juice whatsoever outside of their own local market other than North Dakota State. At least casual football fans, no matter where they are in the country, are aware that they have been just wrecking shop in FCS for years and they've watched them beat Kansas State, Iowa State. They've watched them beat big teams."
A popular roadblock erected by Bison fans who want the team to remain in FCS is that competing for national championships is more important than qualifying for minor bowl games. One person close to the NDSU program agrees and believes that would be a stumbling block for a move to FBS.
"If they expand the FBS playoffs to eight teams and a Group of Five team is guaranteed a spot, that changes things," the person said. "Then you can sell that the goal is to make the College Football Playoffs. That would make the difference."
It would be, in other words, like the Bison men's basketball team making the NCAA tournament. There's no chance NDSU is going to win a national championship, but getting to the Big Dance is enough.
Another question raised is whether fans would remain interested in a Bison FBS team over the long-term. The initial rush of joining the Mountain West and playing new teams in new cities and having unfamiliar teams visit the Fargodome would be off the charts, much like it was the early years in FCS. But would it wear off after a few years, especially with no chance at a national championship?
It comes down to the age-old question: Is it better to be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond?
One last point that was raised to me. To make a move up the college athletics ladder takes heavy lifting from the university's president, along the lines of what former NDSU president Joseph Chapman did to move the Bison from NCAA Division II to Division I. There is the legitimate question of whether current president Dean Bresciani has the wherewithal to take on a difficult, divisive and political task. Bresciani has been put through the ringer on just about every major decision (and some minor ones) he's made at NDSU. This would be no different.
"I know they've been really good for 10 years, but I remember when Montana was dominating the Big Sky every year and people said they didn't belong in I-AA anymore," said one FCS official, pointing out that the Grizzlies haven't been a national title contender in many years. "Things change, and NDSU has to remember that."
Readers can reach Forum columnist Mike McFeely at email@example.com or (701) 451-5655.