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McFeely blog: Bison rank 8th in FCS in revenue generated by football, according to U.S. Department of Education data

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North Dakota State is one of the top FCS teams in generating revenue through football. David Samson / The Forum

Greg Madia, the excellent sportswriter who covers James Madison football for the Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg, Va., posted a story this week on the newspaper's web site quoting JMU president Jonathan Alger saying he's unsure how this fall's college football season is going to play out as the coronavirus shutdown continues. Like everybody in college athletics, and sports in general, Alger is in a wait-and-see mode.

Our guy at The Forum, Jeff Kolpack, recently talked to North Dakota State president Dean Bresciani about the same topic. Bresciani's answer was roughly the same .

The impetus behind Madia asking Alger about football, as is the case with so many stories related to college athletics, was related to money. Football is the biggest driver of revenue at FBS and upper-level FCS schools and so the lingering and ever-growing question remains: What happens to college athletics if there isn't a football season?

The results could be catastrophic. That's why athletic directors and presidents are talking about the possibility of football being played in the spring of 2021. Athletic departments simply need the millions of dollars generated by football to exist. Some worst-case scenarios have the current system of big-time college athletics collapsing if football revenue disappears for the year.

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article6262709.ece embed - footballpoll Do you think there will be a college football season played this fall? Yes No Not in the fall, but possibly in the spring

It's an issue even at FCS, particularly at schools that are good at football. James Madison is one of those. So is North Dakota State, obviously. As Madia pointed out, JMU leads all FCS schools in revenue generated by football at $10,649,299, according to something called the U.S. Department of Education Equity in Athletics Data Analysis .

That's where this blog is going. It's served as a break from non-stop reading and writing about coronavirus.

I had not heard of that particular database before I read it in Madia's article. But it provides some interesting, if not altogether perfect, comparison of overall athletic budgets, expenses and revenues. The figures are from the 2018-19 academic year.

As I dug around the site trying to find out which FCS programs generated the most football revenue, obviously expecting the top handful of successful schools to be the leaders, there were some surprises.

(Disclaimer: There was no sortable way to list football revenue, so the information presented was gathered by checking schools that figured to do well in that category. I also consulted with Madia on some of the information he found, which was mostly Colonial Athletic Association-based. So, in short, there's a possibility I missed a school or two with high football revenue that I didn't check.)

JMU led the way, but (surprisingly) NDSU ranked only seventh at $6,048,728.

Montana State and Montana were second and third, not surprising given their attendance and the overall interest in their programs from fans. Eastern Washington, traditionally one of the best programs in the subdivision, was sixth.

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The most interesting thing was the schools ranked fourth to sixth: Delaware, William & Mary and Villanova. All are CAA members and while Delaware and Villanova have a history of success, they have not been major players in FCS for at least several seasons. Willam & Mary? That one really is a head-scratcher.

Delaware claimed football revenue of $8,313,306, a large figure relative to the division and the Blue Hens' on-field success recently.

Just by way of comparison, FBS power Ohio State reported football revenues of $115,091,304. Texas reported $156,147,208 in football revenue.

Here are the top 10 FCS schools ranked by revenue generated by football, according to the Education Equity in Athletics Data Analysis.

  • James Madison — $10,649,299
  • Montana State — $8,709,108
  • Montana — $8,620,428
  • Delaware — $8,313,306
  • Willam & Mary — $7,073,588
  • Villanova — $6,765,161
  • Eastern Washington — $6,739,277
  • NDSU — $6,048,728
  • Elon — $6,043,145
  • North Carolina A&T — $5,609,344

A few things to think about, though, as you look at those numbers.
There is no standardized reporting template, for example. NDSU athletic director Matt Larsen said every institution might calculate their revenues differently, at least in terms of how they are assigned to a specific sport. Example: Most of the sponsorship dollars collected by Bison athletics are generated by the football program's success and popularity, but they are spread across the department.

"It's hard to dissect those things in an apples-to-apples way because of each schools' interpretations," Larsen said.

Larsen said, generally, the schools reporting the most football revenue are going to be the ones having the most success.

One thing that stood out in the reports to this admittedly amateur eye is that revenues assigned to non-football and basketball sports in FCS almost always matched expenses. To the dollar. Schools are reporting that the Olympic or "minor" sports, men's and women's, are generating enough revenue to sustain themselves.

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NDSU says it has $7,166,735 in expenses in non-football and basketball sports, men's and women's combined. It also reports exactly $7,166,735 in revenue from those sports. Again, that would appear to be a case of accounting. Those with expertise would have to explain the accounting principles and terms behind that.
As for the Missouri Valley Football Conference of which NDSU is a member, the surprising revenue number would be that generated by South Dakota State. The Jackrabbits report they have revenue of $3,950,727 generated by football, ahead of only Missouri State and Western Illinois in the league. That despite SDSU's stake as the second-best program in the conference and one of the top five in the nation.

North Dakota is second in the conference with $4,965,053 in football revenue. I included North Dakota's report because the Fighting Hawks will join the Valley for the 2020 schedule.

That is, if there is a 2020 schedule. Which brings us full circle to where this blog post began.

Here are the MVFC football revenue numbers, according to the Department of Education:

  • NDSU — $6,048,728
  • North Dakota — $4,965,053
  • Indiana State — $4,499,988
  • Illinois State — $4,429,532
  • Youngstown State — $4,349,972
  • Northern Iowa — $4,281,286
  • Southern Illinois — $4,212,321
  • South Dakota — $4,031,135
  • South Dakota State — $3,950,727
  • Missouri State — $3,846,066
  • Western Illinois — $3,100,811

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