FCS to FBS: Bowl Games

Last Updated on June 5, 2014

Yesterday, I shared some data on football programs that have moved from FCS to FBS from 1978-2010 in light of the news that UMass is spending more than projected since its move. The highlight – or really the lowlight – is that most programs who make the transition see less success on the football field as a result.

Nineteen programs transitioned from FCS to FBS from 1978-2010. Just six of those programs – Boise State, Connecticut, Florida International, Louisiana Tech, Marshall and South Florida – have averaged more wins per season at the FBS level than they did at the FCS level. Overall, the 19 teams had winning seasons 64.4% of the time at the FCS level, but just 37.2% of the time at the FBS level. Average wins per year dropped from 6.4 in FCS to 5.39 in FBS.

However, the story isn’t all doom and gloom on the field. Somewhat interestingly, even schools who have averaged less wins at the FBS level have appeared in bowl games, which often means increased television exposure. Akron, UAB, Buffalo, Florida Atlantic and South Florida all failed to appear in a single FCS postseason game – yet each has participated in at least one bowl game at the FBS level. In fact, all nineteen teams who made the transition have participated in at least one bowl game since the move to FBS.

Boise State has appeared in bowl games every year since its move in 1996, with the exception of the 1996, 1997 and 2001 seasons. Nevada, who transitioned in 1992, has made 11 bowl appearances. Marshall will go for number nine this year, having transitioned in 1997.

This year, every bowl game is on national television. Most games appear on ESPN, with a few on ESPN 2, ESPNU, Fox and CBS. The lowest rated bowl game often outperforms the FCS national championship game, the only shot an FCS team really has at a national viewing audience. Last year, just one bowl game rated lower than the FCS national championship game: the 2013 Heart of Dallas Bowl, which featured Purdue against Oklahoma State. The Heart of Dallas Bowl averaged 943,000 viewers, while the FCS championship game averaged 1.1 million.

This year, seven of the 19 teams who moved from FCS to FBS from 1978-2010 will be on national television participating in bowl games. Arkansas State will be featured on ESPN as it takes on Ball State in the GoDaddy.com Bowl. North Texas will take on UNLV in the Heart of Dallas Bowl on ESPNU. Middle Tennessee and Navy will appear on ESPN in the Armed Force Bowl. Buffalo, who never participated in the postseason in its five years in the FCS, will get national airtime on ESPN as it takes on San Diego State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Marshall will meet Maryland in the Military Bowl on ESPN.

UCF will do something this year only two other teams who’ve transitioned from FCS since 1978 have done: participate in a BCS bowl game. The Knights will take on Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl. The other teams who’ve made BCS bowl games: Boise State and Connecticut. Boise State, will take on Oregon State in the Hawai’i Bowl this year on ESPN.

In my book, Saturday Millionaires, I devoted an entire chapter to what I call the, “intersection between athletics and academics.” Multiple studies have found that bowl game appearances can have an impact on the university. First, there’s the “advertising effect,” which refers to the fact that a bowl game appearance is essentially a 3+ hour national commercial for your university. Most universities couldn’t afford that sort of national advertisement, and it can increase awareness among high school students still making their college decision.

Multiple studies I cover in the chapter found that football success, including bowl appearances, can have a large impact on the number of out-of-state students who apply to the university and subsequently enroll. One study, by brothers and economists Devin G. Pope and Jaren C. Pope, concludes, “While a sports victory for a given school may not change the awareness of in-state students regarding its existence, the sports victory may present a significant shock in attention/awareness for out-of-state students.”

TCU is a great example. After its participation in the 2011 Rose Bowl, applications from California rose by 109 percent, while applications from Oregon increased by 200 percent. The university’s website also received over 100,000 unique hits from users who’d never visited the site before. (There’s more on the impact BCS bowl games have had on TCU and Boise State in my book, Saturday Millionaires, if that interests you.)

Back to the impact of participating in any bowl game (not just BCS bowls)…another study found that general giving (not donations to athletics, but general donations to the university) increases after a bowl game appearance. The study examined 167 institutions from 1973-1990 and found increases of 40-54 percent in general giving. I would imagine if that study was updated today the number would be even higher given the increased exposure from television.

Yet another study examined 87 universities that fielded both a Division I football and basketball team and found an average incrase of 7.3 percent per student when the football team won a bowl game. According to the study, the mean alumni contributions per student for all universities is $487. The study found that each football bowl win is worth an additional $35.55 per student. With mean enrollment at the universities in the study at 24.132, a football bowl win was found to be worth an additional $858,000 to the university.

All that being said, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t tell the other side of the story, which is that athletic success can only do so much for a university. (There’s also the story of what schools spend to go to bowl games, which often exceeds their share of the revenue, but that’s been told, so I won’t go into it here.)

One of the studies I covered in Saturday Millionaires found it would take 24 additional bowl appearances or 58 basketball tournament berths to compensate for the lack of Carnegie Research I status, and that Carnegie Research I status has a greater impact on overall giving than athletic success. The study also found athletic success only impacts donations by alumni, not giving by non-alumni.

However, the study concludes athletics may still be the most efficient way to improve contribution rates:

Despite this outcome, university presidents seeking to expand educational contributions still may find it advantageous to support athletic programs at their institutions. For example, building or maintaining quality athletic programs may be less costly when compared to the resource requirements to build up academic programs. Additionally, the payoff from establishing an athletic tradition may come more quickly, particularly if prospective donors have difficulty judging academic improvements and if changes in academic reputation lag behind actual improvements. (Rhoads, T.A. and Gerking, S., “Educational Contributions, Academic Quality, and Athletic Success,” Contemporary Economic Policy (Vol. 18, No. 2, 2000).)

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