Should James Madison University Move to FBS?

Last Updated on June 5, 2014

JMUEarlier this month, the JMU Board of Visitors was presented with the results of a study by CarrSports Consulting considering whether a move should be made from playing football at the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) to the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). The study concluded JMU is “well-positioned for a potential transition to FBS.” Recent comments from faculty, however, suggest not everyone believes the move is in the best interest of JMU or its students.

Physics professor Kevin Giovanetti said that JMU might be hurting themselves by moving into a tougher athletic conferences in the FBS.

“I think the secret of getting funding with the athletics program is success,” he said. “If you move into a tougher arena, your success deteriorates significantly, causing what I would say is a step back from some of the community interest.”

Giovanetti is right on that point. NCAA research presented at the NACDA Convention this summer showed very few institutions who improved on the field after a move from FCS to FBS. Of the 19 teams who moved from FCS to FBS from 1978 to 2010 just six teams average more wins per year at the FBS level than they did at the FCS level: Boise State, UConn, FIU, Louisiana Tech, Marshall and South Florida. For the record, FIU and Louisiana Tech still don’t have winning seasons on average.

SchoolFCS Wins/YearFBS Wins/Year
Boise State7.4410
Florida International3.753.86
Louisiana Tech5.645.79
South Florida6.757

According to NCAA research, the 19 teams who moved from FCS to FBS from 1978-2010 experienced a winning season in 64.4 percent of years. That percentage dropped to 37.2 percent after a move to FBS.

However, Tom Kleinlein, athletic director at Georgia Southern University, who is moving from FCS to FBS next season, says exposure at the FBS level might be worth more than winning at the FCS level.

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

For the record, Georgia Southern holds six national titles.

Kleinlein is quick to point out that the FCS national championship game rarely out-rates even the lowest-rated bowl games.

Last season, the FCS championship game beat out just one bowl game: the 2013 Heart of Dallas Bowl, which pitted Purdue against Oklahoma State.

There’s a cost associated with that exposure, according to NCAA research. Subsidies increased an average of $1.2 million when teams reclassified from FCS to FBS.

However, CarrSports Consulting’s report for JMU states that current trends support the conclusion that athletic-generated revenues (tickets, guarantees, donations, conference distributions, etc.) growth will outpace any growth in expenses, actually decreasing the dependence on student fees.

But wait, there’s a catch….

When the report says the dependence on student fees will decrease, it doesn’t actually mean students will pay less. Currently, JMU student fees account for almost 80 percent of the $33 million it costs to fund JMU athletics. CarrSports’ report estimates that percentage will drop to 72.7 percent to 74.8 percent, but because expenses are expected to increase by 12.8 to 13.7 percent, the cost per student would still increase.

Reliance on student fees is a hot button for faculty at JMU who have been asked to weigh in on the situation.

Accounting professor Tim Louwers says it should be alumni, not current students, who fund the additional expenses associated with a move to FBS.

“It’s the alumni who really are pushing for this move, but they don’t seem willing to pay for it … so the question is, why can’t we pass that along to the alumni who want this?”

“I would be very much in support of the move if it was paid for by people who are calling for this rather than it being passed onto the students.”

The CarrSports report did estimate alumni donations would increase from $2 million per year to $4 million per year by 2019 with a move to FBS. The average public FBS university reported $12.6 million in donations last fiscal year, according to reports filed with the NCAA. However, $4 million in donations would be JMU in the company of schools like San Diego State, Marshall, Houston and Louisiana Lafayette.

What if the revenue growth doesn’t outpace the expense growth, as predicted in the report?

UMass Amherst is struggling with that currently. In December, an ad hoc committee presented its findings on the program’s move to FBS to the faculty senate, including information on expenses far beyond projections.

In fiscal year 2011, the program’s last year in FCS, football expenses totaled $4.4 million, $3.2 of which came from university support, student fees and out-of-state tuition waivers.

UMass Amherst’s first year in the FBS was expected to cost $5.4 million with $4.4 coming from the university and students. Instead, expenses totaled $6.0 million, $5.0 million of which came from university sources and student fees.

Last fiscal year, the football budget was projected to be $6.5 million, with $4.2 million from the university and students. Instead, football expenses came in at $7.2 million, with at least $4.5 million from the university and students.

Taking a wider view, UMass Amherst’s first year at the FBS level cost the university $8.2 million, according to the report the ad hoc committee presented to the faculty senate last December. Here’s a breakdown directly from the report:

7,160,339 FY13 football program budget
2,070,000 First year of McGuirk Stadium improvements debt service payments
700,000 One-year marketing budget
260,105 Gender Equity Scholarships
10,190,444 – the total expenses related to the FBS football program

We must, however, subtract the non-institutional revenues (from ticket sales, guarantees, contributions
and NCAA sponsorship) generated by the program in FY13. They total $1,969,983.

Therefore, the grand total that was spent by the university and state in support of the FBS football 
program in FY 13 was $8,220,461.

Ticket sales at UMass have been far lower than predicted, which accounts for a large portion of the budget issues at UMass. Average attendance last year was just 10,901, and now the program finds itself at risk of not meeting the base requirement for membership at the FBS level, which requires average attendance of 15,000. Should UMass not meet the attendance threshold, it would be put on probation for the next 10 years and have its membership rights restricted.

You can listen here to an NPR interview I did recently about UMass.

Of course, every school is different. For example, Boise State has put its university on the map by reclassifying to FBS and being successful on the field over the past decade and a half, which I detail in my new book, Saturday Millionaires. As I stated above, however, just six of the 19 schools who have reclassified from 1978-2010 have seen their wins per year increase (and Boise State and UConn are the only ones to have reached a BCS bowl game). That’s why every school must make this decision for itself based on all the available information. In the end, it’s a calculated risk, not a guaranteed pay day.

What say you JMU fans – do you want to see the Dukes move to FBS?


Kristi A. Dosh is an attorney and founder of Her latest book on the business of college football, Saturday Millionaires, is available now. Visit for retailers and a sneak peak at the first chapter! Follow her on Twitter: @SportsBizMiss.


  • Kristi Dosh

    Kristi A. Dosh is the founder of and has served as a sports business analyst and contributor for outlets such as Forbes, ESPN, SportsBusiness Journal, Bleacher Report, SB Nation and more. She is also the author of a book on the business of college football, Saturday Millionaires. Kristi is a sought-after consultant and speaker on topics related to the business of college sports and a former practicing attorney. Click to learn more

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  • Ryan
    October 21, 2013

    Great article…I just wanted to point out that UConn made a BCS bowl as well

    • sru55
      October 23, 2013

      And lost its shirt on that game as well. Sure, UConn received an immense amount of publicity for that BCS appearance (even if in the sports world much of it was neutral to negative since they in essence backed their way in). How do you accurately measure the publicity? It surely hasn’t paid on the recruiting trail of football student-athletes as evidenced by the program’s current state.

  • JMU fan
    October 21, 2013

    The counter to Prof Kevin’s statement is that many long term donors, like myself, will reduce giving and drop my season tickets if we don’t do our best to move up soon – or at least publicly make our intentions known. Attendance will likely drop if we don’t pursue the next step. The teams we currently play are not a draw. Thus, revenue may decrease, possibly by drastic margins over time.

  • Jon Walk
    October 21, 2013

    Kristi, Liberty is looking at this route as well. What are your thoughts about the Flames making the switch?

  • Mark
    October 21, 2013

    UCONN is a special case as they were already in a power conference and had a national reputation through basketball. JMU is a regional university that doesn’t have the fan base or support to make the jump. The article points out that the Carr report is very generous in projecting increases across the board without taking into account that once the football team stops having the success on the field that attendance will drop, and students will be footing an expensive bill for a below average team.

  • Ed
    October 21, 2013

    I believe it is time for JMU to move. A move would eventually bring higher profile schools to Harrisonburg, which in itself would garner more fans in the seats. Although JMU currently averages 25,000 per game. Since other Virginia schools (UVa, VT, ODU) are FBS it seems logical a move up would create and maintain excellent recruitment.

  • bubblescreen
    October 21, 2013

    What a stupid article. Troy has consistently won 8 games at the FBS level and plays in bowl games almost every year. But they won 11 games per year in I-AA…does that mean they’re worse off?

    You mention UMass and fail to mention the biggest reason for their failure — playing games at Gillette Stadium some 45+ minutes away.

    Obviously, you just wrote this in an attempt to sell your book. But if your book is anything like this poorly written, poorly thought-out and poorly sourced blog post, no one should buy it.

  • Mike
    October 21, 2013

    JMU alumni are ready for a jump. The jump will draw more alumni interest and financial backing. Right now, JMU averages 25K per game, has a student enrollment near 20K, and an alumni base that is growing at an accelerated rate based on enrollment growth. Remaining the status quo in FCS will in fact lose alumni interest and giving.

  • Cole Walters
    October 21, 2013

    Mark obviously isn’t a fan of JMU, and fortunately the opinion he offers demonstrates he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. According to Mark JMU doesn’t have the fanbase or support to make the jump to FBS. That skewed opinion would come as news to the 23k JMU fans who presently attend football games. It would also surprise the 20k fulltime students (nearly 8k of whom live on campus), and the 120k living alums, 70% who live within driving distance to Harrisonburg. Furthermore, JMU presently supports a D1 athletic budget of $35 million, higher than almost every non-power 5 conference team in the country. Whether JMU decides to make the jump to FBS or not, success will not be predicated on the size and support of JMU’s fanbase and the university’s athletic budget.

  • JMU Rocks!
    October 21, 2013

    UMass is a poor comparison point to JMU.

    As FCS school 5 year average attendance for homecoming (typical high tide) was 13,937 in a 17K on campus stadium.

    2012 as an FBS school playing in an NFL stadium roughly 2 hours away from campus attendance was 10,846.

    JMU sold out a 15K on campus stadium frequently, and the 25K upgraded stadium has sold out as well. Even on poor draws and against unfamiliar foes – JMU faithfully averages above the 15K mark.

    The question is still the same – why did JMU not move up sooner – then and now, JMU is better positioned than UMass.

  • Ned
    October 22, 2013

    JMU is really left no other choice IMO. All of their peers in 1-AA (i’m old school) are making the jump, so they’ll be left with very little competition in the next few years that are similar size schools and football traditions.

    I think JMU is merely waiting for a conference invite. I think the SunBelt is the only option right now because CUSA usually likes new schools in larger metropolitan areas and better TV markets than Harrisonburg. CUSA also has ODU, which gives them exposure to Virginia markets. SunBelt would be the best fit and a natural rivalry with Appalachian State would ensue you’d think.

    I believe JMU alumna will step up if they make the jump. Its a large school and most of their alumni lives in and works in prosperous areas like Richmond and Northern Virginia. They have the money, they just have to want to part with it.

    But lets squash the notion that JMU is bringing in high profile schools to Harrisonburg. They’ll be still in the 1-and done type agreements for the foreseeable future. The stadium is too small and larger schools don’t recruit the I-81 area much, therefore their is no incentive to play in Harrisonburg. The absolute best case scenario for a while is getting a team like ECU or Marshall to Harrisonburg. Marshall has had bigger programs like Miami & Tenn sign agreements to go to Huntington, but those teams write a check to get out of playing at Marshall when it comes down to it. If you’re TN, you dont recruit WVa, why not pay $500k buyout fee when you can get a home game against a lesser opponent and make millions from another home game?

  • John Furgele
    November 26, 2013

    1-AA will be gone soon, they will have two tiers of NCAA Football, a CFA and NCAA. The big five conferences will play in the CFA and the others will be in the NCAA. The difference is that both tiers will have the same number of scholarships and can play each other in the CFP or in bowl games. James Madison would technically be on equal footing with Ohio State. Each would have 80 scholarships. It would be no different than Ohio State playing Kent State. The 1-AA level which I love just can’t sustain itself with all the schools trying to move up. A lot of the lower level 1-AA schools like Valpo would probably just drop football rather than move up.