Posted by Adam Jacobi
As has been reported earlier, Montana is one of the schools being closely considered for membership in the WAC. It'd be a huge step up for the Grizzlies, who haven't been a I-A football school since 1962, and Montana fans are understandably anxious about whether a study commissioned by the school determines Montana should move up a division or not. These aren't decisions to be made on a whim, like what to eat at McDonalds or hiring Lane Kiffin.
Montana's AD Jim O'Day has heard these concerns, and replied with a remarkably long, detailed e-mail that was circulated among Montana fans before being posted to eGriz.com, a popular Montana Grizzlies fan board. We have confirmed with the Montana athletic department that the letter is genuine. And while it's much too long to post here in full, there was one particularly scary detail about how the school currently struggles with finances (bolded emphasis ours):
The FCS playoff system is hurting financially. We produced $1.1 million of last year’s budget of $2.5 million. The other 11 games produced less than $1 million TOTAL. The NCAA lost almost $500,000 again, and it will not continue to tolerate to follow this plan. Now we’ve added another round and four more teams…. Being on the committee, and as chair, I know this is a major concern to the NCAA – and a last-gasp reason for changing to Frisco, Texas, in hopes of attracting more attention and support. It won’t help to move the championship back three weeks into January – let alone that it will be taking place 40 minutes away from the Cotton Bowl, which has also been moved to that night. So much for FCS exposure on national television. Just to keep the student-athletes on campus during Christmas will also cost the two schools in the championship an additional $100,000 – none of which is budgeted. And to put in perspective, we LOST $150,000 each of the past two year going to the championship game. Had we won, the incentives for coaches would have put the losses over $200,000 each time. We get no additional revenue for any of this.
It's really strange to think of a school being unable to afford to win a championship in football, but depending on what budget flexibility existed at Montana, that could have certainly been the case. Now, an economist would look at this and simply deduce that the compensation structure is insane -- after all, according to O'Day, winning the title would not have resulted in the revenue necessary to justify $50,000 in bonuses. But incentives in a highly competitive job field are often just this insane, so here we are.
It is a cannon shot to the stomach of playoff advocates to see this kind of evidence that the current FCS playoff structure is -- to put it lightly -- in serious trouble. Of course, the money involved in a FBS playoff would be dramatically different, but the unpredictable nature of the playoff is usually a severe detriment to fan involvement, and we see that in the light revenues from most of the FCS playoff games this year. Fans can't reliably make and change plans week to week, and that's what would be asked if the NCAA moved anywhere past a plus-one format.
But this is about Montana, and whether Montana should go to the WAC, and their own financial struggles despite being the preeminent FCS program west of the Mississippi. Why do they struggle? Because the rest of the conference knows Montana's the cash cow. Take what happens whenever Montana plays at arch-rival Montana State:
By league policy, 60% of the revenue from these telecasts go to the HOME team (not UM), 35% to the visitor and 5% to the league. So how out-of-line is this: Last year, MSU received $60,000 of KPAX’s bid (to do UM games), while Montana received $35,000 and the conference $5,000. These are the reasons why Boise State left the Big Sky in the mid-1990s; why BYU and Texas are doing what they’re doing right now. They want to control their television money. The television money should be following UM, but we get outvoted on this 8-1 whenever it comes up.
Of course, this can only mean disaster for the Big Sky if that cash cow leaves, and O'Day freely acknowledges that as a concern. It's easy to say "well the Big Sky's problems aren't Montana's problems," but they are Montana State's, and Montana doesn't exist in a vacuum away from the other member schools -- especially if Division I changes force Montana to rejoin any of them in the unforeseen future.
So if things are this up in the air for Montana, the strongest of the five contenders for WAC membership, imagine what uncertainty awaits the other schools trying to make the leap -- and, for that matter, what awaits the schools who aren't even considering a move to FBS.