The FCS sits in an interesting spot in the landscape of college football. It is a niche level of the sport, no doubt. Even the biggest supporters should be self-aware of this.
There aren’t huge revenue dollars in the FCS, no big TV deals, budgets are tight, not much attention from national outlets, most stadiums and crowds are smaller than the FBS, and the athletic departments that sponsor FCS programs are mid-major schools. Yet the FCS is still Division 1 football, it has loyal followers, solid fan bases, fantastic coaches, great talent as more than 150 players got an NFL shot in 2022 (24 draft picks, 72 UDFA contracts, 72 rookie minicamp invites), the top 30ish FCS teams are stronger than the bottom 30ish FBS teams, and finally, the FCS has something that even a lot of FBS fans are jealous of: a 24-team playoff bracket to crown a national champ.
More specifically, to crown the official NCAA Division 1 football national champion.
The FCS is a great brand of football. It being a more niche level (we’re in our own CFB community here) and less money-driven is actually what makes it the most fun. And its playoff is something the subdivision hangs its hat on.
The bracket structure is far from perfect, something that has frustrated followers for years, but we’ve learned to deal with it. Most of the frustrations are the cost-saving measures the NCAA implements. Because the FCS playoffs don’t generate a lot of revenue due to a terrible TV deal and some poor attendance in the early rounds, the bracket only has eight seeds and is regionalized to save the NCAA travel costs. Programs submit bids to host when games feature two unseeded teams. And the NCAA takes 85% of the ticket revenue for all of these games. Due to these measures, the FCS playoff is one of a few NCAA-run postseason tournaments that does generate the NCAA a little revenue or at least allows them to break even.
But the criteria and guidelines the NCAA gives the FCS playoff committee to form the field results in the bracket not having a true national tourney feel. And more importantly, the entire selection process lacks transparency and consistency.
This has all reached a boiling point with the frustration from fans to media to ADs to commissioners on how the playoffs are structured.
Changes need to happen to bring credibility, and honestly excitement, back to the playoffs. Because right now, a lot of people have a sour taste in their mouths and are talking more about the playoff format than the actual playoff games.
It’s time FCS athletic directors and commissioners push, and push hard, for changes to the playoff structure. It is desperately needed, not only for the betterment of the coaches, players, and fans, but for the betterment of the subdivision as a whole.
Flaws Exploited In The 2022 Bracket
The controversy revolves around two decisions this year, but they shine a light on the flaws as a whole.
First, Montana being one of the last teams into the field could be argued either way on whether it deserved to get in or not. Usually, this happens every year with at-large bubble teams and who got in vs. who got left out. Nothing major there. But when playoff committee chair Jermaine Truax told Montana beat writer Lucas Semb that bids played a factor in the Griz getting a home game, it didn’t line up with what happened to another bubble team that was one of the last to get in the field — North Dakota.
This column originally stated that Truax said bids were one factor in the at-large selection process, but this tweet was later clarified that he was referring to the selection of first-round host sites.
Weber State got a first-round home game vs. North Dakota even though UND bid $127,500 to host compared to Weber’s bid of $41,683.50.
Now, the committee didn’t break any rules or create new rules by giving Weber the home game. The criteria when selecting who gets to host first-round games does include bid amount, but it also includes things like travel logistics, facilities, athlete experience, and performance. Truax told the Grand Forks Herald that the decision for Weber to get the home game was due to performance.
Weber was just outside of getting a seed and a first-round bye. The idea of the committee giving a team like Weber a home game for the first round and not just basing it on who gives the NCAA the most money is fine if you just boil it down as exactly that. The problem is the lack of consistency and breaking precedent. Giving teams home games based on bids is the objective approach the committee seems to have always taken. For this game, they took the subjective approach.
You can’t give Weber a home game over a UND team that bid higher and say it’s due to performance, and then give 7-4 Montana a home game on ESPN2 despite being one of the last teams in the field and having a 4-4 conference record due to its higher bid over a SEMO team who had a 9-2 record, won its conference, and actually owned a ranked win. You can’t talk about cost-saving measures when you leave more than $80K on the table to give a team a home game because you felt they were more deserving. The lack of consistency and deciding at random when to use subjective criteria (like performance) over objective criteria (bids) is when people question the credibility of a bracket that already has its warts.
If you want further proof that the committee has typically leaned toward bid amounts and not athlete experience or who deserved a home game more, there have been multiple examples in the past of a team hosting first-round games and the visiting team’s locker room was a big tent outside for goodness sake.
So some years you are ok with sticking a team in tents for a visiting locker room because the other team had a higher bid? But then this year you gave a team a home game based on performance and not the bid. But then this same year you gave one of the last teams in the field a home game because of their bid?
What are we doing here?
This is D1 football. While the casual football fan may not have a care in the world about the FCS playoffs, it means the world to the teams and fans involved. Schools still invest millions of dollars into football. Fans invest thousands. Playoff bids or playoff success is the difference between contract extensions. It’s the difference between coaches getting bonuses. It’s the difference between getting a senior at least one more game or ending their playing career. It’s getting at least one more piece of film for pro prospects against other top teams. This isn’t something you can just toy around with and pick and choose which criteria you want to use.
Don’t tell me you factor in athlete experience when you’ve had teams (UND being one) dress in tents in the humid south.
Don’t tell me you based a home game on performance when the last team in got a home game on national TV over a conference champ.
Don’t tell me you have to save travel costs when you shrugged off $80K to give another team a home game.
Let’s stop treating this like a Mickey-Mouse subdivision where there are moving goalposts every year in the selection process that leaves even the most hardcore FCS supporters pulling back on saying how awesome a 24-team bracket is.
And yes, I’m aware a lot of these athletic departments are basketball-first schools, which is why D1 split back in 1978 so D1-AA (now FCS schools) could sponsor D1 football without pouring ludicrous resources into football. But this is still a high level of college football that has produced some of the best current and past NFL players, and it should be treated as such.
This elementary way of forming what should be one of the best postseason tournaments in college sports is BS.
And most of it can be fixed with changes to the structure of the playoffs.
So What’s The Solution?
For starters, ADs and commissioners need to be in unison with any proposed changes.
I already have had a few ADs tell me they will no doubt be bringing this discussion to the table. And I know of a few forward-thinking commissioners who want to elevate the FCS nationally and not have it be stuck in its ways.
But it can’t be a half-hearted effort. You can’t have 60% of the commissioners asking for X change and 40% asking for Z change. To get approval for changes to NCAA championships, you need a unified pitch before it goes through multiple committees for approval, like the football oversight committee, the championship oversight committee, and the NCAA Council.
Of course, fans will say “just get rid of AQs and seed the best FCS teams 1-24.” Most NCAA-run postseason tournaments have auto-bids and some aspects of regionalization, though, so the FCS likely isn’t going to get an exception to this criteria.
So changes need to be realistic. But there is a happy medium between the current format and the perfect format.
Seeding 16 teams is a model that was actually being talked about by the commissioners last year around this time, whether that was 16 seeds in a 24-team bracket or in an expanded 28-team bracket. And that could work while still keeping some of the current criteria in place with some small adjustments.
- Seeds 1-8 get a first-round bye
- Seeds 9-16 get a first-round home game, but there is a standard bid to host. If you can’t or don’t want to bid the flat rate of whatever it would be, let’s say $55,000, then you may go on the road in the first round
- Teams 17-24 are matched up with seeds 9-16 for first-round games based on regionality to save travels costs
There will always be some subjectiveness when a group of people decides who should be in the field. But this is a more transparent and straightforward process that involves less subjectiveness compared to now, where the ever-changing committee membership and mindset result in year-to-year inconsistencies.
This model gets rid of potential shady decisions on who gets to host. And the NCAA still earns money through bids and saves money on travel costs.
A New Broadcasting Deal Should Help
Will a new media deal result in fewer cost-saving measures?
The deal the NCAA signed with ESPN in 2011 to broadcast a bulk of its postseason tournaments is awful – $34 million a year for the package of 29 events. Times have changed since 2011. The D1 women’s basketball tourney alone is now worth 3x that per year. This deal ends in August 2024, and WBB will likely be sold separately.
I do know conversations have begun on what sports will be unpackaged. I also know FCS commissioners would like the FCS playoffs to be unpackaged/sold separately. However, it’s ultimately the NCAA’s decision. There is the thought that the FCS will remain in the package because it does draw solid ratings compared to non-basketball tournaments. The NCAA may want to keep tournaments that draw good ratings (FCS, D1 baseball, D1 softball) in its package along with sports like wrestling, T&F, etc. to ensure a healthy bid to broadcast all of these tourneys.
But with ESPN broadcasting most of the bowl games, is there an appetite for a Fox Sports/FS1/FS2 to broadcast the FCS playoffs? Maybe. Maybe not. Again, the FCS isn’t a huge market, but the viewership isn’t a chump number either. Most of the FCS playoff games when on national TV and not ESPN+ are aired on ESPN2, drawing viewership ranging from 650K to over a million viewers. When games are on the more main networks like ESPN or ABC, they do really well even with a lack of marketing.
Last year’s NDSU vs. ETSU quarterfinal game on ESPN drew 1.77 million viewers. The 2019 NDSU vs. Illinois State quarterfinal game on ESPN drew 1.78 million. And later that 2019 season when ABC broadcasted the NDSU vs. JMU championship game instead of ESPN2, 2.68 million people watched the game compared to last year’s 1.32 million viewers who watched the NDSU vs. Montana State title game on ESPN2.
ESPN and ABC naturally will draw more eyeballs than ESPN2.
The ESPN-broadcasted games in the last two fall seasons of 1.77 and 1.78 million viewers were more than 11 bowl games that aired on ESPN in 2021.
You can’t tell me the NCAA can’t make more money on TV dollars from the FCS playoffs, whether that be within a new multi-sport package or a separate standalone FCS package, especially in today’s world of how valuable live sports are. A deal signed in 2011 that goes into 2024 for broadcasting sports was a bold but dumb strategy. The NCAA has missed out on huge chunks of money for multiple postseason tourneys, including the FCS playoffs and especially the D1 women’s basketball tournament.
Now, is this new deal, packaged or unpackaged, going to bring in enough dollars to distribute money to FCS conferences and teams in the playoffs? Maybe. That may be idealistic, though. What it certainly should do is allow the NCAA to ease up on cost-saving measures for the FCS bracket.
4.85 million viewers on ESPN watched last season’s D1 women’s basketball championship game. If that tournament alone is valued between $81 million and $112 million per year as a separate package, what is the FCS playoff worth when it can draw average viewership between 1.5 million to 2.5 million viewers on main networks? If the NCAA packages the FCS, D1 baseball, and D1 softball postseason tourneys together along with the other sports outside of D1 basketball, that has to be worth a heckuva lot more than the $34 million a year ESPN is currently paying.
Where does that increase in money go?
With more money, the NCAA should be able to ease up on the bidding process for hosting. It should be able to ease up on regionality criteria. And it should especially be able to stop eating an atrocious 85% of the ticket sales and actually allow teams to generate revenue and reward them for making deep playoff runs and playing at home.
Hell, here’s a wild idea.
Maybe monetize the playoffs more.
I know corporate sponsors may turn people off since that’s a bowl game thing. But what’s wrong with “the FCS championship game presented by Reese’s” or “the FCS semifinals presented by AT&T?” As long as you don’t put the word bowl in the name like “the FCS Championship Bowl,” getting more money and revenue into the FCS playoffs allows for fewer cost-saving measures. Less cost-saving measures allow for a better bracket structure. A better bracket structure could allow teams to individually generate more revenue with the NCAA reaching less into their pocket. And a better bracket structure brings more excitement for the playoffs.
Let’s face it, the overall health of the FCS and its future has been questioned over the last year. Not that this subdivision, or something resembling it in the D1 landscape, will go away.
But the question is who will be left in 10 years? 15 years?
The FCS continues to lose brand names to the FBS. The more that leave, the more the other brand names and bluebloods will question if this subdivision is right for them. And a flawed playoff system — not only in its selection process, but also in how it can cost teams money to be in the postseason when revenue has never been more important in college athletics — isn’t going to help the FCS hang on to teams with the best talent, the most engaged fans, and the best home atmospheres.
In a time where more brand names are leaving and likely several more at least positioning themselves for a potential move if the opportunity ever comes, improving the playoffs is a positive step in the right direction.
A new format with more consistency and transparency and is more financially-incentivizing makes this level more appealing than where it currently sits as the landscape shifts and programs eye any sort of increase in revenue.
I’ve often said the best way to grow FCS interest nationally isn’t to try and grab the attention of a bunch of casual college football fans. That’s an uphill battle. The best way is to get fans of one conference to engage with and pay attention to other conferences.
Having a 24-team bracket is a pretty damn good way of doing that when fans are paying attention to who will be seeded and what other bubble teams are doing. But when the online discourse the last two weeks is less about how awesome it is to have this many teams vying for a D1 football national title or about how there may be more championship contenders this year than usual … and it’s more about how the playoff system is broken, or conspiracy theories are being floated out, or even the comments from fans of key programs saying the FCS is turning into a joke … we’ve got problems.
The FCS has something special in the 24-team playoff. But it’s flawed. And it’s broken. It’s time leadership across the subdivision push for changes. If they don’t think this is an issue and they believe not enough people care about it for changes to happen, I suggest they talk to their coaches and the fans of their teams. Or just pay attention to social media.
If they are serious enough about realistic but vital changes being made, it can happen.
The FCS deserves it. And it needs it.