(The MAC is cited as a possibility)
I-A football could be coming
Ransdell says new BCS revenue might make move possible
By OJ Stapleton, email@example.com -- 270-783-3239
Friday, June 18, 2004
In an interesting move, the Sun Belt Conference presidents selected Western Kentucky President Gary Ransdell to represent the league in talks concerning the distribution of possible football money.
The Bowl Championship Series, which previously included only the top six Division I-A leagues, recently adopted a new formula which would give the five lower-tier conferences a piece of the multimillion dollar pie.
The six original BCS members – the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Southeastern Conference, the Big Ten, the Big 12, the Big East and the PAC 10 – will each get one share (about 9 percent) of the total revenue created by the various bowl games. The other five conferences – Conference USA, the Mountain West Conference, the Western Athletic Conference, the Mid-American Conference and the Sun Belt – will each split one share evenly.
“This is not some huge windfall,” Ransdell said. “This might mean a few hundred thousand dollars to a Sun Belt school rather than a few million dollars to a BCS school.”
About 85 percent of the BCS money comes from the television contract with ABC, while the remaining 15 percent is generated by ticket sales and other forms of revenue.
Another recent decision made it easier for a school from the bottom five leagues to earn a berth in one of the four BCS bowls. Under the current rules, the lower five leagues would have had three members in a BCS game in the past five years – Tulane in 1998, TCU in 2002 and Miami of Ohio last year.
“Because of that, you have to think that those five leagues would have a shot,” Ransdell said.
That’s where Ransdell comes into play.
If the bottom five conferences get a school into one of the BCS bowls, they would get an additional share of the total revenue.
It’s not yet been decided how that final share would be divided up, but Ransdell will represent the Sun Belt in a coalition of presidents from the five leagues.
“Conference USA and the Mountain West will probably be fighting for a winner-take-all type of situation,” Ransdell said. “It’ll be an interesting negotiation when that comes up in the months ahead.
“The league of the school that gets into the BCS game will get a larger percentage. It won’t be 100 percent – that’s where the negotiation comes in.”
On the surface, WKU has nothing to gain because it does not currently play Division I-A football.
“Why would they put me on that coalition when the only issue is football?,” Ransdell said. “I think that the (SBC) presidents feel that I have the most to gain by fighting for the best possible share of additional revenue, because the Sun Belt is pressing Western to join in all sports.”
That additional revenue, Ransdell said, could be enough to get Western Kentucky to make the jump to Division I-A.
“We have declined up to now until the revenue variables are clear and those variables reduce our loss margin as a I-AA participant,” Ransdell said. “In other words, we currently bring in a few hundred thousand in football and we spend $1.7 or $1.8 million. We lose over $1 million a year on football.”
The extra money Western Kentucky stands to gain could significantly reduce the Hilltoppers’ football deficit.
“There are a lot of uncertainties,” Ransdell said. “Short of the BCS variable, we can’t reduce that margin. Perhaps with a BCS variable, such a move would allow us to be more financially sound with football.”
Ransdell said if WKU decides to get into I-A football, it will be a totally financial decision. If the numbers look more favorable than Western’s current status in I-AA, then the Toppers will likely move up.
The move will be made possible because the Sun Belt became a I-A conference in 2000 with the additions of New Mexico State, North Texas, Idaho and later Utah State.
“If we had not done the things out West with New Mexico State, Idaho and Utah State, we would not be in this position right now,” SBC commissioner Wright Waters said.
Since that time, New Mexico State, Utah State and Idaho have moved on to the WAC while Troy, Florida International and Florida Atlantic have moved up to take their place.
However, there’s more to Western’s move than just money and having an immediate conference home.
The NCAA currently requires I-A members to average 15,000 in attendance. That means Western Kentucky would need to substantially increase its fan base.
WKU averaged just 10,124 fans at home games last season after winning the I-AA national championship in 2002.
“Making the move because you want to be something is not enough. This decision will be made for financial reasons,” Ransdell said. “If it is made, though, I want to make sure it also brings the enthusiasm from our fans to make it a big, exciting opportunity.”
There are no guarantees that playing in the Sun Belt for football would be an exciting prospect for WKU fans.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or a football guru to measure the performance of the 11 I-A leagues and see that the Sun Belt is ranked 11th,” Ransdell said. “Our football team at Western for the past three years – if you at the Sagarin ratings – we would have been the first, second or third best team in the Sun Belt.”
And if the Western Kentucky administration decides that the Sun Belt Conference is not the right home for I-A football, there aren’t a lot of other options.
“By the process of elimination, we’re not going to join the WAC or the Mountain West,” Ransdell said. “Those two will never be factors and Conference USA is so unstable plus we don’t want to get in that arms race where we have to keep up with facilities at universities in large urban settings. That’s not a competition we want to be in.”
Conference USA has several large schools in metropolitan areas like Memphis, Tulane (New Orleans) and Cincinnati.
The only other conference that would offer Western a possible home is the MAC.
“For all the reasons that are important to us, if another option we to come under discussion, (the MAC) would likely be it,” Ransdell said. “We’ll just have to wait and see what the future holds.”
The MAC is largely comprised of large regional state universities in relatively small towns.
Current MAC members include Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan, Central Michigan, Ball State, Bowling Green State, Kent State, Ohio, Toledo, Miami of Ohio, Northern Illinois, Akron and Buffalo.
But Ransdell isn’t about to write off the Sun Belt yet.
There are still some possibilities that would make the Sun Belt a much better long-term option for the Hilltoppers.
It all centers around former SBC member Louisiana Tech.
Tech jumped from the league in 2001 to join the WAC. Currently it is the only league member in the Central time zone.
“I think Louisiana Tech needs to be back in the Sun Belt,” Ransdell said. “They have no business being in the WAC. I didn’t think they should have made the decision to leave the conference a few years ago. It made little sense then and it makes less sense now.”
If Tech decides that the Sun Belt is once again where it needs to be, that would help the league.
“If that were to happen and Denver finds a Western home … if those two things happen, we would have an interesting mix in the Sun Belt,” Ransdell said.
For many sports – including basketball – that would make a 12-team league where everyone had a logical travel partner.
WKU would have Middle Tennessee. Arkansas State would be with Arkansas-Little Rock. New Orleans would be paired with Louisiana-Lafayette. South Alabama and Troy would be together and Louisiana Tech and North Texas would make up the final pair.
“Everybody makes sense with a Thursday-Saturday game in basketball or any of the sports in that scenario,” Ransdell said.
But that is easier said than done.
“I don’t think that is going to happen,” Waters said. “Louisiana Tech has given us no indication that they will do anything other than stay in the WAC.”
Denver’s days in the league may be numbered.
“I don’t think it’s any secret that it may be hard for Denver to stay in a league that is predominantly in the Southeast,” Waters said. “We have always said that Denver will always have a home as long as they want it. I just don’t know how long they will be able to stay in though.”