For Northern Iowa to jump into the Football Bowl Subdivision, the school would have to invest significantly more money into its football program.
According to financial numbers supplied by the school to The Gazette via state open-records law, Northern Iowa’s football program earned about $2.54 million in fiscal year 2011. That’s less than half what the program would have needed to reach the midpoint ($5.86 million) of the Mid-American Conference that year, the most likely — and geographically preferable — landing spot for UNI in football.
But Northern Iowa, a current Football Championship Subdivision school, could recover much of that investment based on game guarantees from major conference schools. UNI received $300,000 from Iowa State during the 2010 season. This year, Northern Iowa earns $950,000 in guarantees from Iowa and Wisconsin. That number likely soars if the Panthers were an bowl subdivision member.
Iowa, for instance, paid Louisiana-Monroe $1.05 million last year. This year, the Hawkeyes are paying Central Michigan $875,000.
“The very thing is guarantees double,” UNI Athletics Director Troy Dannen. “I’m adding language that if Northern Iowa is an FBS school, that we revisit and get to the market rate on the guarantee before the game. Theoretically if we’re doing $950,000 this year in our two guarantees as an FBS school, that could be closer to $2 million.
BELOW CHART BASED ON 2011 FISCAL YEAR
“You look at the additional revenue to make the move, the additional guarantee and perhaps even an third, and perhaps shares from a playoff series, it may well be worth the increased financial investment.”
Membership as an FBS football-only member could generate more revenue for UNI. In fiscal year 2011, the MAC earned $1 million from television revenues and $2.7 million from the Bowl Championship Series, according to its tax return. The Missouri Valley Football Conference — which is different from the MVC — raked in $737,814 that year.
In 2014, college football will institute a four-team playoff expected to generate between $500-600 million annually. While high-major conference schools like Iowa and Iowa State could earn $5 million or more, lower-level FBS schools could see payouts of perhaps $1 million apiece.
There are a few stumbling blocks to any potential transition. FBS schools must average 15,000 fans in paid or actual home attendance over a two-year cycle. Last year Northern Iowa averaged 13,189 — 23rd in FCS. FBS schools must play host to five FBS schools each year. A school can count only one neutral site home game — Northern Illinois at Soldier Field, for instance — as a home game for either requirement.
FBS schools must either spend $4 million or offer 200 athletics scholarships. In the 2011 fiscal year, UNI spent $3.32 million and offered 170 scholarships. For football, FBS schools must offer at least 90 percent (76.5) of the permissible maximum scholarships (85). For the 2011 fiscal year, UNI offered 56.5 scholarships with the FCS maximum of 63.
Dannen emphasized that he’s neither made a decision or contacted any conference about membership. But any move to FBS would necessitate a conference affiliation in football, Dannen said. No matter what happens with football, UNI would maintain its ties in all other sports with the Missouri Valley Conference.
“There’s certainly no conference out there that has said, ‘We want Northern Iowa to be a member,’” Dannen said. “Frankly, no matter what we do, that will have to be the case at some point in time. We’re certainly not at the point where we’re ready to go out and ask conferences if they’re interested in Northern Iowa.
“Perhaps as many as 10 FCS schools are either making the move next year or are at least actively discussing it and probably 50 are discussing internally.”
Northern Iowa is one of several schools contemplating or completing the move from FCS to FBS. Massachusetts, Texas State, Texas-San Antonio and South Alabama moved up this year. Old Dominion and Charlotte will join Conference USA in 2015. Liberty, Georgia Southern and Appalachian State also have FBS plans.
“I’m not far enough down the line to know specifically what the additional costs would be, other than the fact that it is worth exploring at this point in time,” Dannen said, “so as to ensure that we’re in the right place for UNI in 3-5 years. If it’s cost-prohibitive, that will impact the decision.”