| March 22, 2018

Column: It’s not about ability

January 12, 2017

After the Idaho football team finished the season 9-4 with a bowl-game win, the outrage over Idaho’s move to the Football Champion Subdivision (FCS) began anew.

Some fans even started a petition to keep Idaho at the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) level, to be delivered to Idaho Governor Butch Otter, UI President Chuck Staben and the State Board of Education. I’m all for the people’s right to demand redress from their government, but I don’t think this is what the founding fathers had in mind when they created the Constitution.

This FCS/FBS change is a hard thing to understand and I don’t mean to sound condescending — it really is a difficult problem with a million moving parts. Only now, almost a year later, do I understand the importance and significance of this move.

It’s important to remember that Idaho isn’t moving down because the Vandals aren’t able to compete at the FBS level. Clearly, the program is turning around and that’s great.

However, the most important reason Idaho is making the historical move down is money.

The Idaho Athletic Department simply cannot compete with FBS-level budgets.

According to data gathered by USA TODAY Sports and Indiana University’s National Sports Journalism Center, only 24 of 230 public schools stand on their own. This means the athletic departments make more money than it they spends every year.

Texas’ total operating expenses clocked in at $154.1 million and reported giving $9.7 million back to the university.

Big Ten member Michigan has the largest college football stadium. “The Big House” seats over 100,000 people ­— significantly more than the Kibbie Dome.

Michigan fills the stadium because the program has had consistent, nationwide success over many, many years. And Michigan is located in a bigger city, with almost 115,000 residents, a community college and a 45-minute drive to Detroit. This is an area well suited to support such a large scale football production.

Moscow, however, is not.

Spokane is almost two hours away. It’s six hours to Seattle and Portland, and even longer to Boise. Add four hours and drivers will hit Salt Lake City. All of these locations are perfect for hosting an FBS-level football program.

Washington State, despite its humble location, can draw crowds upwards of 30,000 because of its Pac-12 conference affiliation. The Cougars have had rough years, but they are known for a moderate level of success, and fans do love watching a win. So many are willing to make the drive out to Pullman for a game.

I’ve always felt more camaraderie between coug fans because of the level of football success. Idaho doesn’t have this. Vandal fans have found that bond in losing, in being painfully bad, which doesn’t foster the same amount of school pride.

The Kibbie Dome seats 16,000.

Idaho fans bought almost all 6,000 of the team’s allotted tickets for the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. That’s just a little over half of the Dome’s capacity and the Vandals were playing in a major metropolitan area. Granted, the area leans a little more blue — blue and orange that is.

As it stands, the Vandals were still falling short of filling the Dome. The 2016 Homecoming game against Troy Oct. 1 saw just over 13,000 attendees. However, the Vandals game against South Alabama on Nov. 26 had barely 9,000 spectators.

The season opener Sept. 1 against Montana State held about 11,000 people, with a sizeable visitor cheering section. This game was on a Thursday — but imagine how many people would be in attendance if this game was on a Saturday.

And when the Vandals play Eastern Washington, it’s probably safe to say many students and fans will make the trek, just an hour and a half drive, to watch the game. Having visiting fans in seats will give Idaho extra revenue that can’t be attained when opponents are regions away.

Not to mention, the Idaho football team could see a decrease in travel expenses, with much shorter plane rides to regional locations.

Plus, I must admit, I much prefer the Eagles’ red turf to the blue mess at Boise State.

Which brings me to the Mountain West. After Idaho’s bowl win, head coach Paul Petrino said, because Idaho went 2-0 against Mountain West teams, the Vandals would “look good” in that conference.

It’s great the Vandals beat both Mountain West teams they played this year, but I think it’s a little too soon to say Idaho would be able to compete with a moderate level of success in the Mountain West.

This move to the FCS is about financial stability, but it also offers an added bonus — a moderate to high level of success. It’s no guarantee, there are plenty of strong Big Sky teams that will provide Idaho with a challenge.

The Big Sky Conference will give Idaho a chance to challenge itself on the field, while keeping the financial pressures at a minimum.

In a time where deficits are growing and schools are unable to keep up with the pressure of maintaining competitive FBS status, I’m so proud to be a Vandal. I’m proud that my university is taking a stand and putting education and institutional financial stability before athletics.

Tess Fox can be reached at arg-sports@uidaho.edu or on Twitter @tesstakesphotos

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  1. The conference and direction is less about money than it is about the lies and deception in the process by President Staben. Check out FireChuckStaben.org to see examples of the incompetence.

  2. Alumnus and Former Donor

    The problem is not that the University can’t keep up financially. The problem is that the University is unwilling to keep up financially. When a school can raise over a quarter billion dollars in the largest capital campaign in state history, it has fundraising ability to compete with our peer institutions.

    Moreover, this column displays three hallmarks of poor journalism and questionable ethics: Half truths, selective facts and omitted facts.

    A: Half truth: Idaho only sold 6,000 tickets to the Potato Bowl. Technically, but the rest of the fans bought tickets through other vendors because the University didn’t put an effort in to be responsive, encouraging or competitive. Did you bother to investigate?

    B: Selective facts: Any program looks poor compared to Texas, which is the largest and most profitable program in the country. Even comparing the programs is absurd and calls the entire piece into question. Furthermore, this column entirely ignores the impact of President Staben’s demoralizing decision on attendance and financial support. Did you review the decision’s impact on booster support?

    C: Omitted facts: FOIA requests revealed that no meaningful financial analysis was ever performed and that a substantial majority of alumni communication staunchly opposed FBS, directly contrary to representations by President Staben. In fact, President Staben made several substantial misrepresentations, some of which were called into question by alumni. Do you have the chops to speak to that?

    If you want to grow into a credible journalist, stop writing to please the President and start writing to address the truth of the matter. Find the real story and report it objectively. Otherwise, you’ll slip into the sad role of media hack or worse, complacent mouthpiece.