Pay-For-Flay: Why FBS-FCS Beatdowns Will Never Go Away
On the playground, bullies beat up weaklings in order to take their money; in college football, FBS teams give FCS teams money in order to beat them up.
Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
If you had Boston College beating tiny Howard University on Saturday, then congrats, your not at all bold prediction was correct. Howard, of the Football Championship Subdivision—the lower level of Division I—was absolutely no match for Boston College, of Division I's upper-tier Football Bowl Subdivision, losing 73-0.
Of course, Boston College isn't the only FBS program feasting on inferior FCS competition. So far this season, Georgia Tech has thumped Alcorn State (69-6), Ole Miss has thrashed Tennessee-Martin (76-3), Cal has seen Grambling State driven before it (73-14), and Clemson has heard the lamentations of Wofford's fan base (49-10)—and that's just Week 1. Year after year, most FBS teams will play at least one FCS team, which raises an obvious question: Why the hell are these teams playing each other in first place?
Technically speaking, FCS and FBS teams are in the same National Collegiate Athletic Association division, so their games against each other count for regular season standings and statistics. Only through the distorted lens of NCAA amateurism, however, are these teams actually peers.
Competitive balance does not exist among FBS teams, or even power conference teams, and it certainly does not exist among all of Division I. Howard is not getting the recruits New Mexico is getting. New Mexico is not getting the recruits Boston College is getting. Boston College is not getting the recruits Alabama is getting. And so on. In reality, for some semblance of parity, the Power Five conferences should probably only play each other, the Group of Five conferences should only play each other, and FCS teams should only play each other.
While the best FCS teams can beat mediocre Power Five teams from time to time—looking at you, North Dakota State—those groups are not in the same league, and top 10 FBS teams are 103-1 all time against the FCS (hi, Michigan).
So, back to our original question: Why do these games exist? Money. Money. Did I mention money? Every decision in college athletics comes down to money, not what's best for athletes or fans. And the FBS-FCS ritual sacrifices are no different.
FBS teams need home games, so in order to attract non-conference teams to play them, they will pay those schools "guarantees." The guarantee system goes all the way down the college sports ladder, and FCS teams will even pay schools that aren't really schools to come play them.
Guarantee fees often aren't cheap, but they're worth if for teams to get an extra home game's worth of ticket revenue. Payouts vary based on how prestigious the opponent is, and moneyed schools wind up paying a lot more for a team from the Mid-American Conference or the Sun Belt than they do a team from the FCS—often $300,000 to $500,000 more. For a business—and college teams are certainly businesses—that's not ideal, and for non-elite FBS teams the tradeoff to get a slightly more marketable opponent isn't worth the price tag of an additional few hundred thousand dollars.
Enter FCS schools, which are willing—nay, motivated—to get their asses kicked. Power Five schools often lie and say they aren't making money—they are—but sports can be a seriously expensive endeavor for FCS programs that don't have the fan bases or the huge TV deals that FBS programs do. Even the best FCS schools have problems making money. Northern Iowa, which has been an NCAA Tournament at-large team and a regular FCS football playoff contender in many years, can barely afford to fund its athletic department.
So UNI and schools like it make money by playing teams in their region, such as Iowa, Iowa State, and Wisconsin, making up to $600,000 on each game. Without those games, UNI would have to make massive athletics cuts, so it will gladly take a thumping (or even an occasional win!) in order to fund the rest of its season against teams at its level.
Starting next season, the Big Ten plans to ban its members from playing FCS teams. Will that become the norm for Power Five schools? Don't count on it. While the most elite of the Power Five teams would likely be OK with paying up for bottom-rung FBS teams rather than FCS guarantees—Notre Dame, UCLA, and USC already don't play FCS teams—the vast majority will continue scheduling FCS teams, arguing (somewhat correctly) that a bottom-rung Sun Belt team is just as bad as a top-rung FCS team. More important, FBS-FCS games make too much financial sense for everyone involved—which is why some Big Ten teams already have pushed back against the upcoming ban.
Barring a dramatic restructuring of the college sports economy, expect to see more beatdowns every September. The blowouts aren't personal—they're just business.