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UConn football making strides in the quest for successful FBS independence

It might not always be easy, but so far being an FBS independent seems like a better option than going down to FCS.

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Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

In less than a month, UConn will be back where it belongs, in the Big East. When this news broke a little less than year ago, Huskies fan were ecstatic, to put it lightly. Basketball was going to flourish and other sports would benefit greatly as well. But no one, maybe even including athletic director David Benedict, knew what would play out with football.

During that time, there were three options for what to do with the program: Find a football-only conference membership, go independent, or drop down to the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS).

Finding a new football-only home never seemed very feasible. Neither UConn nor any of the other mid-major conferences had a lot to gain from partnering up. That left the FCS or FBS independence.

With the way the program is going (6-30 in the second Randy Edsall era) and the way the athletic department is running, with a massive deficit and some of the highest student fees in the country, many thought the logical choice was for UConn to drop down to FCS and save some cash. On paper, it makes some sense — coaches, facilities, travel aren’t as expensive, and while football has a fanbase, it may stay just as large to support an FCS program playing a regional schedule. UConn is a “basketball school” anyway.

But it isn’t that simple. As conference realignment guru Matt Brown often points out, the savings from dropping to FCS would normally be seen in the long run anyways — that’s where the cost of cheaper coaches, facilities and bringing in more tuition-paying students instead of scholarship athletes starts to pay off.

And that’s what makes university presidents and athletic directors so hesitant to even consider a move down. The people that have to make this decision — the athletic director, president and so on — almost never last long enough to get credit for the potential benefits. They only get the blowback.

Since 1978, there’s only been one school to move from FBS to FCS — Idaho. The Vandals announced the decision four seasons ago.

Things are... not going so great out there.

The Athletic’s Chris Vannini checked in with Idaho recently as the program enters its third season at the FCS level. On the field, things haven’t gotten any better, with the Vandals going 9-14 in their first two seasons. Off the field, things are even worse.

Vannini cited an Idaho Press report that the football program has already lost roughly 50 percent of its revenue from donations and ticket sales since dropping down. While it’s still too early to say whether they saved or lost money due to this move, they’re trending in the wrong direction more than two years in.

UConn, a school with a $40 million athletic department deficit, could certainly benefit from saving some money. There’s a chance if things change, you never know, UConn could close that deficit by dropping to FCS. But with the way FBS football operates now, the Huskies can make more money and keep interest in a program playing at the game’s highest level.

According to the Knight Commission financial database, even FBS programs that are hot garbage, like Kent State and Eastern Michigan in this case, as Vannini pointed out, pulled in roughly $3.4 million in 2018 from “distributions, media rights and postseason football.” FCS powerhouses like James Madison and North Dakota State University made no more than $1.7 million.

That’s a sizable drop from the bottom of the FBS to the top of FCS. For UConn, which pulled in 10.98 million in revenue in that same category in 2018, the drop would be much more noticeable.

Knight Commission on intercollegiate athletics

On top of this, remaining at the FBS level leaves the door open for lucrative buy games. While FCS schools still fetch a pretty penny to show up and get beat down by FBS schools — Brown estimated they usually run around $500,000 — FBS buy games pay significantly better.

Moreover, an FBS school that isn’t bound by conference schedules, UConn can command good sums and has already done so. Outside of the buy game already on the schedule against Clemson for $1.2 million in 2021, Benedict landed a $1.8 million buy game at Michigan in 2022 and a $1.95 million game against Ohio State. Former conference rival UCF is keeping the #conFLiCT alive and paying $1 million to UConn for the privilege.

This past week, there’s been some reporting, also from The Athletic, that two teams lining up games with UConn have a clause in their contracts that allows them to back out if the Huskies do eventually drop down to FCS. While it’s interesting that some athletic directors around the sport think that UConn might eventually reconsider dropping down, UConn has 13 total power five games scheduled already. The scheduled games are safe.

As long as Benedict is at the helm, FBS football is going to be the plan, it seems. He told The Athletic the money to be made at the top level outweighs hypothetical long term savings at FCS.

“If you’re at FCS, you’re not going to be able to get guarantee games that are going to pay you $1.5 to $2 million annually,” Benedict said. “You’re not going to get a national linear digital television contract. You’re not going to be able to schedule home and homes with Syracuse and BC and North Carolina, North Carolina State, Indiana, Illinois and there’s a bunch more to come. None of that would happen.”

Benedict is right. UConn has a strong enough brand and fan support for an FBS team, it will just need to keep being creative to make independence work. But the important thing to remember is that basketball and all other sports are in the Big East and they have a new deal coming as well. Plus, UConn is going to have instant savings on travel. Playing big name, or regionally relevant, schools should help boost attendance numbers and ticket sales, too.

All of this won’t close the $40 million, but it’s a significant step in the right direction to get the department back on track and get the football program moving in the right direction. Recruiting seems to have picked up in a positive way with some momentum from the recent announcements of games and a TV deal.

For Benedict, the biggest hurdle to independent life was the 2020 schedule. He cleared that with flying colors. UConn also recently locked up a TV deal that helps out the cause. With that out of the way and numerous big name opponents lined up for years to come, Benedict has given the football program a fresh start.

Now what will Randy Edsall do with it?