Western Kentucky University and Troy University feel the same way about joining the Division I-A football ranks — the benefits are vast and the money was relatively easy to raise.
And for Troy, the publicity has been unimaginable and otherwise unaffordable.
Troy officials believe a regular-season home win over Missouri in 2004 garnered more nationwide exposure than the combined coverage awarded to Georgia Southern for its first four Division I-AA national titles. That’s what Troy assistant athletic director Scott Farmer, who worked in GSU’s athletic department for nearly two decades from 1982-99, said.
Moving to I-A has been a hot topic among Georgia Southern fans for decades, most recently gaining speed with SouthernFACTS.org, a Web site designed to gauge support for a move. Eagle athletic director Sam Baker has indicated the school is not interested in pursuing a move to I-A at this time.
Western Kentucky, an 18,645-student school in Bowling Green, Ky., announced plans to jump from I-AA (Football Championship Subdivision) to the highest level of college football (Football Bowl Subdivision) last fall. The Hilltoppers will join the Sun Belt Conference and begin playing I-A football in 2009. Troy, a 28,000-student Sun Belt school based in Troy, Ala., became a full-fledged I-A member in the fall of 2002.
The four basic requirements for I-A membership are: offer a minimum of 200 scholarships, sponsor 16 varsity sports, schedule five I-A home games annually and average an attendance of 15,000 every other year. A previous requirement of having at least a 30,000-seat stadium has been eliminated.
For WKU and Troy, the decision to make the jump was a pretty much a no-brainer. It required plenty of hard work, a lot of planning and an understanding of today’s reality that sports are a school’s front porch. Here’s a look at a few issues the universities dealt with along the way:
Why move to I-A?
Western Kentucky AD Wood Selig said there are at least a dozen reasons why his university decided to make the jump. The Hilltoppers felt the timing was right with regard to NCAA governance, which lets I-A programs make the call on most issues, Selig said.
“The power and decision-making we felt was being conducted at the I-A level,” he said. “When you look at the management structure of the NCAA, those who control the majority of the vote are the I-A conferences and the I-A institutions.
“We felt we could either be outside of the room that is shaping and dictating policy, or we could take a seat at the table inside the room by being a I-A member institution. We felt like, for our future, we wanted to be inside the room shaping policy, not outside the room being dictated to.”
Selig compares athletic conferences to neighborhoods and points out, “You are known by the neighborhood in which you reside.”
“We felt that the I-A neighborhood was a high-profile neighborhood that would help elevate our stature not only athletically, but also academically with residual benefits of a new peer group, a peer group that includes the Michigans, the Stanfords, the Notre Dames and the North Carolinas,” he said. “We felt like that was a neighborhood and a peer group that we certainly respected, and we felt being included among that group as an equal was advantageous for the institution as a whole.”
For Troy, the jump was seen as a marketing tool, and its Board of Trustees voted in favor of elevating football from I-AA to I-A in June 1998.
“They did it to better market the university as a whole,” Farmer said. “We wanted to be associated with the I-A institutions.”
If Western Kentucky’s move is successful, Selig hopes it’ll mean “a world of difference” for the school’s image and profile. Playing I-A football elevates the stature of the entire athletic department, he said. Although the I-AA classification is only for football, schools like WKU say its other athletic programs are mistaken for Division II.
“Even knowledgeable sports fans get confused,” Selig said. “You are trying to pump up all your other programs, and they are being held back in many instances by the football classification. We feel this is going to be positive impact for the university’s image and national profile for all 20 of our programs, not just football.”
At Troy, the Trojans have already felt positive impacts associated with playing I-A football, perhaps most notably the increased media exposure.
“Beating Mississippi State in 2001 was bigger than any one of (GSU championship) wins, and playing at Nebraska in’ 01, just walking out there in that 89,000 sea of red, just playing them was more media exposure than winning the I-AA national championship,” Farmer said.
He has no doubt moving up was the best thing for Troy.
“I-A athletics has been a significant factor in changing the whole image of Troy,” Farmer said. “We have changed our brand, and I-A football has been a huge vehicle in that. Our enrollment has gone up steadily since we have made this move, which goes all the way back to marketing — which is why the Board of Trustees voted to go.”
Moving to I-A means finding a conference that suits, particularly geographically. WKU and Troy are both members of the Sun Belt, a bottom-tier I-A football league.
The Hilltoppers, currently in the Sun Belt for all sports except men’s soccer and football, were being pressured by the league to join at all levels. Because WKU is already a Sun Belt member, the school won’t have to fund increased travel costs of its other sports teams.
“We were fortunate in one regard that we had a I-A conference that we could immediately compete in and schedule within,” Selig said.
Joining I-A without guaranteed membership in conference is extremely risky mainly because it’s nearly impossible to secure the required five I-A home games.
“The only way we would have made the move was to already be in a I-A conference,” Selig said. “Unless you are Notre Dame or maybe Army and Navy, you are not going to be able to routinely schedule the number of home games you need to meet that particular I-A requirement unless you are in a conference.
“By our virtue of being in the Sun Belt Conference, we already had one of the trickiest elements to transition to I-A, that being the scheduling component. That made it a whole lot easier for our Board of Regents to vote to transition, knowing that we were already in a I-A league.”
Prior to joining the Sun Belt, Troy competed in the Southland Conference for football and the Atlantic Sun for every other sport. So moving to the Sun Belt meant an increase in the athletic department’s travel budget, but not much, Farmer said.
“There were some travel-cost changes, but in the grand scheme of an entire athletic budget, you are talking around a one-percent increase,” Selig said. “You are not talking a lot of money. For all 16 sports, honestly, there was only about a $100,000 difference.
“The cost of moving to I-A for high-level I-AA schools —like Georgia Southern is and Troy, Marshall and Central Florida were — is 22 scholarships and that’s it. The biggest obstacle that a school faces today is you must have five I-A home games. Other than that, it was easier today than when we did it.”
Raising the money
Most things come down to money, and for both WKU and Troy, raising the funds to finance the move wasn’t much of a problem.
Western Kentucky is in the process of raising its football budget from around $2.3 million to approximately $5 million over the next five years, Selig said. A sizable chunk of the money came from a $70 increase in student fees, which will generate $2.3 million. The school also added a club level to its stadium, featuring 800 seats going for $750 per year. Those alone will generate $600,000 in new revenue.
The perception and prestige associated with being I-A is beneficial when it comes to “money games” because I-A programs get much bigger paychecks than their I-AA counterparts.
“Previously, our guarantees were in the $200,000-$300,000 range for a game,” Selig said. “Now, we just signed a contract to play Nebraska in 2010 for $800,000. (Being I-A) you increase by half a million the amount of revenue you can generate for a guarantee game.”
For those of you keeping track at home, that’s almost $4 million in new revenue the Hilltoppers generated through higher student fees, new stadium seats and better guarantees before they’d increased season ticket sales and added more corporate partners, private supporters and endowments.
“We just felt that the higher profile would help us generate additional revenue,” said Selig, who is preparing a major financial announcement for this summer. Because it’s still in the works, Selig isn’t ready to comment but said the opportunities wouldn’t have materialized if WKU had not decided to jump divisions.
“They’ll be big-time announcements that can certainly justify the move from I-AA to I-A,” he said.
While there are no guarantees, I-A can provided an opportunity to bring in more revenue, Farmer said. For example, the Trojans are getting $500,000 guarantees from Georgia, Florida and Arkansas and $800,000 from Ohio State.
“Those numbers are almost twice as high as I-AA schools get,” he said. “Also, sponsors want to be associated with Division I-A football, you have an opportunity for greater ticket sales and your fans want to compete against the best competition.”
Along with the guarantees, Farmer said the Trojans are bringing in significantly more money from every source —donations, seat licenses, sky boxes and corporate sales — than they ever did during their I-AA days. Booster contributions have at least doubled since the jump, he said.
Troy also had an influx of money thanks to 27 new luxury boxes sold for $16,000 a year for five years and two additional boxes, which sold for $30,000 a year for five years.
Title IX issues
Also playing a major role in WKU’s decision to make the jump was the fact the university had fallen out of compliance with Title IX, a landmark legislation focusing on equal opportunities for women.
Western Kentucky was offering a disproportionate amount of scholarship aid to its women student-athletes, meaning money going to women was a higher percent than what was being awarding to men. The Office of Civil Rights asked the school to rectify the situation and increase its support for male student-athletes.
WKU needed between 20-25 more men’s scholarships to become Title IX compliant, so funding the additional 22 football scholarships required for I-A programs was the perfect way to resolve the discrepancy, Selig said. I-AA teams can offer up to 63 scholarships, while I-A programs get 85.
Troy was already Title IX compliant and wasn’t affected by the addition of 22 football scholarships.
Setting the stage
Selig views moving to I-A as a natural evolution for Western Kentucky athletics. In the years leading up to Board of Regents’ approval of the jump, the school kept a close eye on conference landscapes, NCAA governance and the rules for I-A membership.
The school had already committed to a complete overhaul to its stadium (expansion to 25,000 seats), a $35-million renovation independent of its athletic budget.
“We had the stadium, we had the conference, we had had success with the 2002 national championship (and 10 straight winning seasons) at the I-AA level,” Selig said. “All the factors were lining up and spoke to it being the right time to make that transition from I-AA to I-A.”
Those components included backing from the school’s brass.
“We had a very supportive president and a very supportive board who really felt that the additional expense to compete at the highest football level was more than outweighed by the all the positives that would be gained by that level of competition,” Selig said.
The Hilltoppers also had fundraising success, including several recent million-dollar gifts.
“We felt like our community was really almost begging for the move to I-A, and we felt like the community would step up and support it,” said Selig, who traveled with the school’s president to talk with various alumni groups. They also spoke to the students, which voted in favor of an increase in student fees.
“They felt like it would be a huge asset to their experience as a college student to have I-A football, so they voted for it,” Selig said.
WKU’s staff also voted in favor of the move but the faculty did not.
“I’d be surprised if any faculty in America would vote for use of funds for college athletics as opposed to other areas within the university,” said Selig, who consulted the lettermen’s club and the current football team and coaching staff.
“We met with just about any constituent who had any kind of vested interest in our athletic future and kind of gauged their pulse on our move,” Selig said. “We didn’t want to ramrod it through.
“We wanted to make sure everybody had a say and that their opinions were heard. And if they had anything to say that could be helpful for us in the transition or something that we could benefit from, we wanted to make sure that we were not unmindful of that.”
Planning also included analyzing programs that made the move prior to Western Kentucky.
“We are the 19th (school to make the jump) in 21 years, so it averages almost one per year,” Selig said. “I’ve talked to just about every single school that has made the jump and the athletic directors and found out what they did, how they did it, what they did right and what they thought they did wrong. Then we prepared our own model that we felt would hopefully guarantee us a successful transition.”
WKU is currently working its way through the progression but has been pleased with its decision to move up, Selig said. After the school publicized plans to jump but before it announced its 2006 schedule, 3,500 new season tickets were sold, and as of May three businesses had purchased 500 new season tickets each for the fall.
Over in Alabama, Troy officials rest easy knowing they made the right decision for the university.
“It is better today for the entire student-athlete at Troy that it’s ever been,” Farmer said.