James Madison University Athletics, as part of its strategic planning process, hired CarrSports Consulting to study the university’s current intercollegiate conference affiliation and the feasibility of potential changes. On October 4, 2013, results of the study were publicly released so that members of the university community both on and off campus could participate in a dialogue about the issue, which continues. No final decisions have been made, and the university continues to gather information and to analyze all possible scenarios. For example, following up on conversations with various university constituencies, the university is gathering information from donors about the potential impact of a change in conference affiliation on fundraising.
During this dialogue, additional questions about the future of the university’s conference affiliation have been raised. Continuing in the spirit of open dialogue established when the administration publicly released the report, below is a set of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) to further understanding of decisions that may face the university.
Why is the university studying this issue now?
JMU is in the midst of a major strategic planning process guided by the Madison Future Commission. Intercollegiate Athletics is looking carefully at its future just as all units on campus must during this process.
Reflecting on the historic role of intercollegiate athletics at JMU, the university has grown and evolved significantly since it helped form the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) in 1985. Given also that the composition of the CAA and the landscape in intercollegiate athletics overall has become dynamic, studying the issue of affiliation now is the responsible thing to do.
Most critically, by studying the issue now, the university has time to be thorough in its review and to conduct a community dialogue before considering any potential change in conference affiliation. On many campuses, an offer to change divisions will come, and such a decision will be made quickly, unilaterally and without a campus dialogue. At JMU we believe such a strategic decision should be made thoughtfully and with consideration of the various constituencies and perspectives in the university community. That is the responsible thing to do and why the university is studying the issue now.
In considering a potential move to Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), what are some of the primary factors influencing such a decision?
First and foremost is academic fit. The university is not interested in making such a switch at the expense of the excellent academic culture we have worked so hard to create at JMU. Any conference that JMU might join would have to fit our academic profile.
Related to the central importance of academics, competitive faculty and staff compensation continues to be the top priority for JMU. The university will continue its efforts to develop budget models under any scenario that reflect this priority. As state support for higher education fell dramatically over the last twenty years the university’s efforts to compensate for losses in public funding focused mainly on tuition.
Over the past decade, the university has made a concerted effort to keep increases in fees well below the level of tuition increases to balance the overall costs to students. Tuition is used mainly to support academics, whereas student fees support everything else (including athletics). Going forward the university will focus on a multi-faceted approach that includes enhanced private fundraising as well as continued advocacy for public funding.
Second is that any move would have to make sense financially. Ultimately, it is the university’s goal to reduce reliance on student fees to fund intercollegiate athletics. It’s important to note that this past September the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) of Virginia released its “Review of Non-Academic Services and Costs at Virginia's Public Four-Year Higher Education Institutions.” A detailed analysis of the costs and funding sources of intercollegiate athletics at all public colleges and universities in the state was included in this report. The two university athletic programs with the lowest reliance on student fees both belong to FBS conferences (U.Va. and Virginia Tech).
The continued success of our student-athletes and continued role of athletics as a responsible member of our campus community also is critical. We are committed to the full integration of athletics with academics and to strong academic oversight for our athletics program—which has been one of its hallmarks.
Finally, as has been stated repeatedly, an essential prerequisite for any potential move is an invitation from an athletic conference—which the university does not have at the present time. To believe or insist that the move to another division is somehow a “done deal” is to ignore this fundamental reality. Contrary to some rumors that apparently have been circulated, no plan exists for a decision to be made at the January 2014 Board of Visitors meeting.
What does the decision process look like?
So far, the decision process looks quite different than it does at most universities. As part of the larger Madison Future Commission process, Athletics is conducting a thoughtful and open process to decide its future. By asking an outside expert such as CarrSports to examine its current situation, and then asking the university community to react to that examination, JMU has taken an unprecedented step toward openness in intercollegiate athletics.
Also, moving to another conference is a decision that JMU simply cannot make on its own; an invitation to a conference is required first. If an invitation comes and the conference appears to be a good academic fit, a window to evaluate the offer financially and otherwise will exist. If and when that stage of the process is reached, a certain degree of confidentiality is required for legal and practical reasons in light of all of the institutions, contracts, and interests involved in such negotiations. After conducting a thoughtful and thorough analysis, the administration would then make a recommendation to the JMU Board of Visitors, which has the ultimate authority and which would make any final decision in public session.
What is the timetable for a decision?
As has been stated since the beginning, the university has no control over the timing of an invitation. If and when an invitation comes, due diligence on the terms of the invitation will be conducted based on guiding principles noted above such as academic fit, financial feasibility and potential success of our student-athletes. The university will seek to ensure that it has sufficient time to evaluate any potential invitation based on these principles and the feedback from various university constituencies.
How much money would be needed if such a move were to be made?
Until the university has an offer, any specifics on costs beyond the points outlined in the CarrSports study are premature. If and when an offer is made, due diligence will be conducted to determine whether the offer makes sense financially for the long term.
If the university were to move to an FBS conference, in the short term there would be some transitional, incremental costs related to that move (which would be dependent on a number of factors, including the particular conference affiliation and related negotiations, proposed timetable for transition, etc.). The university would make it a high priority to minimize any impact on student fees. The ultimate goal, however, is to decrease Intercollegiate Athletics’ reliance on student fees by increasing athletics revenue from other sources. Indeed, in recent years the university has worked hard to keep student fee increases to a minimum even while continuously improving the benefits and services available to students.
One thing is certain now regarding funding sources: because of the public discussion initiated by the university, supporters of JMU Athletics are responding in large numbers that they will increase their support if the university were to make the move to an FBS conference. The feedback from many of these same supporters also has indicated that the university cannot assume continuing significant increases in donations if the current affiliation is maintained in light of all of the recent changes both in the CAA and nationally with regard to conference affiliations. In fact, the Carr report’s projection that private giving in support of athletics would grow at a slower rate if JMU were to remain in Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) is substantiated by input we received during the Madison Future Commission community feedback gathering process and in direct conversations with supporters.
Why does athletics at JMU cost so much compared to other schools at the FCS level?
Unlike most other schools, JMU reports its athletics budget transparently and in the broadest possible manner. So, for example, rather than report funding for the marching band (a program in which students receive substantial faculty instruction and for which students receive academic credit) in the music department budget, as many schools do, it is reported in the athletics budget. Rather than report sports medicine as part of an academic medical program, it is reported in the athletics budget. Rather than report academic advising for student-athletes as part of the university academic advising office, it is reported in the athletics budget.
In addition to the departmental structure of JMU Athletics, the Carr report indicates that JMU is atypical in other aspects of its financial reporting. JMU athletics currently contributes $2.75 million to the central E&G budget for university overhead (Agency Service Charge). Facilities costs also are allocated to athletics at JMU that other universities often absorb as part of their E&G budgets.
For these reasons among others, many common comparisons of athletic budgets (as published occasionally in the media) can be extremely misleading because the budget figures obtained for such comparisons do not include all of the same programs and line items, facilities and salary costs, etc. These differences in reporting also result in variances when benchmarking tuition costs and student fees among institutions.
Also, one of the hallmarks of the JMU campus is that the facilities are world-class because we believe strongly that such facilities are conducive to the best possible learning environment. Thus, JMU constructs and maintains high-quality campus facilities for the long term, including those for athletics. Because of JMU’s commitment to transparency and responsibility, Intercollegiate Athletics carries the debt service for its facilities within its own budget, which is atypical in higher education.
If the university changes its conference affiliation to an FBS conference, will we need to add or eliminate other varsity teams?
No teams will need to be added or eliminated. The Carr report on our compliance with Title IX is quite clear in this regard. This is not always the case for other institutions.
What would be the impact on student fees?
While initially a move would increase student fees nominally, the Carr report shows that over time, reliance on student fees would lessen. This projected financial model is corroborated by the first JLARC report showing that the Virginia schools with the lowest reliance on student fees have established FBS programs.
It is also important to note that by staying in our current conference—one from which several of our traditional rivals have exited—athletics revenue could decline as fans stop attending games. This scenario could have an even greater impact on student fees. It is also important to recognize that many of the drivers of student fees are unrelated to FCS/FBS affiliation.
Why might such a move make sense?
Reflecting the university’s growth and evolution, one central element of our vision for the future is to enhance our national prominence. Such prominence would help to recruit the best faculty, students and staff to JMU and concomitantly continue the university’s dramatic rise in overall quality. It also would continue to increase the value of all JMU degrees. By expanding the visibility of our intercollegiate athletics program, name recognition of the university and its geographic footprint would expand as well.
Also, as part of the Madison Future Commission feedback gathering, we heard overwhelmingly from members of the JMU community that they aspire for JMU to compete at the highest level feasible. All intercollegiate varsity teams at the university other than football already compete at the highest NCAA level (i.e., all are Division I teams). Competition in an FBS conference could also provide the opportunity to play other out-of-conference FBS institutions more regularly, in addition to conference opponents. FBS institutions compete for the opportunity to play in bowl games around the country, many of which provide significant opportunities to gather interested alumni and other supporters.
Through experience, we have also seen that many donors are initially drawn to the university through the “front porch” of athletics, and then subsequently support many aspects of the academic experience as they learn more about the institution and its goals.
Why might such a move not make sense?
Based on some of the same factors discussed above, a move might not make sense if an invitation from another conference (even if forthcoming) did not meet the university’s criteria from an academic, financial, or competitive perspective. The situation in intercollegiate athletics is fluid at the present time, and the university must continue to be cognizant of all possibilities, including the ramifications of maintaining its current affiliations.
The university hasn’t won a national championship in football since 2004. How could we expect to compete at a higher level if we’re not dominating where we are?
Not winning a championship is a short-term issue. Moving to another conference (or remaining in the present conference) is a strategic issue. For instance, FBS universities near JMU use our status as FCS against us when recruiting student-athletes. By moving, this competitive disadvantage would be removed.
Also, competitiveness is determined by many factors such as facilities, budgets and staff. A finding of the Carr report is that JMU can compete at the FBS level because many of these fundamentals factors are quite sound.
Why not eliminate football altogether?
The bottom line is that the university has made an institutional commitment to athletics—including football—and that commitment will continue. At a residential campus that focuses on a holistic learning environment in and outside the classroom, athletics provides opportunities for important life lessons for student-athletes and athletic supporters alike in areas such as teamwork, leadership, sportsmanship, and resilience.
As we aspire to reach our vision, elevating the competitiveness of JMU intercollegiate athletics can play a key role. For instance, football games bring far more alumni and community members to campus than any other campus event. While the most immediate impact of such gathering is an increase in affinity for JMU, long term such events play a key role in cultivating donor relationships.
Plus, two of the largest student organizations are built around JMU football: the Marching Royal Dukes and the Student Duke Club. Significantly diminishing the roles of such enthusiastic organizations would have a negative impact on many students and alumni.
Elimination of the football team would also create enormous practical and financial problems for the institution. For example, payment of debt on the stadium is premised on its continued use for its intended purpose. Without football, the university would presumably have to create several new additional men’s varsity teams (which would require coaches, facilities, etc.), or eliminate some women’s varsity teams in order to comply with Title IX.
What additional personnel and salary considerations would be necessary for a switch to FBS?
As a component of an overall strategic planning process, the Carr report presents a review of best practices and recommendations for staffing needs at both the FCS and FBS levels. Of the 11 total new positions included in the report, three are recommended whether JMU remains FCS or elects to move to FBS. These positions do not create any incremental costs for a possible move to FBS. Three proposed positions are not full-time equivalents and result in a fraction of the increased salary expenses associated with full-time slots. The remaining positions are indicative of a best-practices Intercollegiate Athletics program. As such, these positions are not entirely specific to football, but the entire athletics operation.
What expenses are included in the Carr report’s “Other” category?
Expenses that fall into the “other” category consist of areas that would operate the same no matter the conference affiliation and include:
o University Overhead (Agency Service Charge)
o Facilities Maintenance
o Debt Service