Approaching its third year, the College Football Playoff has undoubtedly defibrillated a BCS-weary college football crowd, invigorating the game with a newfound excitement sure to boost competition, TV revenues, and AD expenditures to unprecedented heights. Conferences have realigned to a Power Five structure supporting the best and biggest programs and the playoff committee has coerced teams into streamlining schedules to include more and more top talent, as the NCAA reaps the benefits. For the Alabama’s and Ohio State’s of the country, vital signs are strong.
Smaller schools in the Mid-American Conference and around the country simply cannot compete with these elevated levels of funding and competition. For better or for worse, the College Football Playoff consolidates both football and financial strength at the top, hyper-commercializing the game and leaving less prolific programs fighting for scraps at the bottom. A case study of the MAC yields all the evidence.
Remember when Mid-American Conference football meant something? Remember when “Mid-American” summarized not just the member schools’ geography, but also their quality of football: average? Think back only a matter of years and memories of MAC studs recall a conference of ages past. Remember a young Ben Roethlisberger rattling off a 4,448 yard passing season in 2003, gunslinging the Miami Redhawks to a 13-1 record? How about Toledo’s 1995 undefeated season led by Wasean Tait (“Little Barry Sanders”), or then-member Marshall catching the ultimate lightning in a bottle: Randy Moss? More recently, how about Jordan Lynch garnering Heisman consideration as Northern Illinois claimed back-to-back MAC championships in 2011 and 2012, culminating in an Orange Bowl appearance? These are the heroes of Mid-American Conference past, establishing the MAC as a watermark of spirited, though average, football.
Passing the contemporary MAC as “average” football is liable to make Bo Schembechler turn over in his grave. Last year, the MAC’s collective out-of-conference record totaled 25-35. Their results against AP Top 25 opponents totaled 1-15 (the sole win being Toledo’s victory over #18 Arkansas). Bottom-feeder Eastern Michigan picked up just one win. Certainly not the pedigree of a thriving conference, to say the least.
Attendance figures mirror these deficiencies. The MAC ranked dead last among Football Bowl Subdivision conference attendance last season, averaging 15,316 fans per game- a number eclipsed by ten FCS schools. Their attendance rate is declining at nearly double the FBS rate, even as teams like Akron have unveiled new stadiums (pictured half-empty above) as recently as 2009. Product on the field is turning south and fans are noticing, opting to spend their Saturdays stationed on the couch watching Power Five heavyweights duke it out with big time TV deals.
Thanks to these deficiencies, MAC athletic departments then face the impossible challenge of spending on par with these heavyweights just to patch together decent seasons. The result? Ludicrous, Enron-esque financial reports that cover their programs’ inherent disadvantages. In 2015, the average MAC program spent $29,361,692 amidst this athletics arm race, turning what appears to be $28,915,830 in revenue. This only tells half the story. The average student subsidy for a MAC program is an incredible 70.3%, meaning students of these universities are forced to pay exorbitant costs for teams already destined to fail given the realities of the game. Schools like Eastern Michigan require even more- an 80.4% subsidy. Clearly these athletic departments are incapable of maintaining reasonable margins with budgets dwarfed by their Power Five big brothers.
Just as it is unreasonable to expect Buffalo to land a spot in the College Football Playoff, it is unreasonable for smaller programs to exhaust funds to keep up with budgets two or three times their size. While football-centric markets like South Bend, Gainesville, or College Station can mount the argument that athletic spending pads enrollment, or inches them that much closer to a national title, Mid-American Conference towns cannot make these arguments. Still, they’re subjected to the ferocious competition of SEC-sized markets.
As the playoff committee continues to place emphasis on strength of schedule, MAC schools will no longer be included as an early-season appetizer for larger schools. Instead, Power Five conferences will inbreed strength and leave smaller, already-suffering schools out in the cold.
Rest assured, MAC football will continue in the short term. But how long will we wait before the playoff stratification is so dramatic so much that these programs literally can’t compete? What’s the answer? Will small programs continue to irresponsibly overspend just to maintain relevance in the Playoff Era? Or will the MAC- and conferences like it- ultimately be removed from life support, left to fend on its own while the rich get richer?