The Right Moves

From boosting rankings to getting on television to appeasing alumni, scheduling your Division I football team can be a chess game. A look at the latest trends will help you make the right moves.

By Dr. Robert Zullo

Robert Zullo, PhD, is a faculty member in the Sport Administration Program at Mississippi State University. He has worked in athletic departments at Georgia, Virginia Tech, North Carolina, and VMI. His research focuses on intercollegiate athletics and outsourced marketing.

Athletic Management, 17.5, August/September 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1705/rightmoves.htm

You can’t please everyone. When it comes to scheduling football games for your NCAA Division I-A team, that is the single most important thing to remember.

Those in charge of the budget are looking at what sells tickets. The PR folks want a schedule that gets the team on national television. Alumni relations is asking for games at locations with large alumni bases. Faculty call for a schedule that does not negatively affect the athletes’ focus on academics. And your coach is saying, “Wait a minute, don’t I control the schedule?”

On top of all those factors, the scheduling climate is undergoing a whirlwind of changes that athletic administrators need to keep up with. Television’s influence continues to grow. Playing non-Saturday games may result in negative feedback from the local community. Guarantees fluctuate like the wind. The NCAA recently okayed a 12th game for the season, even though many coaches opposed the measure. And in some areas of the country, state politicians have gotten involved in a school’s football schedule.

Toughest of all, you’ve got to make decisions on all this several years in advance. Calculated guesses need to be made on whether you’ll want to play a Marshall or a Florida International three years down the road.

How do you continually evaluate all the factors, and keep all constituents happy? In this article, we’ll take a look at the trends and the nuances of all the choices.

TEAM GOALS
One question needs to be at the heart of the scheduling game: What will give our team the greatest success? This will be very different for Florida than for Indiana, for example. But the factors are the same for everyone.

First of all, you want your necessary wins to get into a bowl game. Rebuilding teams have been experimenting with “scheduling down” to build up confidence and get closer to a bowl game. One such example is Navy, which went 10-2 last year but played no teams in the top 25. Kansas State has also tried this strategy, but in its case the team image and reputation have suffered to some extent. Notre Dame is looking at reducing the strength of its schedule to match today’s reality, but it will have to overcome a long tradition to do so.

Scheduling down can guarantee a better record, but it comes with drawbacks. Auburn, for example, got hurt last year for not playing a tough enough schedule. With Louisiana-Monroe, Louisiana Tech, and The Citadel as its home non-conference games, its schedule was considered too soft to win the national championship.

The solution that appears to be coming to the forefront for national powers is to play one top-20 team early in the season, particularly in the first or second game. The 2005 season features such early-season match-ups as Ohio State vs. Texas, LSU vs. Arizona State, UCLA vs. Oklahoma, Auburn vs. Georgia Tech, and Georgia vs. Boise State. The idea is that the significance of a loss by either school early in the year can be reduced over the course of a full season.

Most important is to get on the same page as your coach as to what will allow success. Coaches prefer a pattern of easy, moderate, tough, easy, moderate, tough opponents and alternate home and away contests. They want to keep travel to a minimum. And they want non-Saturday games scheduled very carefully so they don’t end up playing a tough team on only five days of rest. Of course, some coaches want to take more risks than others in scheduling, so that should be part of the discussion, too.

TV & TIME SLOTS
Whether it is to gain national recognition, bring in revenue, garner the attention of future recruits, or simply say, “We played on ESPN last year,” television’s impact is something that must be taken into consideration. However, for all but the teams at the top, getting on national television means playing outside of the usual Saturday afternoon time slot.

Virginia Tech is a prime example of a school that has reaped the benefits of nontraditional game days. Playing Big East games on Sunday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights and competing in a preseason football classic on national television were significant factors in catapulting the Hokies’ football program into the upper echelon. Including the 2005 season, Virginia Tech will have scheduled 18 non-Saturday regular season games in the last seven seasons. The 2002 season featured two Sunday games, two Thursday games, and one Wednesday game. Eleven regular season games were on television, and eight were broadcast nationally. Yet, Lane Stadium is usually at capacity with rabid Hokie fans regardless of the day or time of the contest.

Mid-major conference teams have also enjoyed terrific success playing weekday games. A classic example is Louisville, whose 2002 Thursday night victory over Florida State propelled the team into the national limelight. The Mid-American Conference is the undisputed leader in games during the week, as its teams play one Monday, five Tuesdays, five Wednesdays, four Thursdays, and two Friday night games this season (as we go to press). Nine of those contests are already slated for national television coverage.

Many administrators are still wary of scheduling games on Friday night, which is normally reserved for high school football—but that tradition may be eroding. Despite protest from the Mississippi High School Activities Association, Southern Miss battled Memphis in a Friday night contest last season after receiving a lucrative offer from ESPN2. Hawai’i will play host to Wisconsin on a Friday night in late November this year on national television, even though the Hawai’i High School Athletic Association is hosting state football playoffs that evening. BYU and New Mexico each made two Friday night television appearances during the 2004 season while Boise State made three.

You also need to keep in mind other negatives of midweek games, especially Tuesday or Thursday night contests. Faculty sometimes complain that a midweek game hurts the academic progress of both student-athletes and student fans, and it sends the message that athletics takes precedence over academics on campus. Students lose focus in the classroom the day of the game, then often neglect their classes the day after. In addition, night classes may need to be cancelled or rescheduled to accommodate weeknight games.

For coaches and athletes, the off-day game means awkward time management adjustments and reduced time to rest injuries between games. Mid-week games can also complicate things like parking and security. A community dependent on revenue from football weekends, particularly restaurants and hotels, may also show disdain for a mid-week game. Throw in disgruntled alumni and fans who may have to miss work to travel to the game, and the athletic director has a difficult decision to make about whether the national exposure with a weeknight game is worth the headaches.

To sort through all these issues, consider forming an advisory committee to provide input before making decisions on mid-week games. This committee could include faculty members, campus security, and even local government officials. You can also seek input from other schools which have scheduled midweek games for their experiences on comparable campuses. You can use the committee and your research to make sure that faculty understand the importance of the game for the athletic department, that campus security is prepared to handle the weeknight game environment, and that the community understands the economic impact. Even those who will be unhappy with your decision are more likely to accept it if they feel that careful consideration was given to their concerns.

EVOLUTION OF THE MID-MAJORS
It used to be that a school within a major conference could schedule a single-guarantee home game with a mid-major opponent, and give its team an easy win for the week. However, a few notorious upsets here and there have proven that the likes of Northern Illinois, Marshall, and others can be very dangerous opponents for the home teams from the major conferences. Never was this more in evidence than in the 2003 season, when on the same day Marshall knocked off No. 6 Kansas State, Northern Illinois beat No. 21 Alabama, and Toledo stunned No. 9 Pittsburgh.

In response, major-conference schools are rethinking how to schedule an easy win. Some are choosing to play a I-AA opponent (although Furman almost upset Pittsburgh and Maine nipped Mississippi State last year). Now that NCAA rules allow a win over a I-AA opponent to count toward bowl eligibility every year, the idea is even more enticing.

The downside is that most fans and alumni are not attracted to games with lower-caliber opponents, causing ticket sales, as well as related gameday revenue, to dip. Playing in front of uninspired home fans, the head coach of the host school faces a difficult task in getting his team ready to play in an environment that’s ripe for the upset.

NEW IDEAS
All these changes add up to some new ideas in scheduling football games not seen a decade ago. One option gaining popularity is the two-for-one series, in which a major conference school gets two home games and the mid-major school gets one home game over the course of three years. The mid-major gets the guaranteed paychecks for the road games to help their athletic budget, and the major conference school reduces its travel. The arrangement works especially well if the mid-major school has something to offer the major school’s fans.

For example, Louisville and Maryland have both recently agreed to two-for-ones with Middle Tennessee State. For Terrapin fans, a road trip to Murfreesboro is easy, so they can attend one more game. And when MTSU hosts Louisville, it will do so at The Coliseum in nearby Nashville, with hopes that Louisville fans will attend the entertaining Music City neutral site in droves.

Florida Atlantic is luring Big Ten conference schools with its weather. Minnesota starts a two-for-one series with Florida Atlantic this year, and Michigan State is scheduled to compete in a two-for-one with the Owls down the road. The idea is that fans of the northern climate schools are sure to enjoy a fall road trip to warm and sunny Fort Lauderdale.

Another option is holding one or two games at the home of the major conference school and an additional game at a neutral site. The 2005 season will see Air Force take on Washington at Qwest Field in Seattle, while Texas A&M and Army are exploring a game at the Alamodome in San Antonio, a city known for its large military presence. This option allows the mid-major school to gain a quality opponent, count the neutral-site attendance numbers as part of its average home attendance figures, and reap a great portion of the financial return on the neutral-site game from gate receipts and television. The tough part for the mid-major school, in addition to giving up the on-campus game, is the logistics of working with another facility. In addition, despite a larger seating capacity, neutral-site games come with rental fees, travel, additional required manpower, and other associated—and frequently hidden—costs.

Even when it comes to the traditional home-and-home series, some schools are starting to think differently. Win-win situations existed when North Carolina agreed to play Big East newcomer South Florida in a home-and-home series—the Tar Heels and their fans enjoy a game in Tampa while the Bulls face an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent. Southern Methodist University gained an in-state opponent in a home-and-home series with North Texas, while Miami (Ohio) garnered a regional opponent in their home-and-home agreement with Temple. Both series make financial sense and enable fans in the region to attend the game with minimal traveling.

The single-game guarantee is still a viable option. Fresno State will travel to Southern California this fall, even though the Trojans will not return as guests to Fresno. Fresno State benefits from the exposure on television and from the overall impact of the game itself, even though they do not get to host USC in return.

Finally, athletic directors must also be thinking about a strategy for the additional 12th game approved by the NCAA this spring. The 12th game allows an additional home game that boosts the athletic department’s budget, or the opportunity to play a non-conference game the team might not otherwise schedule. The flaw with the 12-game season is that the additional game will be scheduled during what is traditionally an off weekend. In addition to factoring in the strength of the next opponent, consideration must therefore be given to the safety and health of the student-athletes.

SPORTS & POLITICS
Along with balancing the complicated factors mentioned above, some athletic directors have also been getting unsolicited advice from state politicians. In the spring of 2005, West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin used his State of the State address to call for a resumption of the Marshall-West Virginia football series. The former Mountaineer football letterman expressed a desire to see the two long-time rivals square off in a home-and-home series, and his comments resulted in thunderous applause from the gallery of citizens and lawmakers. He didn’t say he would force the issue, but claimed the series would be a “win-win” for the state and the universities, and said he hoped both schools could work on it.

What the governor failed to mention was the difference of 22,000 in the seating capacity of the two schools’ stadiums. Playing a game at Marshall rather than scheduling a I-AA opponent at home could cost the Mountaineers a huge amount of money in gate receipts, not to mention parking, concessions revenue, or priority seating contributions. Nevertheless, the two schools agreed to an unprecedented seven-year series, with four games in Morgantown and two games in Huntington. Whoever wins two of the first three games in the series will host an additional game on their campus.

Athletic administrators at LSU faced similar political input when they scheduled I-AA opponent Appalachian State for a game this season instead of an in-state I-AA opponent. LSU had a hole in its schedule when a I-A school dropped out and Appalachian State was a quick fill-in, agreeing to a $400,000 single-guarantee game in Baton Rouge. However, Louisiana state legislators were upset by the move and publicly argued that the money could have been better spent on in-state schools such as McNeese State, Northwestern State, Grambling State, or Southern. The negative feedback happened despite the fact that LSU has played Tulane, Louisiana-Monroe, Louisiana-Lafayette, and Louisiana Tech in recent years.

Today’s athletic director should welcome the input of any fan or alumnus of the school regarding football scheduling. But at the same time, the AD (with the support of the school’s president) must clearly express that he or she is making decisions in the best interest of the school. Backing that up with an explanation of the economics involved can be very helpful, as the public is usually reasonable when given the facts. Using the athletic department’s Web site to offer open letters to fans or question-and-answer columns with the AD can be a great way to clearly and directly express your scheduling rationale.

How should an athletic director deal with such outside pressures? One idea is to have your university president invite your state’s governor and other politicians on campus once a year to talk about athletics at the school. Along with showing off your school’s progress, you can explain why your school currently makes its football schedule as it does, and why you feel that your decisions best serve the needs of the team and the athletic department.

BUYOUTS
With all the changes in scheduling, athletic directors need to know the latest on buyouts. In the past, schools rarely tried to back out of a game, and buyout clauses were included in contracts merely as a token gesture. Today, if a visiting team is set to travel to one school but receives a significantly greater guarantee offer from another school, or the promise of a return game, the buyout clause is now often executed.

If done with enough advance notice, this is often not a problem. If done at the last second, however, the host school’s schedule can quickly be in disarray. It can then lead to public rifts between schools that can potentially affect future scheduling in sports other than football.

To offset cases like these, athletic directors should have no qualms about putting a six-figure buyout clause into contracts to prevent last-second cancellations. Such buyouts often have escalator clauses that increase the buyout as the game draws closer. Other clauses may stipulate that a comparable or suitable replacement opponent must be found.

MAKING CHOICES
How does today’s athletic administrator keep ahead of the curve and masterfully create the perfect schedule? The key is to maximize the financial return in addition to television opportunities, while also balancing the schedule with a few games that can be counted on for wins.

When Auburn scheduled Southern California and Georgia Tech to start the 2003 season, both games were played in front of excited capacity crowds on national television, but the Tigers’ two losses put them out of the rankings and prompted fans to call for the removal of the head coach. Last year’s undefeated season lacked a strong non-conference schedule, possibly robbing the team of a chance at a national title. This year, Auburn opens up against Georgia Tech, with other non-conference match-ups against Ball State and Southern Mississippi—a more favorable balance of opponents in trying to help the Tigers meet their goals.

Another key is understanding that new ideas are needed, and they should be based on the needs of the team, department, and fan base. For example, some schools are tinkering with the idea of leveraging a football game-basketball game package, or a game in one sport for future games in the other. Other schools are carefully researching alumni bases in search of the perfect place to play an away game.

Regardless, the old days of football scheduling have passed and athletic directors and senior administrators must evolve with the times. Don’t worry about pleasing everyone, but do worry about creating the balance that leads to overall success.



Sidebar:
The Right Formula
Here is a quick look at all the factors that should be considered when planning a football schedule.

Team Goals
•Desired number of wins
•Postseason expectations
•National exposure/recruiting
•Veteran leadership and development of younger players


Opponents
•Balance of hard, moderate, and easy games
•Home/away/neutral sites
•Preparation/emotional impact
•Distance traveled
•Scheduling up/scheduling down

Television
•Who will pick it up?
•National/regional/local
•How much can we earn?
•Day and time of the game?

Finances
•Financial guarantee to opponent
•Single game/two-for-one/two-for-one neutral site
•What is fair market value?
•Ticket demand and priority campaigns
•Additional revenue (concessions, parking)
•Travel in reciprocal deals

Conference Implications
•What is the conference dealing us?
•Flexibility for non-conference games
•Are we going to get beat up in conference play?
•How are other conference teams expected to fare?
•Brand equity for the school and conference

Personal Concerns
•Fans’ enjoyment
•Regional rivalry
•Campus and community concerns
•State high school coaches upset?
•Compatibility with other area or national events, holidays, campus breaks
•Can we help an in-state I-A or I-AA or an historically black institution with a guaranteed game?


Sidebar:
Guarantees
The following provides a sampling of guarantees that are being paid by host schools to their opponents this year, according to published media reports:

Appalachian State at LSU: $400,00
Colorado State at Colorado: $500,000
Eastern Illinois at BYU: $225,000
Florida Atlantic at Kansas: $400,000
Florida International at Kansas State: $425,000
Grambling State at Washington State: $500,000
Idaho at Washington State: $400,000
Western Michigan at Wisconsin: $350,000
Wyoming at Florida: $600,000

For a look at a longer list of guarantees that spans the decade, please visit our Web site: www.AthleticSearch.com, and click on "Football Guarantees" in the Bonus Editorial section