Four weeks ago, the NCAA Division I council changed the membership requirements for Football Bowl Subdivision schools. Two changes went into effect immediately and garnered most headlines surrounding the new requirements.
The council eliminated attendance requirements at FBS schools. This change is effective immediately and relieves schools from needing to average at least 15,000 in actual or paid attendance at home football games over a rolling two-year period. This change provided a relief to some schools currently in FBS.
The next change to receive most of the headlines was increasing the application fee to transition from FCS to FBS from $5,000 to $5 million, effective immediately. Many fans and some pundits wondered aloud whether the fee increase would affect schools wishing to move up.
Every university president and athletic director I spoke with for this story said the fee increase isn’t something that would keep them from transitioning to FBS.
“The $5 million is not a deterrent for us,” one university president said. “I think the bigger concern for some is being in a position financially and from a facility standpoint to make that transition now. I think there’s no more than a handful of schools in the country ready from that standpoint.”
“(The fee increase) won’t be an issue for our school,” an athletic director said. “The thing I’m curious about is how those funds are going to be distributed. It’s a big jump from $5,000 to $5 million, and I’m curious where those funds would be allocated.”
While the increased application fee isn’t a hindrance for schools seeking to move up, the third change implemented by the DI council could provide roadblocks for some athletic departments.
The council requires all FBS programs to provide 90 percent of the total allowable scholarships over a two-year rolling period across 16 sports, including football. FBS schools are also required to fund 210 scholarships, amounting to at least $6 million annually annually. This change is effective for current FBS institutions in August 2027. However, schools that begin transitioning to FBS in 2024 or later must meet this requirement by the conclusion of the transition process.
Each administrator I spoke with for this piece noted the 210 scholarships and at least $6 million annually would not be an issue. Their universities would meet the scholarship and financial limits by increasing their football scholarships from the FCS allotment of 63 to the 85 allowed in FBS.
“The scholarship piece is not a deterrent for us because it’s not an increased investment for us,” an athletic director said. “What gives us pause is all the things we’re going to have to do to compete at that level is going to far exceed any entry fee or scholarship minimums they’ve put in place.”
One athletic director said that while the entry fee and scholarship minimum aren’t a concern for schools seeking to transition, providing 90 percent of total allowable scholarships across 16 sports is a concern.
“The fee is a one-time fee. I’m not scoffing at $5 million because that’s a lot of money, but it’s the increase in scholarships for all sports that’s a concern because that’s a recurring cost,” they said. “The 22 scholarships we add for football doesn’t just impact football, but it’s actually an increase to 44 to keep you net neutral from a Title 9 standpoint. The question is, how do we manage that in future years.”
The biggest concern regarding transitioning to FBS for each administrator was the ability of their university to afford the cost of adding the additional infrastructure (facilities and staff) necessary to compete at the highest level.
“I look at the landscape of college football every day, and overall budgets of Division I schools vary by a pretty wide margin,” one athletic director said. “In FCS, budgets range from $4 million to $44 million, with the median being around $16 million. Group of Five budgets vary from $20 million to $75 million.
“The upper half of FCS football isn’t dissimilar to the lower levels of FBS. We probably have more in common with Conference USA than what Conference USA has in common with the SEC. I think in terms of having the ability to compete, the gap is smaller between us and the lower levels of FBS. Power Five programs range from a $75 million budget to $220 million.”
Other athletic directors are concerned about what requirements might be added by the state legislature.
“I think about the other components that haven’t come out yet about what FBS membership standards will be from Austin,” they said. “We don’t know what the other requirements and financial commitments will be, and that’s the biggest part of our evaluation process. I imagine we’ll determine our pathway once the dust settles.”
In the meantime, the administrators are focused on ensuring their athletic departments will be ready to transition to FBS if and when it comes time to make the jump.
“We’ve been focused on increasing our investment level to be competitive in FCS and be one of the programs competing for conference championships and playoff spots in all sports,” one president said. “I know it sounds like ‘coach speak,’ but that’s actually how it works. Sometimes schools make the jump before they’re ready, and that doesn’t end well for anyone.”
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