Yesterday, Will Muschamp casually revealed some pretty significant news for his program's future:
Muschamp just sort of dropped in there that Florida won't schedule FCS teams in the future. Asked why, he said fans wanted better opponents.— Andy Staples (@Andy_Staples) May 27, 2014
Yes, yes, go ahead and get out your jokes about how the Gators are too late on this. Georgia Southern, 26-20, etc., etc. With that out of the way, let's find the bigger story here.
If you're a close observer of Florida football, you know that what the fans want is a secondary concern for the program. AD Jeremy Foley runs it like a business, and profitability comes first. A lot of fans would like to see the Gators play Miami (FL) more often, but Foley will now only agree to neutral site games with the Hurricanes. The reason is unsaid but painfully obvious: he doesn't want to take the financial hit of losing his seventh home game (UF claims to have lost $2.5 million by playing in Miami last year), and neutral site games pay far better than road games do.
So with that in mind, let's think about how the program is swearing off I-AA schools. We already know that attendance in games against non-Power 5 teams is falling in many places, Florida included. Because announced attendance is all we have and those figures are lies, we can't really say a whole lot more than that with numbers. However, I know that there were nowhere close to the claimed 82,459 people at last fall's GSU game. The attendance gap between that contest and the season opening Toledo game was vastly larger than the roughly 1,150-person gap in the announced attendance figures of the two games.
Florida paid Toledo $800,000 and Georgia Southern $550,000 last year. This year, it is paying Idaho $975,000, Eastern Michigan $850,000, and Eastern Kentucky $550,000. As of right now, UF is paying a premium of $300,000 to $425,000 for getting a I-A opponent instead of a I-AA opponent.
Single game tickets for cupcakes, no matter which division, will be $25 apiece starting this fall. At current guarantee rates, the school would have to be able to sell 12,000 to 17,000 additional single game tickets for a third I-A cupcake above what playing a I-AA team would sell. Is that realistic? Maybe, but it seems unlikely. I-A opponents probably sell more single game tickets than I-AA ones do, but probably not by that magnitude.
More likely to me is that either Florida has survey data indicating that it could sell additional season ticket packages by swearing off I-AA opponents, or a sizable number of season ticket holders revolted after the Georgia Southern loss and threatened to quit buying unless the school did so. It might be a combination of both. Season tickets, by the way, start at
$150 $61.42 per game and go way, way up from there.
Given this train of logic, does this count as fulfilling fans' desires for better opponents? Not really. In a typical Florida football year, Eastern Michigan and Eastern Kentucky aren't significantly different as far as the outcome goes. In fact, Florida A&M offers a lot more than Florida International does when you factor in the halftime entertainment. If Florida was really acquiescing to requests for better opponents, it would be taking the extra scheduling slot and doing home-and-homes with major teams. It won't, though. It would seem that the profitability edge that games against I-AA opponents once had over games against I-A cupcakes has declined enough to change the school's behavior.
Plus, the cost of I-A cupcakes is probably going to plateau soon. Schools began to schedule a lot more I-AA opponents as the cost of I-A mid-majors ballooned over the last decade. With every conference soon to be either playing nine league games or eight with a commitment to play a major team in the non-conference, the demand for cupcake games among Power 5 conferences will have fallen by 2017. Add in the fact that I-A keeps swelling, from 114 teams in 2000 to 125 today (plus three more transitioning up), and the supply is increasing. When demand falls as supply increases, prices no longer rise.
I don't expect all programs to stop with the I-AA opponents. Some schools like South Carolina and Clemson have to play in-state I-AA teams for political reasons, for instance. However I don't think Florida will be the last big time school to crunch the numbers and determine that I-AA games just aren't worth it anymore.
Foley is not ruling out I-AA opponents entirely, framing Muschamp's quote more as the coach's opinion than a matter of policy. For Muschamp to phrase it how he did ("We're probably going to move forward without playing FCS opponents"), I suspect the discussions have gone further than Foley characterizes them. This issue wouldn't have gotten as far as it apparently has if I-AA games were still as profitable as they have been in the past.
Nationally, I-AA schools are the most common fill-in for last-minute cancellations.