Wednesday, September 2, 2015

An optimal plan for MAC expansion --- making better "offers that cannot be refused"

This is the last part on my two part series on the MAC and expansion today.

What is wrong with the MAC and how to solve it for good with expansion.

I would argue that the biggest issues with the MAC are not the same as in other conferences.  The MAC has secondary appeal in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan , and Ohio.  Almost 42 Million people live in those states alone.  That total doesn't even add in fans in Buffalo and western New York State.

That suggests that in the grand scheme of things, media markets may not need be the dominant driver for this conference as it is in other conferences.  That really gives the MAC a lot of freedom to address their needs.

The biggest problem with this conference is, with apologies to MAC fans and leadership, that the member schools are far too irrelevant. It is far too rare that any of it's teams are a threat to beat even a mediocre Big 12 or Big Ten team.  Despite having a full contingent of 85 scholarship players,  the talent level and depth is usually just not there on MAC teams. The rosters are just not talented enough.

While an addition of TV sets to the MAC footprint would be nice, the MAC really needs to improve their recruiting lot.

This could also be partially addressed if the MAC added a heavy hitter.  Or several.  They need a Boise State-level program and a Fresno State/Hawaii-level program (or several) to force members schools to meet a higher level of play, if not carry the conference banner outright ala the old football WAC.  Right now, the MAC has schools that act as pacesetters in a bad way,  dragging down the conference's level of play.

The second biggest problem is even if they successfully entice a quality candidate like James Madison to join, such a school will tear up the weak competition in the MAC, build a great looking resume, and get cherry picked from the MAC like Temple.

There has been talk of the Big 12 looking at 2 schools out of BYU, Cincinnati, Houston, or Memphis.  Should this occur, this will have ramifications that could affect the MAC. Cincinnati is generally considered the #2 school (whether you think BYU or Houston is #1) on the Big 12's list. What is the fallout if Cincinnati leaves?

Who does the American replace them with?  Do they try to retain Ohio relevance?  There are all kinds of schools out there, but The University of Ohio has turned itself into a program to consider, for a league that is good in football and wants to remain very good in basketball...  It is probably the third strongest academic program in the MAC and consistently competitive in both revenue sports.   Per game last year, they drew 20,515 in football and 6681 in basketball.   If the WAC remains at this status quo, there is a compelling argument for them to move on if opportunity presents itself.

Buffalo is another school that might get some consideration.  Buffalo averaged 20,403 in football last year and a decent 3639 in basketball and is the 2nd best academic school in the conference.  Their football isn't nearly as consistently solid as Ohio's, but they did go 23-10 in basketball last year.

There is a small chance that Buffalo and Ohio might get a look the next time CUSA or the American expand.  Is the MAC of today ready for life without either school?  Is the MAC ready today for life without the conference's most developed basketball program?

This reflects the core issue that lead to UMass saying, "no thanks."

Again the second big issue is that the conference itself is too weak to retain good members.  Any straight application of conventional expansion logic ('Get the best market available!' ) will fail in short order for this reason.

My Solution

Leverage the markets of the MAC into expansion into areas where other conferences won't go.  Continue to erode the perceived viability of the FCS. Take advantage of structural weaknesses in other conferences.  Target smart recruiting territory additions.  And above all else make schools offers that they really can't refuse.

I am going to lay out a detailed plan that mirrors what I see in the MAC behavior --- a desire to expand eastward with good academic public schools in good markets --- just like the Big 10.  The MAC seems to want to have 14-16 schools and I have worked with that goal in mind.

(It is a sensible goal.  Conferences play lip service to not wanting to get that large, but the reality is that if UT had accepted the PAC-10's offer in 2010,  the era of the superconference would be upon us, not creeping towards us.  The conference that moves first in that direction simply gets first pick.  The conference that moves last --- is immobilized by conference conventional wisdom --- becomes the next WAC.)

In some instances, I will talk about wading into relationships with 1-2 schools that may have a bit of chaos to their programs. I will do my best to explain my logic for that as I go.

The MAC has the ability to print a "golden ticket" for any I-AAA or FCS program in inviting them into the FBS.  This is an important concept to really get.

Almost every athletic program at all levels cannot generate enough money to cover it's expenses.  Universities and their students eat these costs at the I-AAA and FCS levels, but as the sports product is usually only seen locally by 4000 to 12,000 people at a football game or 500-2000 people at a basketball game, the return on investment these schools see in terms of advertising and alumni/booster generation is usually minimal. 

Low level FBS can be a real sweet spot in terms of getting a maximized bang for your buck out of both categories, at a still reasonable net cost.

Costs go up playing FBS ball, but having two big revenue generating athletic programs (FBS football and Division 1 basketball) can pay for most or even all of those costs if finances are managed properly and egos do not get in the way.  That's a much better situation than netting the same loss for a minimal gain in either advertising or booster generation.

That makes a MAC offer something that can totally and instantly rock the status quo in a targeted school's athletic program.  I ask you to think as you read the next sections on candidates, "How would the alumni and boosters at x university respond to a MAC invitation?"

I have tried to target situations where a MAC invitation can have a staggering affect in among the alumni and that can really make the decision simple for the school's leadership. 

In some instances, the MAC may be the conference where the majority of alumni already favor going next.  In some instances, I have targeted schools where saying no to a MAC invitation could lead a largely dissatisfied alumni base into simply opting out of supporting the program at any level.

This plan is put together to make it hard for a school's leadership at a targeted institution to say no.  I have tried to manufacture a series of very achievable, successful invites that play off each other and to finish with the MAC owning an idealized and stable "MAC of the future" that still has room to expand.

I ask your patience in not making snap judgements on the merits of individual targeted schools until the end of the article.  (Now feel free at any point to evaluate whether an invitation would dramatically cause a huge portion of a targeted school's alumni-base to demand MAC inclusion or not.  That is absolutely fine.)  Evaluate the end product MAC in terms of marketability, academics, athletics, and stability.

I am going to begin with some long needed house cleaning.

1)  Vote out Eastern Michigan on competitiveness and viability reasons.

In the early 1980's the MAC threatened to kick EMU out of the conference for poor attendance and non-competitiveness.  It's time to finally make good on that threat.

I am a fan of most schools with enrollments over 20,000 strongly considering playing FBS football.  I think at that size there are enough students to wash costs at inoffensive levels and there are few better things a university can do to turn alumni into large donors and to recruit out of state teens to find your school.

It is effective advertising at a reasonable cost.

EMU is one of the rare exceptions to the rule.

EMU is 7 miles from the University of Michigan.  They are in what I term a "media killzone".  That proximity destroys EMU's ability leverage their fans and the unaffiliated public to sell tickets, build fan and booster base from which to raise money.   Without fans in the seats, watching TV, and buying your merchandise, FBS is a money sink. 

This puts EMU in a bad recruiting spot.  FBS caliber players do not want to play home games in front of 4000 listless fans.

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I have often thought that maybe if EMU did a demolition of the 1992 NCAA mandated (and, IMO, very poorly thought out) expansion work done on Rynearson Stadium, maybe EMU would have a shot to turn things around.  As major league soccer proved, stadium reductions make stadiums feel fuller and help build game attendance.  Removing the 1992 expansion would reducing their stadium capacity back to 22,000.  That is a healthy number for most MAC schools.

I have thought of a few coaches who could really turn things around out there.  The trouble is there are not many of them, and if they did turn it around, it would be too expensive to retain them.

This EMU situation is a chronic issue.  EMU has a .441 (441-564-47)  historical winning percentage today, 110th in the FBS.  There were only 18 FBS schools with worse "all-time" records, and 10 of those should not be on the list because are recent FBS upgrades who's sparkling records at lower levels were not counted!! (Among MAC schools only Kent state had a lower winning percentage all-time, but Kent State reduced their stadium capacity in 2002, draws 13-17,000+ per game each year, won 11 football games in 2012 and averages about 3000 in basketball.  Their program seems a lot healthier than EMU's. )

With not enough fans and not enough talent, EMU is bleeding money to lose in front of empty houses.  And they have been for 35 years.

And basketball is not much better.

Here are the last 15 years' numbers:

                                   football                   basketball

20044-7  no data12-182604
20033-9  no data13-152468
20023-9  no data14-141880

As grim as those numbers look, it's probably worst than that.

A lot of these football numbers look manufactured.  Given that the NCAA 15,000 attendance rule is about two year averages, the spikes in 2006, 2008, and 2010 look very suspect as does last year's spike.   Leading up to 2010, there was a lot of focus on the rule.  The realignment movement between 2010 and 2013 has made this less of a factor, but now we are in a period of somewhat calm, meaning more attention may be paid to the rule.

Using last year as an example, it is tough to believe that EMU drew 15,025 fans per game last year ---an 11,000 per game increase over the previous season --- to see a team with a season record only 1 win better.

I find it hard to buy that EMU drew 19,654 fans to see their 2-5 team, who had already suffered 4 blowouts in the first 7 weeks, play a 5-2 Northern Illinois team.  

Is the idea that Northern Illinois brought those fans?  Where were those travelling NIU fans the previous week when NIU beat Miami (Oxford) in front of 11,211 fans in Ohio?

You can call me skeptical.

I can totally buy that EMU had the ability to pull 10,000 fans in football in 2000.  I can also totally buy that they pull 3900-4100 for football games today.

Basketball attendance seems similarly disappointing, but at least the reported numbers seem consistent and logical.

A chunk of EMUs alumni have been dissatisfied with the school since the university retired the "Huron" name to satisfy political correctness.  The discussion of the merits of that action is not one I care to weigh in on, but the point is, because of this issue, EMU does not have access to all of it's potential booster and alumni wealth, making the financial problems even worse.

FBS football and DI sports are meant to draw fans, develop alumni into boosters, and promote a university brand.  EMU, as a MAC member, hits none of those goals. 

Continuing with this status quo is just wasting EMU's money.

This is like a crack habit.  It is unhealthy.  The MAC needs to stage an intervention for EMU's sake.

But the MAC member schools also need to do it for their own sakes.  EMU's membership is damaging to the reputation of the MAC.  Every time someone points at the 15,000 rule, they inevitably turn to the MAC and see all these schools who failed to meet it.   Those MAC schools laugh it off and say, "we will hit it next year" and then point to EMU and say "They never hit it."

That is, in a nutshell what is wrong with Today's MAC.  This attitude is what has them at the bottom of the FBS conference pecking order. 

Failure is ok.

No other conference's members think this way.

Removing EMU --- a program that legitimately may not be able to function at the FBS level --- would put the spotlight (and the heat) on the other schools that fail to hit the minimum from time to time, like Kent State, Ball State, Akron, Central Michigan, and Northern Illinois. 

The carrot and the switch works.  With EMU in conference, there is no switch. So EMU has to go if you want to change the culture in the conference.

Additionally, it happens that EMU is also one of the three lowest rated academic schools in the MAC and the only member categorized as a regional (ie. non-doctorate granting) university in the US News University rankings.  Additionally they are ranked very far down the list (77th)  in that category in their region ---basically a quarter of the country.

Most FBS schools are classified as National Universities.  EMU's ranking in the regional university list puts them in the same ballpark as some of the worst academic schools in the FBS ranks.  Their ranking is similar to Boise State's.

Removing EMU would also likely lead to a bit of a recruiting bump by the closest MAC schools --- Toledo, Bowling Green, Western Michigan, and Central Michigan.

It is unlikely EMU would receive an invitation from the MVC or the Ohio Valley Conference  if they dropped to the FCS level.  EMU is outside their footprint and represents an unwanted travel cost for an addition of marginal value.

Who would admit them at the FCS level?

They could probably join the Pioneer Football League.   It's members play non-scholarship FCS football.  That would be quite healthy for EMU's bottom line.  Members Dayton, Valparaiso, Butler, and Morehead State are all relatively close by and that group and fellow member Marist would likely swing a vote for EMU to allow sensible division travel costs.  EMU could compete at a high level in that conference.

In Olympic sports, the Summit League would likely take them as a 10th member, but the travel costs (really a smaller portion of a total athletic budget than many would have you believe) are relatively high in the Summit.  Still EMU might become a BB power in that conference.

That would be a cheaper way to stay in Division I, but there are other options too.

EMU might be well advised to drop to DII and join the regionally sensible GLIAC where they would likely do very well competing with Michigan schools like Grand Valley State, Wayne State, Michigan Tech, and others.

I take no joy in calling for EMU's dismissal, but at least whatever they decide to do after the MAC, it would yield a 1000x better advertising return on investment than what they are doing today.

The expansion map

Studying college football realignment for 30 years and writing about realignment for 15 has taught me among other things, that conferences are dysfunctional beyond belief.  Their member schools are selfish and myopically self-absorbed.  Conference members all seem to share the same conventional wisdom in their beliefs.

As such, there is always a fat turkey waiting to be harvested.  Case in point, the Missouri Valley Conference.

The MVC is a basketball conference comprised of private schools and public schools who know they have a good thing in basketball.

To protect this golden goose, the football playing publics have a football-only conference called the Missouri Valley Football Conference.  The MVFC was just another relatively strong FCS conference until they pulled in 3 football ringers in North Dakota State, South Dakota, and South Dakota State.

This occurred as most of the big draw FCS schools (Old Dominion, Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, etc.) moved up to the FBS world. 

North Dakota State has now captured an unheard of 4 FCS titles in a row (beating many FBS power conference schools along the way) and the MVFC has started to dominate the FCS playoff selections.

The thing is the Dakotas are in the Summit League ---a mediocre basketball conference --- one with big travel expenses for an I-AAA conference and little ability to generate revenue. 

And they are unlikely to ever get a reprieve as the Dakotas are tiny population states that bring little TV value to an Olympic-only sports conference.   The MVC won't add them as Olympic members.  The MVC privates won't vote for that.  There is zero benefit for the MVC to add even a single Dakota school as an Olympic member.


2) Invite North Dakota State

Steal the crown jewel of the MVFC.

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NDSU's admission could be tied to a promise by NDSU to complete their publically discussed stadium expansion plans by an agreed upon deadline.

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NDSU football sells out their games fairly regularly.  They were third in the FCS in attendance at 18,571 last year. They have talked about an expansion of the FargoDome to 25,000.  Fargodome General Manager Rob Sobolik has pushed back a little on the idea as the FargoDome has no other tenants who want 25,000 seats, but with an FBS invite on the line and a more modest expansion goal (say 22,000), I have to think the FargoDome leadership would rubber stamp that expansion.

No FBS conference is even considering NDSU due to North Dakota's tiny population.  The MAC can do it as they already have a good in-footprint population base.

NSDU fans and boosters are high on 4 straight FCS titles and believe in their hearts that NDSU should be in the FBS ranks. If a MAC offer comes, they will make sure it is accepted.

And because NDSU has no markets and no historic TV value,  no conference will even think about poaching NDSU for several years.  At that point NDSU will be firmly entrenched in the MAC, likely as their Boise State. 

Minnesota and Wisconsin recruiting in football and Chicago recruiting in basketball make the western division of the MAC an ideal long term home for NDSU.

NDSU cares about both revenue sports.  NDSU has 12 national titles (8 in Division II and 4 more in the FCS), a 681-370-35 (.643) all-time record,  an 18-1 FCS playoff record, 31 conference titles, a winning record against all but one MVC opponent,  and an 8-3 record against FBS opponents.  They have the culture of competing against the big boys that the MAC needs.

Last year NDSU's basketball teams went 12-4 in the Summit in conference and 23-10 overall.  They have healthy basketball attendances in the 2500-3000 range.

Taking the worst program at the FBS level off the books and replacing them with the best program at the FCS level would a message about what the WAC is trying to become.

I would publically let this sink in for a few weeks before taking the next step.  Let the media process it.

Be coy about further expansion.  Let schools who might have some interest in the MAC re-evaluate their position on a MAC invite.  Then on to step 3.

3) Add James Madison.

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With NDSU  gone,  JMU, Delaware, and the Montanas may be the only programs capable of generating a profit at the FCS level.  Montana and Delaware have always been the school other FCS leaders point to in order to make their FCS viability arguments. 

JMU on the other hand is a school that just recently built over their track, added a large end zone berm, on the way to upgrading their stadium to 24,877 seats.  They look progressive. They look like a team that upgraded specifically to move up to FBS.  They do not look like FCS true believers. 

Bridgeforth Stadium  Image source:
They might be very receptive to a MAC invite.  Especially after a  short period of wondering if the MAC membership was OK with staying at 12. 

Only two conferences would likely consider inviting JMU at this moment ---the MAC and the Sunbelt Conference.  The Sunbelt has been hot for JMU for a while, but it is likely the Sunbelt's academics are considered poison pill by JMU.

This MAC has a very good sales pitch for JMU.  Academically, the MAC is far superior to the Sunbelt.  The MAC offers a good travel and a good media exposure footprint for JMU.  With NDSU on board, the MAC would be seen as at least at a peer level in football to the Sunbelt in the next decade as the FCS upgrades reach 85 scholarships and find their feet.

(It should be noted that CUSA could offer JMU an invite, but given that their recent expansion methodology generally shies away from multiple schools in a state, it is unlikely.  A UMass or Ohio pairing with JMU or Georgia State could be a smart addition for that conference, but I think the conference leadership is likely eyeing the eventual admission of Georgia State --- as that program matures ---and Arkansas State for their 16 in order to have an Atlanta presence.  That would create tidy divisions --- a good spur in expansion votes.)

Plus upgrading to the FBS is expensive.  The MAC's eastern division can offer great travel cost savings.  Remember, the MAC has 6 schools in Ohio.  Ohio is just on the other side of West Virginia.  Western New York is just past Pennsylvania.  MAC travel would be cheap for JMU.

JMU would offer the MAC schools in Ohio some limited supplemental recruiting --- there is a lot of talent in Virginia.

JMU has a 271-206-4 record (.568) (9-10 in the playoffs) with one national title and four conference titles in their comparatively brief football history.  They averaged 19,816 per game last season.

JMU is a MAC-sized school (20,181) with a good mens' basketball program (567-432 averaging about 3400-3600+). At that attendance level, unlike UMass, JMU doesn't have to worry about MAC membership eroding the school's fan support.

JMU also excels in womens' basketball (779-447-5), and baseball (1092-670-8).

4) Add UW-Milwaukee on the condition that they add football.

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"What?!?!? Wisconsin-Milwaukee starting up football?"

Yes.  This is by far the biggest limb I go out on, but IMO if you want to maximize the impact of an NDSU addition, adding UWM is necessary.  For this reason, I am going to cover this in great detail.

UWM leadership has been looking for a sport to put on campus to help build university pride in their students --- the stuff of future alumni/booster donations. For years now, UWM leadership has been looking into the possibility of football.

Now some will say, "Hey man, former UWM Ad Rick Costello was the guy pushing that.  His head was in the clouds. There is no basis in that."

Costello may have had some problems at UWM, but even critics will admit he executed some things quite well.  He was hired again fairly quickly and appears to be doing a good job raising funds and building facilities at his new school.

I think the critic's take is both inaccurate and unfairly dismissive of Costello ---  and most importantly, it misses the point.

For over a year, there was talk in the papers of UWM looking into the possibility of football.  If Costello's bosses were not looking into it, don't you think they would have told him to quit talking about it and to actively kill that chatter?

Why should the MAC invite them?

For Wisconsin media and recruiting relevance and for a consistently strong draw in football.  

NDSU is right on the Minnesota border.  As there are no Minnesota schools ready to make the jump, NDSU really works as a Minnesota-relevant school.  ...If there is a strong fan base in Wisconsin next door.

UWM has an enrollment of over 30,000.  That equates to a very large alumni-base which can impact conference TV viewership.

Add UWM and you get a huge alumni-base in the biggest media market in Wisconsin.  You get Wisconsin and likely it also gives you more viewers in Chicago and Minnesota.

Big Ten fans get the MAC and would be receptive to watch it sometimes.  The Big Ten footprint is friendly media territory for the MAC.

Minnesota, North Dakota, and Wisconsin would add about another 12 million to the footprint.

Plus UWM has historically dominated their conference in several sports.  The UWM athletic program has a good culture of success.

So why is/was UWM leadership considering football and why would they likely accept this invite? 

I'll give you 10 reasons 1) why they've thought about football, 2) why they would consider a MAC offer and 3) why they should take one if offered.

  • UWM needs an identity. Being a basketball school would be great, but there is already a 500 lb. gorilla in basketball in Milwaukee in Marquette University.  Add in the NBA's Bucks and there is precious little public dollars for basketball tickets left for UWM.  Add Hockey?  You have an established semi-pro team in Milwaukee already.  Not possible today. UWM does not have a lot of options. Thanks to the Packers pulling out of their occasional game in Milwaukee, there is no football of any sort in Milwaukee --- a city that really likes football.  Why not "UWM, Milwaukee's football school"?
  • UWM needs a sport students will attend that they can put on or near campus in order to turn students into future donors.  Moving basketball on campus cost UWM a portion of their existing Milwaukee fan base who were unwilling to make the drive to campus 14+ times a season.  A football home schedule is a very tolerable 5-7 home games.   Although the leadership loves the idea of moving basketball back to campus to support a nice new Convocation Center on campus and for it to be the sport that the university students go see, it is not a clear slam dunk that it is a great idea.  It is very risky to mess with your only functional revenue driver in athletics.  If you have football on or near campus, you can keep men's basketball downtown.
  • Which brings up another point. UWM is generating basically all of their incoming revenue for sports with a program that is the third best of it's kind in the city.  How smart is that long term?
  • Football excites the UWM boosters.  Just like at universities like UT-Arlington today or at Lamar of the recent past, there are a lot of older boosters who want to see a return of a shuttered football program.
  • The high school talent vs. FCS/FBS program ratio is great in Wisconsin and neighboring Minnesota.  Did you ever wonder why NDSU is so good? Why all four of the Dakota schools have been so good?  Why the Montanas are so good? Why Boise State is so good?  Why Northern Iowa has been so good?   Why Nebraksa was so good for so long? There is basically a lot of mid to lower end FBS talent in the northern states from Idaho to Wisconsin and almost no FBS programs to claim it.  In Minnesota and Wisconsin, the best 20 kids are spoken for each year, but the next 10 in each state are up for grabs.  The talent base is there waiting to fuel a successful UWM FBS football team. 
  • The net cost difference between MAC-level football and FCS level football can be negligible. The talk at UWM was and is of FCS football, but when you figure in attendance at each level (especially in big cities) and revenue generated offsetting expenses, the net difference between the actual running of an FCS program or an MAC-level FBS program can  fairly negligible---with one general exception...stadium construction costs... which I will discuss in a minute.
  • MAC Football is an exceedingly good financial proposition at UWM.  Milwaukee is a city of 600,000 in a metro area of 2 million. There are a lot of businesses in Milwaukee who would consider buying suites for UWM football.  UWM may actually be in a better position to sell suites than any of the current MAC schools.   UWM has 30,000 students and a huge alumni-base in Milwaukee.  It seems very similar to UTSA 15 years ago.  UTSA was a large enrollment, non-football school located in a big city.  They were a member of an FCS conference.  They looked around and realized FCS football struggles in big cities, so they planned to play FBS ball.  The situation in some ways is even more favorable at UWM, because the MAC schools all have attendance in the 13-22,000 range, so UWM would only need a stadium in the 20-22,000 seat range to satisfy the MAC membership. That is potentially a really cheap stadium and with the population, university enrollment, and alumni base in the city, if the stadium were placed within 1.5 miles of UWM, it should be easy to sell out. And the final exclamation point on this is that a capacity of 20,000 near the university lends itself to sensible traffic management that local residents could tolerate.
  • Because former AD Bud Haidet made everyone at UWM aware of the lay of the land.  The Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel gave us a peak into the mindset at UWM when they quoted the man who was athletic director at UWM from 1988-2009."Without football, you have to rely on basketball and success there for ticket sales, fund raising, fan and student interest."
  • UWM's AD Amanda Braun is seen as a bean counter out of her league by UWM fans.  While I get the perception, no one is "just a bean counter".  Still this is what she has had to live with since a candidate the alumni wanted was passed over to hire her.  Politics makes for strange bedfellows and so do shared interests.  Regardless of sex, people who get into the AD business are very competitive and want to be respected.  What would earn the respect (and donations) of UWM boosters who want football more than her bringing in a MAC invitation?  Having seen her speak, I have little doubt in her heart of hearts that she is more of the mindset of running a program without football ---in fact I think that position, her meticulousness, and her dedication to practicality was likely the key reason she was hired by a beaten down University burnt out on dreamers--- but to earn respect from all UWM alumni (and the raise that comes with football), I would not be surprised if she became a strong advocate if an invite was made.  It isn't a bean counter move.  Plus it makes her other fundraising easier. "I need money for a football stadium! ...and new seats at the women's basketball arena."  "We need training facilities for football!...and a couple extra bleachers and a vending area at the soccer field".
  • Finally, the real final word. If the MAC makes a public offer to UWM and UWM turns it down, it would make life hell for the AD and the President because getting ANY money out of the alumni will be damned near impossible. Given the state of UWM athletics' finances that is a big hammer.

That is about the best offer that can't be refused I can craft.

"Ok....Fine...Where would they play?"

Obviously anyone's first thought is at the Milwaukee Buck's baseball stadium, Miller Park.  I am inclined to think the chances of playing a full season there range between slim and none.  Miller Park has a grass field that the Brewers would not like getting torn up.

Now a game a year there?  The season opener?  That would be exactly what is needed by UWM and may be very agreeable to the Brewers at a fair cost (half the gate?). 

First games are normally very strong draws because fans haven't seen the team yet and are starved for football.  Put the opening day game in a 41,900 seat baseball park with all the amenities one could want and you will have a nice draw with enough room for anyone who wants to come.  Have the MAC schedule either NDSU or Northern Illinois for the game ---two schools that will travel fans to Milwaukee.  Draw a capacity crowd to see the game...then play the rest of your schedule (vs. MAC teams that likely will not travel many fans) in a 20,000 seat UWM stadium  (think soccer specific stadium).

Use Miller Park to paint the picture of a larger total of game attending fans and perception of demand will help spur fans to fill UWM's 20,000 seat stadium.

A 20,000 seat stadium is still very expensive and where are they going to build it?

OK, first of all we need to take the mystery out of stadium deliberations to have an adult discussion on this matter.

"They do not have the money " is not really a valid argument. It isn't like universities who do build stadiums do it totally with cash on hand.  They all take out loans.

And it isn't like a loan can't be secured.  Public universities at this level do not have lousy credit.

The loans are probably always available.  It is getting the approval to secure the loan to build that is the issue.

Really all that has to occur is for university leadership (or state leadership) to rubber stamp a stadium is two things: 1) that a university captures a percentage of the building costs up front from boosters/alumni/fans that makes the university leadership comfortable that they can defend the construction and 2) that revenue, student fees, and alumni/booster/fan donations look very likely to pay off the loan payments on time.

(And sometimes university leaderships will OK a stadium construction loan even if those two things are not in place.)

If the plans have a modest cost, the odds of approval are quite high.

Stadium construction can be hideously expensive, but it doesn't have to be.  All stadiums are not created equal. And frankly, some stadiums are artificially expensive because of conventional wisdom gone bad. 

Plus colleges are guilty of playing the same stadium games as the pros in claiming hardship and then building lavishly.  Keep this in mind.  Just because a stadium one stadium at a certain capacity is expensive doesn't mean they all will be.

Colorado State is building an on-campus 41,000 seat stadium out of pure gold for $220 Million. (Ok it is not out of pure gold, but it you do have to keep in mind that the CSU plan is not just to build a stadium on campus, the plan is to build a high end --- but somewhat small --- stadium and rebuild a huge chunk of the campus around it with some supporting structures. 

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That is way beyond what I am suggesting UWM do.  I would advocate UWM building strictly a stadium, with existing structures filling in for the missing elements for now.

NDSU's FargoDome, an 18,700 seat in-door stadium, would be a nifty idea for UWM as a dome dramatically controls game day attendance attrition after snow storms and can be very much louder than an open air stadium, but building the FargoDome in 1992 cost the equivalent of $89 million today dollars.  While other older domes like the UNI-Dome and Kibbie Dome have much lower translated costs, it is unclear how much of that perceived discount is actually due to design advantages.  Recent  FCS domes suggest a ballpark in line with the higher price tags.  For example, UNDs Alerus Center would cost $107M in today's dollars.  For UWM... maybe next stadium.

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UNT's Apogee Stadium is the country's first LEED stadium, has a ton of bells and whistles, seats 31,000, and was built in 2009 for $78 Million.  It is a beautiful place.  UNT's Athletic department says if it hadn't been built during the hardest moments of the recession Apogee Stadium would have cost $140 Million. I do not know about the veracity of that statement, but having walked on the turf and looked at every inch of the stadium right after it was built weeks before it's first game, I can totally believe UNT got a lot for what it spent due to good timing.  Quality luxury suites, great turf, lots of cement construction, windmills, etc....The question of whether they really needed to spend $78 Million to build a 30,000 seat, lets leave that one alone...

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Akron's more modestly priced but still VERY nice 30,000 seat stadium, InfoCision Stadium, was built the same year for $61 Million.

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The last two outdoor stadiums were built to stand for 30-40 years.  Seeking that can be suspect thinking.  It often doesn't address the fact that the needs of the school today will not match the needs of the school 20 years from now.

Throwing a one-size-fits-all stadium solution at a variable long term problem is often applying bad conventional wisdom.

No one likes sitting in stadiums that are more then say a third or so empty. You can build cheaper stadiums at the needed capacity that are still very nice and are designed to be expanded cheaply.

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Saputo Stadium is a 20,000 seat, 36 suite soccer-specific stadium built in 2008 right on a soccer practice field for a total cost of about $40 Million in today's dollars.  I think every seat is a fan friendly bucket seat and just under 7000 seats are covered.  Something like this would work wonderfully for UWM long term.

Or you could go even cheaper by using modular temporary building techniques or older bench-style stadium construction that use a lot less concrete.

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The Nussli Group built Empire Field,  a 27,528 seat temporary, modular stadium built in three months, on an empty field for $14.4 Million.  (It should be noted that the stadium only existed for one year and the low costs may very well have reflected a rental of the construction materials, not a purchase.) That stadium was nice enough for a pro football team to use for a full season. It had everything a "real" pro stadium has -- it just wasn't permanent. It featured 20,000 bucket seat and like Saputo offered some protection from the elements for fans.  (The Nussli Group has done a lot of time sensitive jobs that apply to football. One season they assembled a 6000 seat grandstand for the University of California in 36 hours and tore it down in 24 hours, over and over as needed, for the length of a season.)

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Maine's Alfond Stadium is an example of cheaper traditional construction.  It has a home grandstand that sits about 8000 and a visitor grandstand that sits about 2000.  The stadium is very functional, but appears to be very bare bones with bleachers instead of bucket seats.  It reminds me of high schools stadiums in some regions, but it still gets the job done effectively.  Alfond Stadium was built in 1998 for the equivalent of $11 Million of today's dollars.  Even with material costs up, why could UWM not have the same home grandstand be built one side of a field and a similar capacity grandstand (without the press boxes and suites) be built on the other side of the field, yielding a 16,000 seat stadium for say $25 Million?  Throw in a pair of 2000 seat bleachers berms in the end zones and you have built a permanent 20,000 seat stadium with a 10 or 15 year lifespan --- or longer --- for maybe a $30 Million cost...

There is nothing at all that says you couldn't build something like that and slowly transition out to bucket seats down the road.

Really, I would argue the wave of the future in stadium construction is building an inexpensive facility that at least parts of it can cheaply be torn down and reworked in sections for future upgrades.

Look, I love Akron's stadium... but not necessarily for the Zips.  Imagine what a better position Akron would be in if their plan called for building a base of a 16,000 seat permanent stadium for say $40 Million and another $10 million on easily disassembled 14,000 seat modular upper level seating and end zone sections.  They would have much better control over ticket supply and demand --- the key to building a growing game day audience.  That is what they need today.

Build what you need today with flexibility for tomorrow.

Imagine a 20,000 seat UWM stadium with a 10 year planned lifespan where rows of seats could be added and removed as needed each week....Where every game would feel like a sell out!  You could have your default 20,000 seat stadium configuration for most games --- IMO your sweet spot in terms of not overrunning the local neighborhood streets with traffic ---  but when you have that end of season big matchup with NIU or NDSU for a bowl game berth, you can easily add 6000 seats.

--- All built for between $15 Million (full modular/temporary time frame) to $40 Million (1 permanent but somewhat inexpensively built home grandstand, a modular grandstand, and two modular berms).  On the higher end it could be a Saputo stadium-like permanent home that is suitable for 30+ years.

If you treat that as a cost on a 5-10 year home, with plans to replace it at that point with a nicer "base" when your boosters are fired up, your stadium costs could be as lower than $3 Million per year for the first 10 years. Home gate and luxury box revenue might pay that off fairly quickly each year.

(And that isn't looking at other revenue streams.  Look at MAC schools that pulled 20,000+ per game last season...UB reported they pulled in $6.7 Million in football revenue last season --- accounting looks suspect --- and Ohio reported they pulled in $8.4 Million --- accounting numbers look real.  You can look up similar programs at the Equity in Athletics website to get a feel for general athletic department finances, but keep in mind it appears very few athletic departments report both expenses and revenue honestly in appropriate fields or consistently from school to school.)

None of my math even looks at booster/alumni donations or merchandise sales.  Especially booster/alumni contributions.

The MAC could possibly have hesitations about this kind of cheaper stadium construction plan, but if you think about it, this is a great business model for MAC members that they can watch UWM refine on UWM's dime.

As far as locations go, UWM has several possible locations available to them.  Some are workable, some would be great but might not be possible, and some would be horrible mistakes.

I have a spot I would champion and a strategy to get it approved but it is a story for another article.  ...Or a consulting fee. UWM, I am happy to visit at any time.  :)

3) Add Stonybrook and Albany as Olympic members.

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Why Olympics members and why them?

The standard payout for Olympic-only members in hybrid conferences is that they are paid 1/3 of a full media membership share.  In a cost vs. return argument, there is no question this duo is worth it.

Additionally, this allows the MAC to publically say, "We want you now for your Olympic sports, but when you both hit 15K in football attendance two years running, you will have the option of electing to join UB as full members."

That spells it out and would drive football attendance and fund raising at both universities.

This addition would give the MAC the three "University Centers" in the SUNY system that are located in good media areas. (The are only 4 UCs total in the system.)

The SUNY UCs are all very strong academic schools and would help the academic perception of the MAC.

Having Buffalo, Albany, and Stony Brook long term will allow the MAC to annex New York State as MAC territory, in exactly the same way they have Michigan and Ohio.  New York state has a population of 19.5 Million and only Syracuse and Army would play football outside the MAC.

Having these two in hand would improve the MAC's ability to recruit FCS schools in the NE.  That sounds off as these two SUNYs are currently passed over in a lesser regional conference, but you have to understand, in the MAC suffers in recriting schools in the NE because they have no members east of Buffalo.  It is very much the same problem the PAC-12 has trying to land UT.

Buffalo may push back on this using conference conventional wisdom, but that would be wrong thinking.  Buffalo in the MAC with these two ---even after they upgrade to FBS --- is a strong position for Buffalo.  Buffalo has the largest fan base and by far the best, most developed football program of the 3 SUNYs.  This would be like UT profiting off playing Texas A&M and Texas Tech in the Big 12. (That in itself is an article.  There are so many benefits....It would be great for Buffalo.)

Neither school is ready to play FBS level football, but at some point soon they could be (especially with a MAC football membership offer in hand to push fundraising).   They are however playing winning basketball and drawing MAC-level attendance in that sport.

Plus there is a lot of basketball talent in New York City.  If the MAC suddenly was accepted as being a NY state conference, those doors open up.

The final product

So we have looked at who is in and who is out.

Now lets evaluate the end product.

I think that is a very solid TV position and with 4 Olympic programs solidly in the NE and the other members of the eastern division in nearby Ohio,  it would ease a lot of the kinds of concerns that lead to UMass walking away.  (Now I am not saying UMass will decide to come back any time soon...I think they have their eye on an American invite.  I am just saying the next coveted school in the NE will look at a much more favorable MAC offering.)

It looks like a dramatically improved conference.  Let's look at football.  You would add two strong FCS programs.  NDSU may actually become the league's football pace setter in the west, dragging up the quality out there. N. Illinois should turn into a rival for the west division crown as they have a good football culture and should benefit from better recruiting via better exposure in the Chicago, Minnesota and Wisconsin areas. Wisconsin-Milwaukee should recruit well and be at least middle of the pack. Toledo, Central Michigan, and Western Michigan would all see gains in talent as they would effectively share in the redistribution of most of EMU's better recruits.

In the east, Buffalo and Ohio at minimum would likely see talent bumps through new recruiting territory in New York and Virginia.

In basketball, if each eastern MAC schools could add a good NYC recruit each year and western schools could recruit Chicago, Milwaukee, and Minnesota better, I have to think MAC basketball would improve on the court.

A Platform for a brighter future

Olympic membership for Albany and Stony Brook would have the MAC as a 14/16 conference. I have designed this to be the stopping point of my article as it is quickly achievable and leaves the MAC in a good position with a lot of flexibility.

That is a perfectly fine stopping point... but the MAC doesn't have to stop there.

With the "superconference" model there is a lot of flexibility.  Due to divisional play, a conference can go with double the members they would have in a single division conference and there is little real difference in terms of scheduling.

So 14 (7 teams per division), 16 (8), 18 (9), or 20 (10) are all good member totals.

What that means is that gives the MAC at least two more slots to easily play with if say a pair of flagship NE universities that add value decide they like the new MAC footprint. 

Potential members down the road...

This kind of MAC has the potential to consume the better parts of the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA).

Delaware in particular could become very interested in this kind of MAC overnight. Delaware is the 76th ranked national university. Delaware has a 22,000 seat stadium and draws big crowds.  Delaware's big thing about not moving up has been they do not want to enter the FBS spending race.  The MAC has never participated in that.   Among FBS conferences the MAC is unusually comfortable in it's own skin. Unlike all other FBS conferences, for Delaware, this new MAC could look like a good, stable long-term fit.

Delaware Stadium averaged 15,682 last season...down from the 20,000+ they normally get.
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Full membership for Delaware and ....????

UMass could change their mind, but they would not be at the top of my list.

William & Mary would.   They are very small for an FBS school, but as MAC budgets are not ridiculous, the MAC would be a viable home. (Not that money matters here --- this is a very, very wealthy public with wealthy alumni.)  The prestige the College of William & Mary could bring  the MAC is immeasurable.  They are the second oldest institution of higher education in the US after Harvard and one of the original "public Ivy's".  They are ranked 33rd as a National University and would be by far the best school in the MAC (as they are in the CAA), but the conference additions above would make it a lot less glaring.   They would have seen the CAA gutted of all their old Virginia opponents and may want to consider coming along to the FBS.   They would be worth selling the MAC's soul to add, but they will either want in or they won't.  No soul required.  They are completing a $27M renovation that will add luxury boxes and increase the stadium's capacity to 15,400.

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New Hampshire?  UNH  is a live dog of a candidate should the MAC make an eastern expansion. Ranked 99th by the US News among National Universities, they would be near the top of the MAC in that regard.  They have an enrollment of 14,761.  They are a state flagship located in the Boston DMA.  They have long had a stadium bottleneck limiting attendance. That is being corrected with a new $25M,  11,000 seat stadium.   The new stadium looks very similar in concept to their old Crowell Stadium with a large home fan grandstand --- this one wraps around into the end zone though (a mistake IMO...see Rynearson Stadium's attendance history.) --- and next to nothing built on the other side of the field.  The good news is that makes for an inexpensive transition into a 18,000 seat MAC acceptable stadium down the road.

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Rhode Island?  In the Bristol/Providence DMA (Would that help any with ESPN????).  Ranked 161 among National universities.  Lets call them middle of the pack in that regard as a MAC member.  An enrollment of 16,795. 22 years ago, URI's Meade stadium sat 10,000.  Today it seats 6580 and is similar to UNH's Crowell Stadium model with a home grandstand attached to the athletic building, except in this instance, the "home side" grandstand is small and the guest side bleacher is large. This looks like a more complicated expansion.  I would probably think to move the field 15 yards to the SSE (to the left) to create space for an end zone berm behind each end zone for students and discount tickets.  Both grandstands could then be lengthened to run from end zone to end zone.

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Maine?  It is in the Bangor DMA, has an 11,247 enrollment is ranked #173 among National Universities, but you cannot totally write them off.  When their old stadium was condemned, their fans got 10,000 seat Alfond Stadium up to snuff. That's a credit to their boosters.  Putting in an end zone berm and extending the guest grandstand into the north end zone might get capacity near 15,000, but likely a lot more work would be needed to get to an FBS capable stadium.

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Or (here's a real outside of the box thought) give a call to Wayne Fredrick and ask if Howard University's president has ever considered taking the school into FBS football.  On the surface that is a "no" as there is  a perception of solidarity among the HBCUs, but I think that is a call worth making... Remember HBCU Florida A&M had a plan to jump to the FBS level about 15 years ago.  If any HBCU should be at the FBS level, shouldn't "The Harvard of the HBCUs"?  Big cities do not support FCS programs and this lack of support has been a long-standing problem at Howard.  DC fans certainly can support DC FBS programs at MAC attendance levels or higher.  RFK stadium is available and it is an infectiously fun home stadium where DC residents love watching games.

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Or the conference could consider football only invites at that point (although I would feverishly argue not to squander the progress made on this)...UMASS and Villanova ---football-only with extensive basketball scheduling agreements?

If football-only candidates were desired, I would be much more inclined to pursue Army and Navy as if the MAC should land them, they would be far more willing to mull over remaining long-term football members over competitiveness reasons --- although it is still a tough sell as a national schedule is far better for the academies' advertising goals than a relatively tight regional footprint.
(Perhaps alternating the academics between divisions each year could make it tolerable for the academies' advertising goals.)

If there are no good football takers, after a couple years the MAC would be well positioned to leverage their markets/TV money and to consider trolling the 4 major metro areas --- Boston, NYC, Washington DC, and Philadelphia for Olympic-only members (at this point, even looking at private universities).

Boston University or Northeastern, Fordham or NJ Tech, George Washington or George Mason, and Drexel?  None of those schools are really rocking in their current conferences (NJIT doesn't even have a conference!).  Being showcased in this kind of  MAC could be a game changer for any of them.

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