Yet another clickbait article talking about North Dakota State moving up to the FBS?

The title of this article alone probably made most Bison fans shake their heads and continue scrolling to a different part of the internet. Who could blame them? North Dakota State is one of the first teams mentioned whenever the topic of FCS to FBS jumpers comes up so they’re well versed in the arguments for and against the move.

The idea to join the already long and well-documented discourse is based on a previous article we did in August 2018. We looked at NDSU to the FBS before when we brought up multiple FCS teams who might be potential candidates to move up.

So why revisit this argument with another article?

The last post was designed to give a few quick hits without delving too deep into each scenario. This article will go much further and also bring up a few other destinations for NDSU not mentioned in the previous article.

We will begin with a history of NDSU football and the arguments for the Bison to move up.



North Dakota State History

North Dakota State is a relative newcomer to Division I athletics. They were a member at the Division II level for much of their history from 1922 through 2003. Then came the move up to Division I starting in 2004 where the journey began in Great West Football Conference. The Bison moved to its current home – the Missouri Valley Football Conference – starting in 2008.

And we all know what has happened since – 8 FCS Championships over the last decade and a stranglehold over the subdivision each season. They have also produced the likes of quarterbacks Carson Wentz and Trey Lance while current FBS coaches Craig Bohl (Wyoming) and Chris Klieman (Kansas State) were both at the helm for multiple NDSU titles.

That’s where most of the NDSU to FBS arguments stem from: the Bison dominance at the FCS level. The next logical step is to take on the big boys of FBS because there is nothing left to “prove” against FCS foes. North Dakota State can surely make more money by moving to the FBS, right?

We put quotes around the word prove because the Bison have proven time and time again they are not to be trifled with on the gridiron. This point will come up again near the end of the article.

Before we go on, let’s talk about the Missouri Valley Football Conference for a second. Below is a map showing the location of all 11 teams in the MVFC.



The MVFC is quite expansive stretching from the upper Midwest to eastern Ohio and southern Missouri. That can make travel costly for a team like Youngstown State with a few treks to the Dakotas. Since we are focusing on North Dakota State in this article, the travel considerations can be interesting depending on how the schedule shakes out. In fact, the Bison lost $41,000 in football for the 2018-19 season despite drawing an average of 18,000 fans per contest for 11 home games.

The below table shows how far North Dakota State is from every other MVFC school using two methods. The first is calculated using Google Maps by typing in the two schools. The second method uses a direct line or “as the crow flies” calculation using this website.



SchoolGoogle MapsDirect Line
Indiana State835697.1
Illinois State691.7588.2
Missouri State767.8693.8
North Dakota74.372.1
Northern Iowa452.4370.2
South Dakota301284
South Dakota State188.1178
Southern Illinois875.6742.7
Western Illinois637538.4
Youngstown State1,043.8894.8
Totals5,866.75,093.3
Average586.7505.9


That’s a sizeable difference between Google Maps and the direct line method. While NDSU may opt to take a bus as a member of the MVFC to certain games, this article is looking at moving up to FBS, which would lead to more flights. Thus, we opt to use the direct line method in all calculations referenced below but we wanted to be transparent in considering both methods.

When running our calculations we will try round the numbers in most cases. It can be dizzying to remember 484.3 or 4,098.5 when rounding them off paints the same picture. Furthermore, some numbers and calculations will be off by 1 or 2 miles due to rounding when multiplication is applied.

We will begin with the least likely scenario of the Big Ten (yes, THAT Big Ten).



The Big Ten



We know. This is the most preposterous speculation ever involved with NDSU moving to the FBS. Straight from FCS to a Power 5 conference? Ain’t happening.

We agree that this is not going to happen but we wanted to expand on this specific scenario is presented for several reasons. The first is that we said the Big Ten is the best geographical fit in our 2018 article and we will prove that. The second reason is for comparison purposes between other conferences referenced below. Finally, the long-term argument for moving up will be addressed.

Let’s play this scenario out assuming that NDSU moves up into the Big Ten’s West Division. We will take a look at the travel distance between the Bison and the rest of the Big Ten using the direct line method described above. Below is a map of the Big Ten showing NDSU in green, East division teams in blue, and West division teams in Orange.



SchoolDirect Line Distance
Indiana743.6
Maryland1,138.9
Michigan716.5
Michigan State668.5
Ohio State837.7
Penn State1,030.1
Rutgers1,194.5
Illinois635.5
Iowa445.3
Minnesota216.8
Nebraska419.9
Northwestern559.9
Purdue665.3
Wisconsin447.7
Totals9,720.2
Average694.3


The average distance between Fargo and the 7 members of the Big Ten West division is 484 miles while the average distance to the East division teams is 904 miles. Assuming the Big Ten keeps a 9 game conference schedule, the Bison would face 7 West teams per season and 2 East teams person. On average, they would face 3.5 West teams per season on the road and 1 East team on the road.

What is the average distance if North Dakota State was in the Big Ten using the above parameters?

East Total: 904 miles (one road game per year)

West Total: 1,695 miles (3.5 road games per year)

Total Miles: 2,600 miles per season (on average).

Given the current average of 506 miles per road game, the Bison would travel a total of 2,024 miles for the four road games in the MVFC. Under the Big Ten assumptions, this would increase to roughly 2,600 miles on average for road games. This represents an increase of 28% from the current arrangement.

(We are aware this may not always hold as conferences protect certain annual rivalries but to keep a consistent standard, we assume there is a constant rotation among all the schools).

The increase actually not that bad and membership in the Big Ten would easily offset the increase in travel. So let’s get to the ‘no way it’s happening’ verdict and discuss other issues in the event of a long-term plan to move up to the FBS.


The Big Ten Long-Term Play

This scenario is not going to happen as we stated above and this extends to any long-term plan or hope as well.

Fargo is simply not the type of footprint the Big Ten expands to. Fargo’s market is ranked #116 in the US with roughly 218,000 TV households. That’s 100,000 less than Iowa City (Iowa) and 30,000 less than Lincoln (Nebraska). The difference is Nebraska can bring in the Omaha market with an additional 381,000 households as the lone FBS team in the state of Nebraska. Nebraska can also bring along the large endowments, academic research capabilities, and resources that the Big Ten craves, which NDSU simply cannot.

Even the additions of Maryland and Rutgers make sense to reach a larger audience despite the poor athletic performances of each team. Maryland brings in Baltimore, DC, and Virginia markets while Rutgers adds in Philadelphia and New York City markets. That’s a trade-off the Big Ten is willing to make because the access to those markets has led to a growth in revenues, additional marketing avenues, and a spreading of the Big Ten brand.

The Big Ten had the highest distribution per school at $55.6 million while the SEC was second at $45.3 million. The Big 12 was third-best among conferences around $40 million per school. The ACC and Pac-12 both paid out an average of around $30 million per school.

For North Dakota State, this would be a no-brainer. Costs, both travel and administratively, would increase heavily across the board but would be offset by a massive revenue increase. The biggest outlay would be a new stadium as the Fargodome seats only 19,000. The capacity would need to be tripled from the current number to be even close to mid-tier size in the Big Ten.

Building a new stadium would be an easy decision even if revenues drop to $40 million a year from the Big Ten Network. The stadium could be paid off fairly quickly under a move up with an aggressive payback schedule.

For the Big Ten, this makes absolutely no sense. It would basically add a 15th member for little return. This best-case scenario was done to highlight some areas of concern for other conferences as well as showcase the long-term difficulties if NDSU had its sights set on reaching the pinnacle of the FBS decades down the road.


Other Power 5 Conferences

No, we are not advocating that they will end up in another Power 5 conference. However, we did crunch the numbers for the increased average distance for the Big 12 and Pac-12 to further illustrate how ridiculous the geographic spread would reach.

For the Big 12, we had three different results based on the number of conference games. We used eight games, nine games (the current format), and ten games (assumed the Big 12 kept the round-robin format). The results are below.

8 game conference schedule: 61% increase in average distance traveled compared to the current MVFC average.

9 game conference schedule: 81% increase.

10 game conference schedule: 101% increase.

For the Pac-12, we assumed the Bison would be placed in the North Division and the 9-game conference schedule remained in place. The increase from the current costs in the MVFC would be a staggering 172%!! Obviously, the revenue and stadium expansion expense would explode if the Bison moved up to the Pac-12 or Big 12. Travel would also increase for all sports in this unlikely scenario as the conferences would not want a football-only member.

The ACC and SEC numbers were not calculated as North Dakota State simply does not fit anywhere outside the Big Ten geographically. Keep these Power 5 numbers in mind as we move towards the end of the article because there should be an obvious pattern emerging.


Mountain West

Alright, now we’re getting back to earth with a reasonable suggestion, one we made in 2018. The hypothesis we made was that the Bison would need to transfer to a conference to gain a foothold towards becoming a strong FBS team akin to Boise State, a pre-Big 12 TCU, or Utah before they joined the Pac-12. How does the suggestion to move up to the Mountain West hold up now?

Once again we start with a map of the proposed Mountain West plus NDSU. The Bison are marked with green, Mountain division teams are in blue, and West division teams are in orange.



Let’s assume that NDSU moves into the Mountain Division, which is the closest geographic division. The average distance to division members would be 757 miles on average per game. Based on three road games a season, the Bison would travel 2,270 miles just for division contests. Throw in one road game a year at a West division team and that average goes up to 4,020 miles per season thanks to Hawaii. Removing the distance to Hawaii drops the average to about 3,600 miles per season as they would only face them once every 6 years in football.

Keeping the percentages going, the Bison would see the travel distance increase by 99% compared to the current MVFC setup.



SchoolDirect Line Distance
Air Force608.3
Boise State968
Colorado State600.4
New Mexico961.6
Utah State821.3
Wyoming581.3
Fresno State1,363.4
Hawaii3,799.3
Nevada1,259.1
San Diego State1,444
San Jose State1,436.3
UNLV1,201.7
Totals15,044.7
Average1,253.7


So… how does that suggestion from two years ago hold up?





Yeah, that doesn’t hold up well at all.

Revenues would undoubtedly surge under the latest Mountain West TV deal but would it be enough to offset the increase in expenses that convinces the Bison to move on up? No. In fact, as of 2018, North Dakota State paid $5.6 million due to game and travel expenses for sports according to the Knight Commission. That is already a higher amount than 8 teams in the Mountain West even before a hypothetical jump. Add in a doubling of the distance and the revenue increases disappear quickly.

One other factor to consider is if the Bison were to go to the Mountain West, would they be a football-only member or a full-member? If it’s the former the revenue they receive would be roughly half of a full share. Throw in the possibility of Boise State leaving the MWC on top of all that and the breaks are smashed in record time on this idea.

None of this even accounts for increased expenses related to upgraded facilities, scholarships, athletic aid, and coaching salaries that will also increase with a move up to the FBS. Nor does it factor in if the Mountain West even would welcome NDSU with open arms as part of a long-term partnership. We were dead wrong back in 2018 and that deserves a big yikes.



MAC

A scenario we didn’t cover in our 2018 article but one that has been mentioned elsewhere was a move to the MAC. Given how well the Bison currently perform against FBS teams, it makes sense they would end up in the MAC as they already have the quality to compete for the MAC Championship each season.

First, let’s assume NDSU moves up and is placed into the MAC West Division. It would cause a skew for the Bison to have to travel further east more often than they currently do in the MVFC. Still, it seems manageable on paper. Let’s take a look at a map of the proposed conference followed by the numbers.



Assuming the 8 game conference schedule holds, NDSU would play 3 MAC West opponents on the road at an average of 664 miles per game or 1,993 miles on average per season. The one road game at the East division would average out to 849 miles per season for a grand total of 2,842 miles traveled per season.

The increase in distance traveled on average per season in the MAC would go up 40% compared to the current average in the MVFC.



SchoolDirect Line Distance
Akron857.8
Bowling Green754.5
Buffalo918.6
Kent State862.8
Miami (OH)792.1
Ohio905.4
Ball State733
Central Michigan627.6
Eastern Michigan722.5
Northern Illinois523.3
Toledo744.6
Western Michigan635.4
Totals9,077.6
Average756.5


40% is not too bad given the increased exposure as an FBS team. Assuming the Bison continue to excel on the field and are a perennial MAC title contender, the media revenue distribution would climb from $1.6 million to about $4 million (based on 2018 data).

There’s a major caveat to playing in the MAC and that is the Tuesday and Wednesday night #MACtion that has become a staple of college football. Ticket sales at NDSU account for a fifth of the revenue according to the Knight Commission. That comes out to be $5.7 million (best at the FCS level among public institutions) but that’s based on games played mostly on Saturday as well as several additional FCS home playoff games.

A move to weeknights? That simply does not fit well with NDSU’s gameday ambiance and would devastate ticket sales. NDSU would be a lot less scary on Tuesday night against Northern Illinois in front of a crowd of 9,000 but not exactly a selling point for the Bison to move up. Remember, NDSU lost $41,000 in 2018-19 with 11 home games. Halve the number of games and fans and you’re looking at massive losses.

The MAC simply does not make sense given what NDSU has built with its gameday atmosphere and the high-level performance at the FCS level. Would a move to the MAC and the prospect of weeknight football really excite the donor base? No.


Other Options

The American Athletic Conference has been cited as an intriguing possibility. The AAC brings in $7 million a year per school under a new TV deal, which is good for NDSU but the AAC has been laser-focused on being taken credibly so they probably aren’t even aware NDSU would help the conference on aggregate. Note that $7 million per year is for full member schools so a football-only NDSU program would receive half of that.

The most recent news has linked Boise State to possibly become the 12th football member of the AAC, which would make the path for NDSU even tougher unless another slot opened up. For argument’s sake, let’s say NDSU is added as a football-only member.

Combining the $3.5 million with the $5.7 million in ticket sales and the Bison are looking at roughly $9.2 million in revenue per season. We will call it an even $10 million as attendance would likely increase as an FBS member.

The AAC average distances would more than double (116%) under the assumption the Bison would be a member of the West Division. That would wipe out some of the revenue gained from higher TV disbursements though they could see additional revenue in other forms such as donations, increased admissions, corporate sponsorships, etc.

Would NDSU be willing to take the risk to move up to the AAC for more TV money and more widespread recognition in the face of higher travel costs, financial aid, and coaching salaries? Maybe but in a post-pandemic world, there is uncertainty over whether future TV deals will continue their upward trend.

(The AAC deal is locked in for another decade through 2031-32 but what lies beyond that for college athletics remains to be seen with issues such as the NIL legislation and how that may impact revenues).

If the Bison struggle on the football field, would the donors and fans still be coming out in droves? Does NDSU really want to jump to the AAC/FBS to have an infinitesimally small chance of even being considered for the College Football Playoff? Is swapping annual Dakota rivalries worth it to start new ones against the likes of Memphis, SMU, and Tulane appealing?

We did not look at the Sun Belt nor Conference USA as the Bison would be worse off in terms of TV revenue if they opted for either one of those conferences.


Summary

That was a lot of information so let’s provide a table to summarize the facts and figures. The below table is based on current scheduling arrangements and assumes the Bison are placed in West Divisions for all conferences except the Big 12 (no divisional split) and Pac-12 (North Division).

The average distance is the total miles traveled for the road games per season, the increase for miles is based on the MVFC average of 2,024 per season, and the percentage increase the difference based on the MVFC average.



ConferenceAverage Distance
(Overall)
Increase (Miles)Increase (%)
AAC4,3732,349116%
Big 123,6621,63981%
Big Ten2,59957628%
MAC2,84281840%
Mountain West4,0991,99799%
Pac-125,5063,482172%
MVFC2,024--


Final Thoughts

Remember when we said to keep those Power 5 numbers in mind? The best fit – the Big Ten – is the one that will never happen.*

The MAC and Mountain West both have serious drawbacks. In the MAC, any additional revenue would be quickly erased by the cratering of ticket sales, which NDSU relies heavily upon. In the MWC, it would be the increase in travel costs that cannibalizes any minimal increase in revenue.

* If North Dakota State was dead set on moving to the FBS (to which there is no evidence they are even considering a move) then a move to the Mountain West or MAC would be worth it if they had plans to eventually join a major conference. They might be willing to take a few decades of increased costs if it will pay off down the line in the form of higher TV/ticket sales or increased student admissions/student fees.

But colleges, especially in a post-pandemic outlook, are not going to seriously consider such a plan given how much needs to go right and how easy it would be for things to go wrong to obliterate those plans and finances.

Further to this point, how many schools went from being a Group of 5 program and jumped up into a Power 5 Conference? TCU in the Big 12 and Utah in the Pac-12 are the only programs to do so if we are not counting former Big East programs. Even TCU has historical ties back to the old Southwest Conference so their current standing in the Big 12 isn’t nearly as unlikely as an FCS program vaulting to the P5 within two or three decades. Bridging the gap from the FCS to the FBS is difficult but the gulf between Group of 5 and Power 5 is nearly impossible as the gap is widening under the current playoff format.

The long rant about Fargo’s small TV market was not just to pad the word count or to dunk on NDSU and Fargo. It was to show how difficult a move from a Group of 5 conference up to a Power 5 conference would be if it happened two or three decades down the line. North Dakota State would have some high hurdles to overcome as a serious candidate to extend an offer to and no doubt they are aware of this. *

One reason we didn’t mention above but has a big impact regardless of a move is the scheduling aspect. The Bison have won 9 games since 2006 against FBS teams. The conference breakdown of those wins? 3 wins apiece against the Big Ten and Big 12, 2 versus the MAC, and 1 against the Mountain West. They have only two scheduled games against FBS teams in 2022 (Arizona) and 2024 (Colorado).

Most FBS schools are hesitant to go up against NDSU because they know they might lose. One of the goals when moving up to the FBS is to get more recognition but that becomes harder to do when big-time programs avoid scheduling you and beating up on lower G5 teams provides little marginal return in that department. Money games will also be harder to come by for NDSU if they are looking to offset increased expenses from a move up.

So, what does that leave?

North Dakota State is far better off maintaining the status quo and remaining in the MVFC. For the Bison, being a shark amongst minnows is a far better option than attempting to become a minnow with the faint hopes of one day becoming a shark.

NDSU has all the regional rivalries within the MVFC and does quite well despite the smaller market. They recently signed a state-wide deal with NBC and will also spill over into parts of Minnesota and Montana. Plus, the Bison (and MVFC) are part of the ESPN+ platform, which is one of the better digital options right now for consumers due to the low annual price point.

The rest of the FCS may not like it but many administrators are probably aware of the predicament that NDSU would face if they pursued a move to the FBS. A lot of aspects have to fall into place to be successful as we have seen with programs such as Appalachian State while the right conditions and environment have to be in place. Right now, the environment is extremely unfavorable for most FCS teams to move up to the FBS including the Bison.

North Dakota State has shown no intention of moving up. Nor should they.

Photo courtesy of North Dakota State Athletics

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