How Football Could Be a Way Forward for UMKC Athletics

The University of Missouri in Kansas City has never been a big school, physically or financially. It has grown significantly in the last few decades, but still only boasts a 16,000-student enrollment.

If athletics is the front porch, what gets people to notice you, then the ‘Roos porch is in need of a complete overhaul.

Maybe hiring Brandon Martin away from Cal State-Northridge to be athletics director, or bringing Billy Donlon in from Northwestern to be the new basketball coach, will make a difference.

Maybe none of the eleven players currently in the transfer portal leave.

It would still take a lot of hard work to turn around an athletics department whose budget hasn’t been trending in the right direction for a while.

Despite the obvious caveats about collegiate bookkeeping and public records availability, we can see the basics in these images from the USA Today database:

UMKC, it turns out, is dead last in the Western Athletic Conference in number of donors, behind even the budgetary quagmire that is Chicago State. Maybe new leadership will mean new beginnings because the last go-round was truly misguided at best.

Navigating a New Path…But to Where?

The Kangaroos moved from the Summit League to the Western Athletic Conference heading into 2013-14 academic year because they felt that NCAA tournament shares were their best way to achieve a revenue boost from athletics.

Every April after March Madness, the NCAA calculates how many tournament units each conference has accumulated (one unit per tournament game played until the Final Four) and adds up the number of units that conference has earned in the previous year, and gives the conference that number of units times the value of a unit in that year.

In 2019, a single unit is worth $280,300 which means that a conference that has been one-and-done for each of the last six tournaments would receive a payment of $1,681,800.

Not every conference benefits equally; the more bids you get in a given year, the better. The better a matchup you get, the more likely you are to advance and earn another unit for the tally.

Gonzaga is a great example of this benefit, where the entire West Coast Conference benefits from Gonzaga (and a couple other schools’) tournament success, while Gonzaga also benefits from those dollars as well as an easier path to the tournament with a conference that overall is relatively weak.

We’ve talked about the shelf life of this in recent past, but it’s been a good setup for two decades.

Unfortunately for UMKC, they were dead wrong about having an easier path.

2011-12 2012-13 2013-14
Idaho Idaho Idaho
NMSU NMSU NMSU
La Tech La Tech Seattle
SJSU SJSU Bakersfield
USU USU Chicago State
Fresno Seattle Grand Canyon
Hawaii Denver UTRGV
Nevada UTA Utah Valley
UTSA UMKC
Texas State

 

That table is the membership of the WAC for the three-year period that ended with UMKC’s first year in the conference. The poaching by the Mountain West and the erosion that ensued created massive instability within the WAC.

By the time UMKC joined the conference, New Mexico State, Seattle U, and Idaho were the only member schools who were any more tenured than the Kangaroos, and Idaho left the following year.

The conference has stabilized since, but that’s at least partly due to it being an Island of Misfit Basketball Programs.

Even before that turbulence, the WAC wasn’t ever truly a better conference than the Summit, as evidenced by their earning seven NCAA units in the six years prior to UMKC joining, compared to the six that the Summit League earned.

Most of that success came as a result of New Mexico State being the Gonzaga of the WAC, but even without that scenario, UMKC wasn’t exactly about to start playing the role of BYU or Saint Mary’s.

The Kangaroos haven’t ever been a consistently good enough basketball program to take advantage of what relative weakness there is. In six seasons in the Summit League, the ‘Roos never finished in the top half of the conference and went 0-4 in the conference tournament.

In six seasons in the WAC, they’ve finished tied for second once during the regular season and have improved their conference tournament record to 3-6 but still have yet to even play for an auto-bid, let alone secure one.

They’re not getting any additional boost from NCAA tournament revenue (the Summit League has earned eight units the past six years compared to six for the WAC) and they’re also having to spend more on travel in a conference whose members are nowhere near Kansas City.

Changing conferences itself isn’t a bad idea, but they went to a conference where travel increased greatly for all sports, and a conference with fewer top-end basketball teams for an easier tournament path only matters if you yourself are a top-end team.

So What Path Do They Take Instead?

Now, they want a new blueprint for the future, one that will likely be led by Martin and to a lesser extent by Donlon. They’ll need a new plan to go forward now that they are starting to debate whether to even continue sponsoring athletics at the Division I level.

I personally think that blueprint should not only continue at the Division I level, but should also include football.

But wait, you say, there are schools left and right that are losing money because of football, why would a school that is struggling financially want to add this albatross of a sport?

Well football, in general, doesn’t cost what you think it costs (to the university itself). Not to say that football costs nothing, but many schools have made football look more expensive than it actually is for generally shady and self-serving purposes.

In the case of UMKC, they are less than 15 minutes from Arrowhead Stadium, home of the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs. I imagine that perhaps they could work out a deal to use Arrowhead Stadium and the Chiefs’ practice facilities as their own until the creation of their own facilities became feasible. Barring that, they could also talk with Sporting KC, the local MLS club, about a similar arrangement.

Right, but how do they produce the revenue to bolster the university and afford to start building facilities? The Pioneer Football League.

The Pioneer League is a beacon in a sea of madness at the FCS level, as the conference is comprised of schools who have all other sports at the Division I level, but who choose to sponsor football as a non-scholarship sport.

You may have heard of them, as they were in the news last year for a membership change now that Campbell University is leaving to play scholarship football in the Big South, while Presbyterian is doing the opposite to become a league member in 2021.

The positive here is that a Pioneer League team means fielding a roster of anywhere from 100 to 120 players, all of whom are paying tuition but not getting a scholarship.

The average Pioneer League roster has 90 players, and if we assume that half of those players pay in-state tuition at UMKC (about $7,800 per year) and the other half pay out-of-state tuition (about $18,400), that means about $1.18 million in additional revenue which could climb over $1.5 million with a different mix of in-state/out-of-state as well as a larger roster.

Obviously, there would need to be the addition of women’s sports to achieve some Title IX balance, but keep in mind the same concept we were working with for football – opportunity cost.

Yes, having a football team does produce expenses that were not present before, but there are not as many finite expenses in creating and running a football program as there are tuition dollars rolling in from athletes who would not be on campus without the existence of these sports.

This is even more true for a school like UMKC that could have access to ready-made facilities in the short-term. Other sports added to balance the Title IX equation would generate similar revenue opportunities but also be less resource-intensive.

In the best case scenario, this would allow UMKC to eventually move to the Missouri Valley Conference, which is a far better conference competitively as well as geographically. In the worst case, the benefit never really appears and the program reverts to likely being a club sport.

UMKC moving to the WAC would never have been good unless they were extremely sure that the quality of the conference would allow them an easier path to the NCAA tournament, or they were moving from a one-bid basketball league to one with multiple bids, because the increase in travel would be so drastic.

Instead, the only benefit they’re seeing is the residual effects of playing in a conference whose best teams are regularly good enough to actually win NCAA tournament games here and there. That’s a benefit of no more than $100,000-200,000 per year at best, which is easily eaten up and then some by the additional travel.

Maybe Brandon Martin and Billy Donlon have what it takes to make UMKC men’s basketball in the near future what NMSU is now, but that doesn’t really change the money equation in a meaningful way.

Maybe the Roo Fund manages to patch the holes in the floor of the boat if not pay for a whole new one. But there’s a lot of work to be done simply to rectify the poor choice that was made in changing conferences, and adding football revenue is definitely not the worst idea on the table.

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