Those red white and blue picnic supplies and matching tee shirts are on display in retail stores, reminding us that another celebration of Independence Day is right around the corner.
For approximately 1,000 young men and women, Reception Day (aka R-Day) will come first, as the Class of 2021 will soon assemble for their first traumatic day of life at West Point. GoBlackKnights.com will then be focused on providing you with information on the new plebes on this year’s football squad; so before we get preoccupied with that task, we’d like to pay tribute to the independence of Army football by examining some of the reasons often cited for abandoning independence in favor of conference affiliation.
Back in 1776, not every colonist was in favor of independence, and historians estimate that about a third of the colonists were pushing hard for independence, while another third, commonly known as the Tories, argued for remaining loyal to the king. We see similar divisions of opinion among Army fans when it comes to the issue of remaining independent versus joining a conference, but fortunately the debate on this issue is considerably more amicable.
Independence is generally considered a good thing, and I will admit to my own bias toward remaining independent in football. For most of its early history Army was but one of several major independent teams, and I first became a fan when Army, Navy, Penn State, Pitt, Syracuse, and Boston College were all independents and competed for the Lambert Trophy. Then one by one the eastern teams joined conferences, eventually leaving Army and Navy as the only two remaining major independents in the East.
In the late 90s the Athletic Director and the head coach at Army West Point got caught up in the trend and approached the new superintendent with an urgent recommendation to join Conference USA. The team had recently gone 10-2, but with no bowl tie-in, they faced the possibility of missing out on a bowl game. The AD and coach were convinced that they needed to be part of a conference to prevent that from happening in the future. After visiting the member schools and noting their proximity to several Army bases and Army fans, Dan Christman agreed with their proposal, and Army West Point joined C-USA in 1998. Conference affiliation created a more difficult schedule than Army was used to playing in recent years, and after 6 years of losing seasons, Army paid a rather stiff penalty fee to withdraw from the conference and return to independent status.
Arguments Often Made for Affiliation
Despite that negative experience with C-USA, a number of fans, perhaps influenced by the recent success of Navy in the AAC, argue that Army West Point needs to join a conference, and the reasons often stated are the same:
Army will miss out on bowl opportunities
This was the primary motivation behind the athletic director’s push for joining C-USA in the 90s; but the 2016 season experience suggests that it is no longer a significant concern, now that there are 39 bowl games all looking for teams with winning records from the 130 teams in the FBS.
Army West Point had no bowl tie-in in 2016 and was not even considered a winning team at the time they received their invitation to the Heart of Dallas Bowl. The win over Lafayette was not counted toward bowl eligibility; so they were competing against teams with a 5-7 record for an invitation. The fact that Army did not have a bowl tie-in just added to the suspense for some of us who were keeping track of the situation toward the end of the season, and the Heart of Dallas Bowl turned out to be a welcome reward for a successful year.
Unless several more teams move up to FBS or some bowl games are dropped, West Point can count on being invited to participate somewhere as long as they are eligible. They will miss the opportunity to play in bowl games reserved for conference champions, but the Power Five conferences control access to the best bowls, and it’s highly unlikely that Army will ever be invited to join a Power Five conference.
It’s too difficult to schedule as an independent
We always thought that the athletic director should know more about this issue than anyone on the planet; so in anticipation of Independence Day, GoBlackKnights.com asked Army West Point Athletic Director Boo Corrigan for his opinion on the difficulty of scheduling as an independent. This was his response:
“We have not had any trouble scheduling games, that’s not been a problem for us ... with who we are, who we represent, we are a draw. People are interested in playing us from a home game standpoint and to this date it hasn’t been an issue scheduling those games.”
“Now, is it harder certain months than it is other months to schedule games? Yeah, it is. And when you try to lock people in 6, 7 & 8 years out right now, absolutely we are. It’s an ever changing dynamic in college football and at the end of the day, back in the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s Army helped build what college football has become in the 2000’s and we have a place at the table and to date, that has not been an issue.”
One the things we like about being an independent is the opportunity to schedule a variety of opponents, but one idea that our readers have tossed about recently is what team, other than Navy and Air Force if any, we would like to see Army play on a regular basis, similar to the annual contest between Navy and Notre Dame. We asked Corrigan if he had a team he’d like to schedule on an annual basis and this was his response.
“You are asking a guy who went to Notre Dame to find a team .... I like to play Notre Dame. That being said, the idea of playing another regional team, we’ve played Connecticut since I’ve been here, we’ve played Rutgers since I’ve been here, Syracuse is on the schedule. Football in New York, football in the northeast ... there are only so many BCS teams in this area and the idea of us playing them is appealing to everyone.”
Army West Point is missing out on Conference Revenue
When Navy agreed to join the Big East back in 2011, part of their motivation was a potentially lucrative television contract similar to those enjoyed by the other BCS affiliates, but that carrot disappeared when the best teams from the Big East left for the ACC and the Big East was dropped from the BCS consortium that controlled the New Year’s Day bowls.
Not happy with the football powers calling the shots, seven private big basketball schools of the Big East decided to strike out on their own and took the Big East name along with them. The remaining football group established the American Athletic Conference, a defacto member of the Group of Five. In the process, they lost out on the promise of the lucrative TV contract and now had to compete for the one New Year’s Day spot reserved for the top ranked champion from the Group of Five. Despite its claim of still being one of the power conferences, the AAC has been edged out for that G-5 bowl spot more often than not, and they’ve posted a losing record in bowl games the past two years. They were 8th among the conferences in bowl revenue distributions this past season.
We’ve often believed that Army West Point earns as much or more than most Group of Five teams in media revenues; so we were interested in the information included in the recently distributed report to the Department of Education from the Army Athletic Department detailing revenues earned in the 2015-16 season. Army West Point reported revenues from media rights totaling $2,795,000, and presumably most of that comes from the CBS television contract. Compare that with a recently published article in the Virginia-Pilot stating that the TV contract for the entire Conference USA would be 2.8 million for the 2016-2017 season (about $200,000 per school), and we see that West Point is doing far better than most.
The Mountain West has an unusual arrangement for distributing their TV revenue based on which channels they appeared on, and in 2014, Boise State received $3.7 million, while 9 MWC schools received between $300,000 and $2.4 million, and UNLV got nothing.
Of course we know that one big reason for that media revenue is the rights to televise the Army Navy game. We recently read about the new TV contract with CBS Sports, along with rumors that the new contract was around $10 million; so we asked Corrigan if he could provide any details.
“I wish it was that number, but it’s not. The good thing about being an independent in this respect is that we get to represent Army and Navy, where we are not representing ten schools ... we’re not doing any of that. And it’s about the commitment to this game and I think that is part of the uniqueness of what it is.”
“All of college football is great and it’s a wonderful thing,” he added. “We think we’ve got a game that is a little different than what the other games are and we have the opportunity to go out and talk to people about that game.”
“We are thrilled that CBS has chosen to extend it, we are happy and ecstatic on where we are with CBS and the timeframe and commitment that they have made to the game.”
Among the fans that favor joining a conference, the AAC is usually their first recommendation, in part because we’d be in the same conference with Navy, but changing Army Navy to a conference game would necessitate scheduling the game during the regular season. We asked Corrigan if he would ever consider an affiliation that would change the current arrangement for playing the Army Navy game a week after the end of the regular season for most teams.
“No, I think that’s our weekend. That’s the weekend for America’s Game and I really believe that. Because we are different. You [fans] judge if we are better or worse, that’s not for me to do, but I will say that we are different.”
“I think that the respect that the commissioners have shown to this game being different, other schools have shown to this game being different is a testament to that. And at the end of the day, our kids in these games are going on to do great things and I think it’s a recognition of that.”
Another economic factor often overlooked by the average fan is that Army West Point is at or near the top of the FBS in a source of revenue identified as “Guarantees” in the annual report. That is money that is paid out for participation in away games. For the 2015-16 season, West Point reported revenueof $4,890,000 from away games.
While Army West Point can’t compete with Power Five schools in revenue, they are ahead of most Group of Five schools, and joining a G-5 conference would not likely generate more revenue.
Limited Options Available
Another consideration is that Army’s conference options are limited. Most conferences are all-sports conferences and are, frankly, not interested in inviting a school to be a football-only member. All of the Power Five conferences compete against each other in multiple sports, most notably basketball and football which are their two revenue producing sports. They invite schools to be associate members in a few minor sports, but not for football or basketball.
Geographic proximity is a more important consideration for the minor sports than it is for football, and often we see schools like West Virginia expressing concern about the distances their teams have to travel to compete with other teams in their conference. Proximity is even more important for schools that don’t generate the amount of revenue that Power Five schools do; so the Group of Five conferences have stronger economic reasons for remaining more regional.
The MAC is the only G-5 conference that currently includes New York in its footprint. It’s an all-sports conference, concentrated in the midwest, and all 12 of its members participate in both football and basketball.
The Sunbelt originated as a non-football conference and it is geographically limited to southern states. All 12 members participate in basketball and 10 participate in football.
Conference USA, as its name implies has always been one of the more geographically distributed conferences, but like the others it is an all sports conference, in which 13 of its 14 members participate in all of the conference-sponsored sports. UAB dropped football a few years back but appears to have reversed that decision bringing the number of football schools back up to 14. C-USA is one of two conferences with the kind of geographical diversity that would fit Army’s national profile.
The AAC formed from the dissolution of the Big East, poached several of the top teams from C-USA and became the most geographically distributed of the G-5 conferences. The AAC is an all sports conference, but obviously includes one-sport members, most notably Navy in football-only. The AAC was formed out of conference turmoil and is still susceptible to additional change as it’s top members openly seek invitations to join one of the Power 5 conferences.
The Mountain West Conference hosts 11 full members, including Air Force, that participate in football and basketball, with one football-only associate member, Hawaii. Air Force participates in all 8 sports sponsored by MWC but has to send teams to other conferences for other sports. Competing at the MWC level in most sports has had a negative effect on Air Force trophy case displays. Since 1999, Air Force has won only 9 MWC men’s trophies, 1 regular season championship in basketball, 1 in cross country, 4 in outdoor track and 3 in indoor track. Despite its several outstanding seasons in football, it has never won the MWC football championship. AFA has also never won an MWC championship in Baseball, Golf, Swimming, or Tennis. Their women’s teams participate in 8 sports in the MWC but have never brought home a conference championship trophy.
Army and Navy both enjoy membership in the Patriot League for most sports, which provides an appropriate level of competition and keeps their travel costs well within reason. Boo Corrigan was recently named Athletic Director of the Year, and in addition to his financial success, he was cited for bringing a winning spirit to West Point. During Corrigan’s tenure West Point has earned 23 league regular season or tournament championships and sent 11 teams to the NCAA postseason.
When Navy joined the AAC, it left just 4 teams as independents; Army West Point, Notre Dame, BYU, and UMass. Liberty recently decided to elevate their status from FCS to FBS as an independent, raising the total number of independents to 5. Notre Dame is part of the ACC for most sports and has an agreement to play 5 ACC football games each season; so they are only partially independent. BYU has expressed interest in joining the Big 12, but they have objections to playing games on Sundays, which is a problem in scheduling sports other than football. UMass and Liberty are likely to remain independents for now; so there are still a few independents around other than Army West Point.
As we’ve observed in recent years, the landscape of college football is in a constant state of change, with some conferences expanding, others contracting and a few disappearing only to reappear with a different look. Perhaps the perfect opportunity will present itself somewhere down the road, but for now, we can celebrate our independence in the knowledge that the program is alive and well.
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