Jim O'Day says he's a visual guy. That means just before the University of Montana athletics director launches into a detailed discussion of the now-annual off-season debate among Griz fans—whether or not the program should move up to the big-market Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS)—he needs to be at his dry-erase board with about four different markers, and standing next to an oversized map displaying the location of every Football Championship Subdivision team in the nation.
"That map," he says, pointing at a desolate patch in the western part of the country, "is very scary. If, for example, Montana and Montana State were offered an invitation, and we both declined...then the offer goes to someone else in this region. Now, if that happens, who are we going to play? That's just another thing to consider with all of this."
"All of this" isn't just water cooler conversation. An NCAA moratorium on conference realignment and institutions moving to the FBS lifts in August 2011, and administrators anticipate a major reshuffling across the country. If top conferences select schools for expansion—the Pac-10, for example, is expected to add two schools from the West—it will create a domino effect in the region that could potentially leave the Mountain West or Western Athletic conferences looking to lure new members with the promise of major cable television contracts and the chance to compete in lucrative bowl games. The tradition-rich Griz appear a logical candidate to move up, and that possibility prompted O'Day to announce earlier this spring that he's in the process of hiring an independent consulting firm to study the university's options if it receives an offer.
"The reason you do a study is to find out, internally, if anyone ever came to you, is it worth it to even listen to them?" he says. "I think it's prudent to listen. I don't know that it will be prudent to make the jump."
O'Day has yet to hire the firm and says the effort will be funded entirely by private donors. He says information provided by the study will help guide the athletics department, new university president and Board of Regents on a decision that may have to be made quickly.
"Every day you're reading new pieces about conference expansion. Every day there's something new," he says. "If we don't think people are looking at us, we're crazy. That's not to say they're serious, but they're looking. And we need to be ready if they come to us with an offer."
UM's decision ultimately involves finances more than football. O'Day uses his collection of colored markers to illustrate his annual operating budget for 14 different men's and women's sports, and how it's currently tapped out.
"Basically, I've had a $13 million budget for each of the last three years," he says. "My travel's gone up. My tuition fees and room and board have gone up significantly. My insurance has gone up, and my rent has gone up. I don't have anything that's going down. The challenge is, where do we find more money?"
O'Day knows where he's not going to find it. A cash-strapped institution will not offer more than its current $4.3 million. Last week's campus-wide vote shot down an increase in student athletic fees. Football ticket sales currently bring in roughly $4.2 million, the highest among championship subdivision teams and more than double Appalachian State's second-ranked total, meaning the sport already exceeds expectations. Then, with a green marker, O'Day circles the three areas on his board where he sees room for improvement: television and radio contracts, NCAA money, and conference funding, all of which would increase with a move to an FBS conference.
"When I see that my television revenue is at $100,000 and the Big Ten schools just got [a television contract worth] $17 million, the SEC just got $17 million and the ACC just got $24 million—that's how they're paying for things," O'Day says. "Radio and television—that's where the big schools make their money, including the Idahos and the Boise States."
The flip side of big-market revenue, however, is big-market expenses. For instance, UM would be required to add at least two additional sports to become eligible for the FBS. O'Day also expects the commissioned study to confirm the need to substantially upgrade facilities, including the men's and women's locker rooms, team meeting rooms and academic center. For all his apparent enthusiasm at the prospects of a big television contract, O'Day offers up just as much concern over the necessary maintenance costs.
"There's a perception that athletics has everything, because the majority of the people see the stadium, the arena and the track complex," he says. "They don't see where our student-athletes spend 85 percent of their time, and we've had to neglect that space over the years because we're so intent on reaching the minimum goal of revenue."
O'Day is quick to offer up examples of schools that didn't consider all the aspects of moving to FBS-level competition. For instance, Idaho struggled mightily after moving with Boise State out of the Big Sky Conference in 1996. It wasn't until 2004 that Idaho finally made multi-million dollar investments to its facilities and reached a bowl game last season. Idaho's 2010 operating budget is $14.6 million. Boise State, which built one of the most successful football teams in the country since leaving the Big Sky, spends $25.8 million, nearly double UM's current budget.
"Montana is an attractive option for conferences, no question," says Jon Kasper, assistant commissioner for media relations at the Big Sky Conference and a former Griz beat writer for the Missoulian. "That said, there are some major questions to consider. Have you seen the locker rooms? Have you seen the study area?...All of that would have to change, and all of that costs money."
O'Day gets it. He's unsure whether or not it ultimately makes sense for UM to leave the Big Sky Conference—hence, the study.
"I think right now we're exactly where we should be," he says. "I also think intercollegiate athletics today means things could change very quickly. I at least want to be ready."