Fresno State Football

Why can’t Fresno State football land more big games at Bulldog Stadium?

Boise State on Tuesday locked up a home-and-home series with Central Florida, high-profile games in 2021 and ’23 pitting two of the top Group of Five conference teams in the nation.

That obviously is a series Fresno State would love to have. Since athletics director Terry Tumey went to work 13 months ago, football scheduling and changing the scheduling model the Bulldogs have had in place for years has been a priority.

Rather than just take seven-figure guarantees to play Power Five conference opponents on the road, Tumey has been trying to land a home-and-home or a 2-for-1 series with a big-name opponent to drive interest in the Bulldogs’ program, to boost attendance and generate badly needed revenue for the athletics department.

“We still live by the mantra ‘Anybody, Any place, Any time,’” Tumey said. “But we’d also like that ‘any place’ to be here in Fresno …

“We don’t want to always be road warriors. We want to be able to provide great contests here in the Valley. We want to try to bring quality talent and quality institutions to this valley and show our fans here great contests.”

So far, Fresno State has added only a guarantee game at Purdue in 2023 that will be worth $1.3 million to the Bulldogs’ athletics department and a home game against FCS Idaho State that fills out its 2020 non-conference schedule.

Tumey inherited rapidly approaching holes in the Bulldogs’ schedules in 2020, ’21 and ’22 that needed to be addressed, which have been the focus in the short term.

Fresno State locked in Idaho State and with games in 2021 at UCLA and at Oregon already set it is looking for a home-and-home with a Group of Five program and a home game against a FCS opponent.

But in the long term, there are a number of challenges that make landing a top Power Five opponent a tough sell, even while many of the Bulldogs’ Mountain West Conference rivals are loading up on home-and-home series with Pac-12, SEC and Big 12 programs.

Why can’t the Bulldogs get a game?

Geography matters

The Pac-12 and the Mountain West are the only FBS conferences west of the Rockies and for Power Five programs in the Midwest and East, there is little desire or need to travel two or three time zones to play a non-conference football game.

The Big Ten, Big 12, Southeastern and Atlantic Coast conferences can find games much closer to home and with more regional identity in the American Athletic Conference, in Conference USA, the Mid-American or the Sun Belt.

In the Pac-12, teams play nine conference games and three non-conference games. In years a team plays just four Pac-12 games at home, it likely is looking to schedule two and even all three non-conference games at home.

Many also play a home game against an FCS opponent every year, further limiting the inventory of available games.

When they do travel, it not often is to a Group of Five venue.

Washington last week played at BYU, but before that its most recent game at a Group of Five program was Boise State in 2015. Oregon played at Wyoming in 2017, its first such excursion since playing at Boise State in 2009. Cal played at BYU last season and at San Diego State in 2016, its first Group of Five road games since 2010.

Not a destination city …

A trip to Fresno State also does not match up well against scheduling a game at San Diego State, UNLV or other Group of Five programs when taking into consideration the location, the trip or the venue, not only for the teams but their boosters and their fans, said a Pac-12 administrator who agreed to speak anonymously given the sensitive nature of scheduling negotiations.

There are a number of factors that come into play in scheduling non-conference games, said an official from another Pac-12 school.

Ease of travel, in and out of the city. Availability of full-service hotels for the team and staff, as well as boosters and fans. Is there a vibrant downtown where fans making the trip can visit the night before and after the game?

The revenue potential for the return game in a home-and-home is a factor. There is a recruiting element, too – every Pac-12 school recruits Southern California and both San Diego State and UNLV are in fertile recruiting areas; coaches can use evaluation days when in town for a game, and family and friends of players already in the program don’t have to travel to see them play.

“To play on some big stages and in bigger cities for our student-athletes and our fans, that plays into the decision,” the Pac-12 administrator said.

Strength of schedule is a factor, given its importance to the College Football Playoff rankings, and more Power Five programs have started to schedule Power Five matchups to boost that component and add some sizzle to home schedules.

The decrepit Bulldog Stadium was not singled out as a detriment, but it is notable that San Diego State is moving into a new stadium in 2022, and UNLV is moving into a new stadium (the Raiders’ new home) in 2020.

Colorado State, which has landed several Power Five series, moved into a new on-campus stadium at the start of the 2017 season.

“There’s no one controlling factor,” the administrator from the Pac-12 school said. “It’s a puzzle you try to piece together, making decisions that are in the best interests of the football program, of the athletic department from a revenue generation standpoint, and of your fans and your supporters.”

Falling behind the Mountain West

Clearly, though, the Bulldogs are falling behind many of their Mountain West rivals.

San Diego State made a commitment to upgrading its home football schedules and went after the Power Five and particularly the Pac-12, landing home-and-home series with, for starters, Oregon State, Cal, Arizona State and Stanford.

The Aztecs have booked their non-conference schedules through 2024 and have two Power Five opponents in home-and-homes in every season from 2021 through 2028.

This season it started a home-and-home with UCLA, and it has future series set with Arizona and Washington State. In June it announced a home-and-home series against Cal and four games (two home, two away) against Missouri of the SEC.

“We made the decision that is what we were going to do and we are able to get it done,” San Diego State athletics director John David Wicker said.

“We’re not looking for any games until 2029 at this point. But we’ve got interest from schools that, again, (tap into) the marketability of San Diego State. If they have to go out and play one of these games they might as well go to a place where their fans are going to want to travel. That’s part of it, too. Where would my fan base want to go? More and more people want you to schedule better.”

UNLV also is pushing its positives in negotiating home-and-home deals.

The Rebels in 2017 added a home-and-home series against UCLA and a four-game home-and-home against Cal – UNLV’s first game in the new stadium will be against the Golden Bears. UNLV also will play Arizona State in 2020 and ’21.

“We’re definitely hearing from a lot of schools – they call us,” said Mark Wallington, a senior assistant athletics director at UNLV.

“Heading into a world-class facility like that definitely has made it easier to talk to top Power Five programs. We used to talk to them about doing a guarantee game at their place, but now we’re talking home-and-homes.”

Colorado State last year landed a home-and-home with Washington State and in 2017 agreed to a home-and-home against Arizona.

The Rams have played in-state rival Colorado every season since 1995 and will play through 2020. After a two-year break, they will resume the series with games in 2023 in Boulder, Colo. and 2024 in Fort Collins, Colo. and the schools reportedly are in discussions to add four more games in the future.

Colorado State also has four games (two home, two away) scheduled against Vanderbilt from the SEC and a home-and-home with Texas Tech from the Big 12.

Boise State has the series with UCF, which was so important to the Broncos that they moved games against Houston and Rice to fit the Knights into their future schedules. It also has home-and-home series with Oregon State and Michigan State from the Big Ten starting in 2022, a 2-for-1 with Oregon starting in 2024 and a home-and-home against Washington State starting in 2026.

Some of those Pac-12 programs have home-and-home series scheduled with programs in conferences with less profile than the Mountain West – Cal has a series with North Texas from Conference USA, Arizona State has a series with Texas State from the Sun Belt.

The Sun Devils do play Fresno State in 2023 in Tempe, Ariz., but that is a one-shot guarantee game; they are not making a return trip to Bulldog Stadium.

A look into the future

Tumey would like to play two Power Five programs every year and not just for $1 million guarantees. He wants one at home, one on the road.

“That,” he said, “is the perfect scenario. Two Power Fives, one Group of Five and one FCS. Then we’re bringing value to the fans in Fresno. The season ticket has value. That’s important, because we’re looking to bring value. We want our donors and our fans to feel like we’re sporting what they want to see, as well.”

The Bulldogs have a previously scheduled series against Oregon State with games in 2022 and ’24, and their future schedules open up starting in 2025.

They have had discussions with many Power Five programs and according to sources were close to a 2-for-1 that has for now been shelved.

But opportunity is there in the mid- to late-2020s – if they can find matches.

“I would love to have institutions from Texas come here,” Tumey said. “I would love to have institutions from Washington come here, from Oregon, from Oklahoma, from Colorado, any of them.”

Is this the right scheduling model?

In changing the scheduling dynamic, though, there are two questions. Can Fresno State afford to go away from a model where it plays two guarantee games on the road every year? And, will a mid- or lower-level Power Five program really move the needle for the Bulldogs’ fan base and generate necessary revenue? Over the past decade, it has not.

The revenue from a game at USC, UCLA, Texas A&M or Arizona State, for example, is an important piece in keeping afloat an athletics department that is trying to support 21 sports programs.

Fresno State will get $1.1 million paydays from USC for games in 2019, 2022 and 2025. It will get $1.1 million from UCLA for a game in 2021. It will receive $1.3 million to play at Texas A&M and an additional $15,000 to move the date of that 2020 game to Oct. 10 from Sept. 26. Arizona State is paying the Bulldogs $1.1 million for a game in 2023.

And, as Bulldog Stadium has deteriorated and attendance numbers have declined, the team on the other sideline hasn’t much mattered.

The Sept. 7 game against Minnesota had an announced attendance of 34,790, a solid boost for a program that had 31,170 for its home opener last season.

But before that, the average attendance for the past five games against teams from the Pac-12, SEC or Big Ten was just 32,981 – a number bloated by a 2014 sellout against Nebraska, the most recent sellout at Bulldog Stadium. ...

▪ 33,675 Utah in 2015

▪ 41,031 Nebraska in 2014

▪ 27,513 Colorado in 2012

▪ 32,063 Mississippi in 2011

▪ 30,625 Illinois in 2010

The closest Fresno State has come to a sellout in the four-plus seasons since playing the Cornhuskers in 2014 was the season-opener against Incarnate Word in 2017 when Jeff Tedford made his coaching debut at his alma mater and record-setting quarterback Derek Carr had his jersey No. 4 retired during a halftime ceremony.

The Bulldogs had an announced attendance of 39,447 for that game.

That does not bode well for 2020 when the Bulldogs play non-conference home games against FCS Idaho State and New Mexico State, though they will get Mountain West division rivals San Diego State and San Jose State at home in conference play.

Fresno State will not play Boise State at Bulldog Stadium in the regular season until 2021.

Then again, the last time the Broncos played at Bulldog Stadium in 2017 the announced attendance was just 31,526 and at kickoff Fresno State had won three games in a row, seven of eight and had a chance to beat a ranked opponent for the first time since 2004.

Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada

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