As the Big 12 makes its way toward expansion by two or four teams, or perhaps stands pat, after what has been weeks of politicking by an increasingly desperate group of suitors, Fresno State has stayed on the sidelines.
It didn’t forward a letter of interest, never made a formal presentation to the Power Five conference.
It instead took a hard look inside and made an honest decision.
Fresno State, athletic director Jim Bartko said, just wasn’t ready.
“There are some teams there that I know we’re better than. I’m not going to name names, but I know it’s not even close if you list all of the positives of what the Valley has compared to other schools, whether they’re in the Mountain West or the American (conferences),” he said.
The Big 12 Conference’s average payout to its full-share members in 2014-15 was reported to be $23.3 million. Fresno State’s athletic department budget that year was $29.8 million.
“I think Fresno State is every bit as warranted of getting into the Big 12 as anyone else is, but there’s also a right time to do it. You have to have staffing in place. You have to have budget in place. You have to have your marketing in place, your ticket office in place. You have to have your stadium done. Right now, we have a few things we have to do.”
That didn’t stop others from making a dash toward a considerable bump in revenue that would come with jumping to the Power Five from the Group of Five conference.
Air Force, Boise State, Colorado State, New Mexico, San Diego State and UNLV from the Mountain West Conference are among as many as 20 schools to reportedly express interest and make a formal presentation to the Big 12, as are Central Florida, Cincinnati, Connecticut, East Carolina, Houston, Memphis, Southern Methodist, South Florida, Temple and Tulane from the American Athletic.
Brigham Young, an independent in football, is seen as a legitimate candidate with hurdles to overcome. Northern Illinois also is on the list, as are Arkansas State and Rice.
In that group there is one school that didn’t draw even 10,000 to its final home game last season and five played in front of less than 20,000.
There are seven who played in front of more fans in conference road games than they did when in their own stadiums.
I’m not going to just go out there just to say, ‘Hey, gosh, our name was in the paper.’ People know who Fresno State is. You get your name in the paper and get shot down and told, ‘No,’ then you know what, good for you. Go for it.
Fresno State athletic director Jim Bartko on the university not being among a large group of schools that have expressed interest in the Big 12
There are 11 that are at least $25 million behind the lowest-ranked school in the Big 12 in athletic department revenues.
But Bartko said that he did not believe the university’s decision not to plow ahead and force its way into the discussion will be detrimental to future expansion hopes; it may help, protecting the brand.
Bartko spoke with Big 12 officials about expansion, sussed the where, if and when the Bulldogs might be a fit. He spoke as well to athletic directors in that league, which is two schools short of the number in its name.
Fresno State has its pluses: it is undertaking major facilities upgrades including a renovation of Bulldog Stadium and is in the middle of a Valley media market that would rank in the top 15 in the nation when combining Sacramento and Bakersfield with Fresno.
“In six months nobody is going to know who the 20 teams were that put their names in the hat, but when it comes time to do it again, they’ll know that you got no votes to be in it the first time,” Bartko said.
“I’m not going to just go out there just to say, ‘Hey, gosh, our name was in the paper.’ People know who Fresno State is. You get your name in the paper and get shot down and told, ‘No,’ then you know what, good for you. Go for it. I’m serious. Go for it.”
I think Fresno State is every bit as warranted of getting into the Big 12 as anyone else is, but there’s also a right time to do it.
Bartko on how patience could pay off for the Bulldogs as they weigh where they’ll fit in future conference expansions
And, Fresno State does believe the landscape will shift again.
How and when that might happen is conjecture.
Craig Thompson, commissioner of the Mountain West, said expansion or realignment comes up peripherally, at least, at just about every conference meeting.
He does not see immediate movement behind any move by the Big 12. “I think it would take very deliberate time and space to get to a determination,” he said.
But the conference, since its inception in 1999, has been active. Texas Christian was added in 2005 and left for the Big 12 in 2012. BYU and Utah left in 2011, the Utes moving to the Pac-12. Boise State and San Diego State in 2012 backed out of plans to join the Big East in football. The Mountain West and Conference USA that year also announced plans to merge, which didn’t take.
“Whatever happens in the next two months, it can change again in the next two years,” Bartko said.
For Fresno State to be prepared, the renovation of Bulldog Stadium is the key piece.
Our immediate priority in athletics is to dominate the Mountain West Conference.
Fresno State President Dr. Joseph I. Castro
An architect for the project, to be completed in four phases, is expected to be hired within a month. The athletic department continues to raise funds for the project and has made presentations to Valley businesses regarding a stadium naming-rights deal, a critical piece in financing the project.
“For us to be where we need to be, that has to be done. No question,” Bartko said. “If you walk around Bulldog Stadium, it’s aging. If you’re going to go into the Big 12 or the Big Ten or whatever the new conferences are in three years, you have to have a stadium, you have to have the amenities.”
The athletic department also needs to increase donations and ticket revenue, as well as staffing in marketing, ticket operations, academic services, communications and other areas.
Fresno State, Bartko said, needs to increase its donor base back to the 5,000 level and it is about 1,000 short of that. It needs to increase annual giving and net $5 million per year and it is currently about $4.3 million. It needs to average 35,000 to 38,000 in attendance for its home games, and because of soft attendance last year in a 3-9 season it had to absorb an $800,000 budget shortfall.
Fresno State football expenses totaled $10.9 million in 2014-’15. In the Big 12, TCU spent $33.7 million, Oklahoma spent $30.3 million, Texas spent $29.8 million, Texas Tech spent $20.9 million.
“Our immediate priority in athletics is to dominate the Mountain West Conference,” university President Dr. Joseph I. Castro said in a statement. “We are investing more private and public resources in student athlete wellness and facilities improvements to achieve this goal while positioning us for even greater success at the national level in the future.”
To make a move to the Big 12 or be prepared for whatever comes next with conference expansion, the Bulldogs first need to get into a good position to move.
“Everybody around the country is going to be looking around and wondering what’s going to happen with the landscape,” Bartko said. “I have no idea what they’re going to do in the Big 12. But I also know that the time for us is down the road and we’ll get there and we have things to do first.
“We know what’s right for us. We know we deserve to be looked at as much as any other school in the conference, if you look at the numbers and championships and population base and TV market and everything else. But we have a few things we need to accomplish here first to be ready. You want to go into a conference ready to succeed.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada