Friday, March 31, 2023

Commentary: The moment is now for the Fightin’ Blue Hens to move to FBS

SportsCommentaryCommentary: The moment is now for the Fightin’ Blue Hens to move to FBS

Staff Reporter

The university’s football program has embodied the values of tradition, integrity and excellence throughout its over 130 season-long history and is known across the nation as a perennial power in Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) football. 

Since its inception in the late 1800s, the Fightin’ Blue Hens have tallied an overall winning percentage near .600 and have won six national championships, with the most recent in 2003. 

Historically, the university’s focus has been on maintaining the status-quo with its football program, doing whatever it takes to be in the upper echelon of Football Championship Subdivision competition, yet remaining mindful of its small-state, small-market environment.

This philosophy was evident with the termination of head coach Danny Rocco after a disappointing 5-6 record in the 2021 season, just a year after leading the Blue Hens to the FCS semifinals. 

However, with the recent departure of Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) rival James Madison University to the Sun Belt Conference of the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), major upgrades to Delaware Stadium and enhanced national recognition due to the university’s appearances in both the men’s and women’s March Madness basketball tournaments, something has changed.

There is a feeling in the air that the Blue Hens may soon consider joining college football’s premier stage – a feeling that must be put into action. 

Athletic Budgets

According to the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, the university’s athletic department had a reported operating budget of $47.95 million in 2019 while the average FCS budget was $16.70 million. 

James Madison, who made the jump to FBS this year, and Sam Houston State, who is going big-time next season, have athletic budgets of $52.87 million and $17.52 million respectively. 

FBS schools Florida Atlantic University and University of Massachusetts, which have similar student enrollment numbers to Delaware, had 2019 athletic budgets of $36.30 million and $49.46 million – proving finances are not something that will hold the university back. 

Facilities, Media & Attendance

When thinking of FBS football, the mammoth 100,000-plus seat facilities of the Big Ten and Southeastern Conference (SEC) instantly come to mind. Yet, when looking at FBS as a whole, the university does not need to rebuild its facilities from the ground-up in order to successfully operate at this higher level of competition. 

Over 15 FBS schools have stadium seating capacities under 25,000, with the smallest belonging to University of North Carolina at Charlotte at 15,314. Old Dominion has a seating capacity of 22,480 and FBS independent member UMass has a capacity of 21,430. 

As it stands today, Delaware Stadium’s current maximum capacity of 22,000 can hold its own against many of the smaller institutions in FBS. Nonetheless, the university has embarked on a multitude of projects to boost the athletics experience on South Campus. 

In 2019, the opening of the Whitney Athletic Center upgraded the west stands of Delaware Stadium along with bringing a new press box and enhanced training facilities for student-athletes. 

In the spring of 2021, the university told The Review that the building cost a total of $64 million to construct, $39 million of which came from fundraising.

With the addition of the Whitney Athletic Center’s new press box, the university has the space and technological capacity to accommodate national media networks such as ESPN. This is an advantage Delaware has over many of their FCS rivals in the quest for an FBS invitation, as other schools must upgrade or reconfigure their technology in order to meet the requirements of a FBS conference’s TV rights framework. 

Delaware has already put this advantage to use as many of its home games are broadcast on NBC Sports Philadelphia, a network serving the tri-state area.

This upcoming winter, a new state-of-the-art video board will be installed in the stadium’s north end zone and, according to Delaware Online, the university is considering the feasibility of a brand new athletic facility at the Field House’s current location.

With the Blue Hens having the eighth highest average attendance in FCS this season at 16,902 fans per game, it is clear that the university is not only moving toward becoming a football school, but it also has a strong fanbase to support such a move. 

Enhanced National Recognition

In the last five years, the Fightin’ Blue Hens football team has reached the FCS playoffs three times, gaining national exposure due to games being broadcast on national TV networks. This is in addition to finding themselves included in national rankings and coaches polls throughout the season. 

Delaware has had success in many other areas of its athletic program. Field hockey has won the CAA every season dating back to their national championship in 2016 and men’s lacrosse recently won the conference in the 2021-22 season. 

But the biggest jolt to the university’s presence on the national stage happened just last year, with men’s and women’s basketball each advancing to March Madness and facing marquee first round matchups with highly-ranked Villanova and Maryland. 

Today, relevance in intercollegiate athletics is dictated by success in football first and basketball second. It is a special time when a school is excelling in one and right now, the Blue Hens are strong in both. 

Arguably, this moment is the most crucial one the university’s athletic program has ever faced. From a sports perspective, Delaware is now on the map and is more known than ever before. 

“We see athletics as the front porch of the university,” president Dennis Assanis said during football head coach Ryan Carty’s introductory press conference on Dec. 13, 2021. “[It is] a very big part of our culture.”

If the university is truly all-in on athletics, finding a way to rise to college football’s highest level of competition should be a no-brainer.

But, it will not be easy. The athletic department must face the challenge of finding a conference that fits the university’s academic status, size and geographic location. 

Could Delaware recruit some of its FCS rivals such as Villanova, Towson or Stony Brook to make the jump alongside them? Or would the university be willing, at least for the time-being, to become an FBS independent, gaining a seat at the table within the rapidly-evolving landscape of today’s FBS.

As the “University of Delaware Fight Song” states, “When the sun goes down and the moon comes up, Delaware will shine!”

Recently, the Blue Hens have done just that. The moment is now for a move to big-time athletics – however, this moment will not last forever. 




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