Non-conference scheduling has its challenges

With the announcement that Arizona State has scheduled Portland State as its third and final 2010 non-conference opponent, some may wonder why the Sun Devils have two FCS opponents on this year's schedule. Associate Athletic Director and head of Media Relations Mark Brand addresses the non-conference scheduling issues in this Q&A session.

Question: Can you explain the process behind scheduling non-conference opponents for ASU?

Answer: "The process has changed drastically over the past 3-5 years and three major things have contributed to that change in the landscape.

"One, the downturn in the economy coupled with the large guarantees that some schools are now paying -- in excess of $1 million dollars.

"Two, the fact that more BCS schools are scheduling non-BCS school in home-and-home series. You didn't see that five years ago. Now they're getting Pac-10 schools to come to their stadiums which decreases our chances of getting those schools for guarantee games. So now when we call those schools to ask if they'll come to Arizona State they say, "We will, but we want a return."

"Third, more FBS schools are scheduling FCS schools for one of their annual non-conference games. I believe there are only three schools which have never played an FCS school. At least one of those schools is going to do that in the future and probably two of them. So 5-10 years ago where you had maybe 10-20 FBS schools playing a 1AA school per year, now almost everyone is doing it.

"So as a consequence, those opportunities for the FBS schools to play FBS opponents are gone. There are approximately 120 FBS schools now, but when 117 of them play a 1AA every year, that means 117 opportunities gone.

"So those three things have completely changed the scheduling landscape today and it's basically happened over the last 3-5 years. So what we've had to do is adjust with that. We are no longer scheduling under the philosophy of A, B, and C (games). That just does not work anymore. It just does not apply to the new realm of scheduling.

"What you're going to see moving forward is, of the three non-conference games available to us, we'll always play a home-and-home series with a Top-30 school. That hasn't changed. We've always tried to do that and we always will. That's Georgia, Miami, Notre Dame, Colorado, Wisconsin, Illinois, LSU, etc.

"The next issue is geography. In the West, Pac-10 schools are geographically challenged in scheduling. Schools in the Midwest, the East, the South, Southeast, have so many choices to schedule and there are many schools that can bus to other schools. You can go to some parts of the country and there are 10-to-30 schools in the area within driving distance. In our area it doesn't work that way.

"We've only got two FBS schools in our state and we're one and the other one is in our conference so we already play them. As a consequence we are now trying to schedule more home-and-home series with schools in the West. You're going to see us pursuing home-and-home series with schools like Nevada, UNLV, Utah, UTEP, San Diego State, etc. In the past we probably wouldn't have gone that route, but it's changed so drastically.

"One because it's smart economically and two because it's geographically situated so our fans can see us play. And those other schools are in the same situation we're in. They're experiencing the same challenges. So you're finding more and more schools adapting to that style.

"And then our third game is generally going to be the FCS school (formerly 1AA). So we're going to play our in-state partner/neighbor Northern Arizona quite a bit because that makes sense and when we're not playing NAU and they're playing at Arizona that year, we're going to play other similar schools in our geographical area: Cal Poly, Cal Davis, Sacramento State, Weber State etc. So that's what's changed the most."

Question: What are the biggest misconceptions out there in the ASU community about ASU's football scheduling?

Answer:"I would say that scheduling is very, very difficult. Of the games that ASU has scheduled over the past 15 years, I would say that ASU has initiated the call probably 96-97 percent of the time. It's rare that schools call us to initiate discussions for scheduling. We have to initiate almost every game that we play. It's rare that schools contact us, so that's one thing.

"The other thing is the money. The guarantees that some schools are paying now, a million dollars and up, are astronomical. I'm seeing as much as $1.4 million for games. We just aren't in a situation where we can do that, so that's a reason for the change we've talked about.

"I think another (misconception) is people think we can do 2-for-1 or 3-for-1 series where we entice a school to come here twice and we go there once. That's just not reality. I don't believe I've ever seen anyone do a 3-for-1. Maybe they have, we certainly haven't. And 2-for-1s under this new scheduling paradigm, they will be rare. I realize Texas just did it with Wyoming (it was scheduled a few years ago), but some schools are able to do that. Others are not. We have tried very hard to schedule 2-for-1s over the years and it's just been very difficult, almost impossible. And now that you have schools in the Pac-10 traveling to other places that they haven't in the past, it's just taken the 2-for-1s right off the table.

"Another (misconception) would be that scheduling at Arizona State is a collaborative effort. It's not just one person doing it, operating in silo fashion. It's a collaborative effort with the athletic director, the senior associate athletic director who oversees the sport of football, the head football coach, the director of football operations, the business office, which gets involved in the financial aspect of it and the ASU office of general counsel or legal counsel on campus, which helps with contract language.

"What I'm doing is facilitating. I make the contacts, find out where we stand with certain schools and then we move forward from there."

Question: Fans may see apparent opportunities for games based on the schedules available to the public but that can be misleading or inaccurate. Can you explain that?

Answer: "Lots of factors there. One, we're very fortunate to have access to a scheduling system, a website set up by ESPN. It's a scheduling website that only institutions have access to through a password basis. That is not a perfect system, but it's the most up-to-date scheduling system in college football. All other schedules out there that one might find could be extremely outdated or simply have incorrect information.

"Schedules are changing so much, so quickly there is no one out there who can keep up with it. The reason ESPN has that site is because they are very active in scheduling TV games for ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, etc. So it behooves them to know what schools are doing so they can look at schedules, know who is playing whom and set up TV games and maybe even set up made-for-TV matchups. So whatever the fan out there might be looking at might be totally different from what is reality.

"Another aspect is just because school A might have a particular need on a particular year and school B might have the same need, scheduling is an agreement. So the first thing is you have to get somebody to agree to play you. If they agree now you have to match up dates. I've had several instances where we've agreed to play a school in football, but we could never work it out because we couldn't match up the dates.

"The dates we had available, they were already playing a conference game, the date they had available we were already playing an opponent that could not be moved. The Pac-10 is the only conference that plays all conference opponents and so we have nine conference games. A lot of conferences have seven and eight non-conference games. So they have more need for non-conference matchups.

"So when I call them, they already have three or four non-conference games scheduled. So if we end up having a date that we agree on, they may not agree on it because they have two straight road games before that date. And we may require it to be a home game here (at ASU) so they don't want to play three straight road games.

"There are all kinds of little nuances like that that prevent games from being played. Maybe they're looking at keeping a date we want as an open date. All kinds of things like that can prevent a game from happening.

"For example, there is a major school in the East that we'd love to play a home-and-home with, but it has a philosophy where it won't play a game West of the Mississippi (River). I don't fault them for having their own philosophy. They don't need to travel that distance because they have so many schools in their proximity they don't have to go very far.

"So out of the 120 schools that are available to us, take 10 off the top and nine are in our conference and we're one of them, so now you're down to 110. With a school that won't play West of the Mississippi, now you're down to 109. There is another school in the state of Texas that has a non-conference schedule that is complete through the year 2024. So needless to say we won't be playing that school in the near future.

"Now you are down to 108. And so on and so forth. So you start getting into things like those special situations and the list dwindles quickly of whom is available to play. Some won't play us because of the travel distance. They don't want to put their team on a plane to go that far and travel back through a couple time zones and get back and five or six in the morning and then have to play a road game the next week or even a conference game the next week. They just won't do it."

Question: Can you talk about the specifics of how the contracts work and the buyout clauses?

Answer: "For example, I mentioned a school that is scheduled through 2024. There are several schools we'd like to schedule, but they are finished for the next 10 years. So contracts are done well in advance.

"Some of our contracts are agreed to as early as 2002, 2003, 2004 and the games aren't to be played for five, six, or seven years later. So that's what happens when the landscape of scheduling changed so quickly and so dramatically that buyout clauses that were written five, six, seven years ago, aren't applicable to the rules of scheduling today.

"Someone might think, 'Well, why don't you go back and renegotiate those contracts.' Well that's a thought, but the reason you negotiated them in the first place was to get a good deal. Our business department was happy with the terms of the contract and then if you go back and renegotiate it's going to cost you more money or you might risk losing the game. And it's probably going to cost you more money in the long run to renegotiate all of them than to take a hit on one or two.

"One caveat to our new scheduling philosophy will be that we will play more road games because we're doing the home-and-home with teams in our geographical area.

"Some series, like the Georgia series, took two phone calls to make. I think that was done in the span of two days, a couple phone calls. Other series take years to complete. I'm working on a series right now with a school that has taken a year-and-a-half.

"So these things typically take time and sometimes when you think you're getting close, that school might change its athletic director or change its coach and we start over again or the deal is off. I think it's important for people to know these things because there are so many factors and moving parts in scheduling.

"Currently, we are in discussion for some potential exciting matchups and I hope we get a chance to announce them very soon. I think our fans will be excited."

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