Many observers assumed that the University of Montana would follow in Boise State's footsteps and trade in decades of National FCS success in for the Football Bowl Subdivision and the Western Athletic Conference upon being offered a spot. With some of the best attendance in FCS football, an obscene number of trips to the National Championship game and one of only two profitable football programs in the Football Championship Subdivision it seemed to many a no-brainer that they were strong enough for the big time.
On Thursday, the President of the University of Montana announced that the Grizzlies planned to stay in the Big Sky Conference (and FCS football) for all sports. This came ahead of the WAC's announcement that they were adding FCS programs Texas State, UT-San Antonio and non-football University of Denver (they may also invite Seattle University as a basketball member).
Montana cited three reasons for staying put: 1) it would allow them to maintain their rivalry with Montana State, 2) it would allow Montana to compete against institutions with similar academic missions and 3) it would help maintain the "prestige and integrity the program has demonstrated over the years."
What Montana didn't say, was that the WAC's TV deal is probably just too small to ensure the program stayed healthily in the black after a jump. At $4million per year for the entire conference, each WAC school receives only $800,000 in revenue from ESPN for all sports. The Western Athletic Conference earns only 12% of the TV revenue of the smallest BCS contract (the BIG EAST).
So if a big (over 5,000 more students than Villanova) state school like Montana, with a vibrant and profitable FCS football program can't find a reason to move to the Bowl Subdivision, how could small-school Villanova?
The difference isn't the golden parachute this time, it's the landing spot. Montana would be landing in an expensive and low-revenue conference, the WAC, taking a chance that their football program would go from a revenue-producer to one that operates at break-even or a loss. Villanova football would find it's new home in the BIG EAST conference, where they would earn almost as much as the entire WAC conference for both football and basketball TV rights (and potentially more under the next TV contract, which would begin in 2014).
While less than half of WAC football teams operate in the black (currently four of them produce a profit, but two of those schools are moving to the Mountain West). Without the big draws of Boise State, Fresno State and Nevada, it is likely that the WAC will take a financial hit. While there is a theoretical danger of the BIG EAST being raided, the WAC has essentially been turned into a feeder league for the Mountain West recently.
The University of Montana was offered a landing spot into a briar patch loaded with uncertainty. Villanova, however, would drop into a wide open field.
The BIG EAST, despite all of the doubt spread by the media recently, is still a power conference, where 6 of 8 schools operate in the black and none of the money losers generate seven-figure losses.
Villanova, unlike Montana, has nothing to lose by moving. The Villanova football program loses somewhere around $4million per year. Even if BIG EAST football is also a money-loser for the Wildcats, they may still improve their situation by losing less money.
Montana's decision ultimately makes a lot of sense. They have no reason to take the risk of moving up without the greater rewards of a BCS conference. They also don't have any other programs to "protect," like Villanova has with its top-10 basketball program. For Villanova, the status quo is not as worthy a fallback option.