Just two years ago, JMU played basketball in a gym that could front for a high school team. Just one year ago, the latest conference realignment wave hadn’t crashed college athletics yet.
When the Texas- and Oklahoma-initiated late-July crash came, JMU Athletics was much more prepared than the year prior. It christened a nearly $140 million basketball arena in November 2020, the Atlantic Union Bank Center (AUBC) — an upgraded basketball facility was the No. 1 recommendation for JMU to become an attractive addition to a larger conference, according to a 2013 FBS feasibility study called the Carr Report. The report’s completion is required by the NCAA for universities to move football divisions.
So, when the Sun Belt Conference extended an invitation to JMU in November 2021, director of athletes Jeff Bourne had done the prerequisite work — not just by building the AUBC but through biweekly 7:30 a.m. meetings with Charlie King, JMU’s then-senior vice president of administration and finance. At these meetings, the topic of moving to the FBS surfaced regularly, Bourne said Nov. 6 when JMU formally accepted its Sun Belt invitation.
Well before the November announcement, JMU’s athletic department’s pockets and on-field successes had jutted out of the CAA like a sore thumb. The Dukes were ready to make the leap.
But everything good comes at a cost.
“Let’s face it — this is expensive,” Bourne said at a Feb. 2 press conference, when JMU was announced to have an accelerated timetable to play a full FBS football schedule in 2022. “To be able to maintain competitive athletic programs at this level takes resources.”
The expenses required for an FBS program balance out with new revenue streams only available at the highest level of college football. Bourne has said, money aside, the Sun Belt brings multiple perks, and not just in football: revamped regional rivalries, namely with Old Dominion and Appalachian State; alignment with mid- to large-sized public institutions akin to JMU; and more national exposure via the Sun Belt’s ESPN deal, which runs through 2030-31.
Here’s what JMU has to pay to sustain these perks.
Cost to contend
King presented a pro forma — a calculation of projected financial results — to the Intercollegiate Athletic Review Commission of the Virginia General Assembly on Nov. 5. It outlines JMU’s projected costs and revenue that will result from the FBS jump.
First, JMU paid a $1.25 million one-time buyout to leave the CAA; this only impacted the 2021-22 fiscal year.
Beginning July 1, there’ll be a $1.2 million increase in travel expenses, stemming from additional flights and charter buses needed in an FBS football schedule that includes an extra nonconference road game. This figure was calculated assuming travel expenses for field hockey, lacrosse, tennis, track & field and swim & dive won't change.
Sun Belt game officials will cost JMU $135,000 more starting July 1. Kevin Warner, JMU assistant athletic director for communications, said this cost stems from a new officials consortium for the Sun Belt, which has pay and travel increases. These increases don’t apply to other gameday operations, like clock managers and the football chain gang, he said.
July 1 will also begin a $603,000 increase in football salaries over three years. JMU football head coach Curt Cignetti’s salary will increase by $225,000 over three years, and the 10 football assistant coaches’ salary pool will grow by $378,000 over the same period. These increases bring JMU’s median coaching salaries in line with its Sun Belt counterparts.
Three new football support staff positions will be added — one each year from 2022-24 — with $50,000 salaries each: an assistant director of operations, director of recruiting and director of player personnel.
JMU will spend $95,000 to bolster football recruiting, while scholarship expenses are on track to increase 3% in-state and 1.75% out-of-state in line with JMU’s annual tuition increases. Warner said in an email that JMU football may not need to add 22 more scholarships over 2-3 years like previous transitioning teams because some scholarship players with extra COVID-19 eligibility are still on the roster. The maximum number of football scholarships FBS programs can support is 85, versus 63 in the FCS.
The pro forma says JMU will increase its football scholarships by six, then 11, then five yearly until 2024-25, but, Warner said, it’s a guide and not a formality. Since COVID-19 eligibility and transfer players’ scholarships are fluid, he said JMU football currently has somewhere between 63-85 players on scholarship but is “scaling up” to the FBS’s 85-scholarship cap.
Baseball will receive a $35,000 increase in its salary pool. Expenses relating to managing facilities, summer school and books are also acknowledged in the pro forma.
In total, JMU is projected to pay over $23 million in FBS expenses between July 1, 2022, and 2028-29, the last year outlined in its five-year FBS transition window.
To balance the expenditures, the FBS move provides JMU with more revenue streams. It’ll bring in about $600,000 more than its FBS expenses — $4.3 million in FBS revenue versus $3.7 million in expenses — in 2028-29. Here’s how it’ll get there, as outlined in the pro forma:
Initially, JMU’s FBS-specific expenses will outpace its gains — it’s not until 2027-28 that it’ll flip. This change comes when the Sun Belt’s conference distributions for JMU — money from its ESPN deal and shares from the College Football Playoff (CFP) — increase to $2.5 million. JMU will receive $600,000 from the conference until 2023-24, $1.5 million annually for the next three academic years starting in 2024, then $2.5 million for the last two years each of the transition. JMU didn’t receive any conference distribution money from CAA football with its subscriber-based FloSports streaming partnership and no CFP shares as an FCS conference.
Other revenue streams will come from JMU’s gameday operations: football season and single-game tickets and club seat prices will increase by 8% this fall, then 4% annually. Basketball tickets will also rise 4% annually. The pro forma doesn’t say JMU will begin charging students.
JMU is allotting $125,000 for a Nike contract that will be renegotiated in fiscal year 2026, which begins July 1, 2025, after the university’s first full year in the Sun Belt. This is assuming JMU’s waiver to get “full FBS status” one year sooner — July 1, 2023, instead of the same date in 2024 — gets denied.
If the waiver is passed, JMU football will be eligible for bowl games, a Sun Belt conference championship and the 85 scholarship maximum next July. Bourne said June 27 that JMU won’t take action regarding its waiver status until “maybe December.”
JMU currently has “full FBS membership” starting this July 1, which allowed the Dukes’ football schedule to feature 10 FBS opponents.
Football money guarantees for road games are also anticipated to increase from what JMU previously received facing FBS programs in the CAA. These guarantees are ways for smaller programs to fund their athletic department while the bigger school exchanges the payment for, usually, an easy home win.
Money guarantees aren’t skyrocketing for the Dukes right away, though: The last Power 5 team JMU faced on the road in the CAA, West Virginia in 2019, paid the Dukes $550,000. JMU plays Louisville on Nov. 5, 2022, and will receive $600,000 for making the trip. The Dukes face U.Va. at Charlottesville in 2023 for a $550,000 return.
On the other hand, JMU will pay Middle Tennessee $700,000 to trek to Harrisonburg on Sept. 3, a price “more aligned with what you see scheduling FBS teams,” Bourne said Feb. 2, but since it’s a one-way contract with no future game hosted by the Blue Raiders, JMU won’t get a return on its investment. When JMU hosted Morehead State as an FCS team last fall, the Dukes doled out $150,000.
“The reason we play those games, like Louisville and others, is there’s a revenue component behind them,” Bourne said. “We’ll continue to look at that philosophy — again, we try to be realistic with the opponents that we play. We have not made the trip to Michigan or Alabama — I don’t know if those opponents are in the cards.”
There’s another revenue source, one Bourne expects to keep growing: donorship. He said one donor who’d given $100 to JMU Athletics annually increased his gift to $1,000 the morning of the Sun Belt announcement. The pro forma assumes athletics contributions will grow 6% during the transition window, then stabilize to 4% for subsequent years.
JMU Athletics is nearing $4 million in fundraising this year, Warner said, which would be a new record after it's finalized in mid-July. Even so, he said, donorship must keep breaking records to pay its increased expenses.
“This will all come back to roost eventually on our alumni, fans and ticket holders,” Bourne said Nov. 6. “[It’s] very, very critical.”
Lighten the backpack
JMU brought in the 61st most revenue among the 230 highest-earning college athletic programs in 2019-20, according to the latest annual report by USA Today that compiles detailed revenue and expense numbers for each school. JMU’s earnings are in line with Group of 5 programs like UNLV, South Florida and now-Big 12-bound Houston and Memphis. Five other CAA teams are on the list, and all 12 Sun Belt teams that were in the conference in 2020 made the cut as well.
JMU’s was higher than all 17: $58.2 million in athletics revenue, offset by an equal price of expenses, or money spent to ensure revenue generation. Of the revenue, over $45 million came from student fees in 2019-20, USA Today showed. That’s 77%.
To make the FBS jump as a Virginia institution, JMU’s subsidy percentage — the sum of school funds and student fees, or “subsidy,” divided by other athletics revenue — can’t exceed 55% by the end of its transition window. Tony Maggio, a legislative fiscal analyst for the Virginia House of Delegates’ house appropriations committee, said 55% was settled on after looking at national data, like the USA poll, that showed most Group of 5 schools hover around that percentage.
As such, JMU, led by Charlie King and President Jonathan Alger, presented to the Intercollegiate Athletic Review Commission on how the university could get below the 55% cap within its seven-year FBS financial plan as well as justifications for going FBS via a pro forma.
The commission was created in 2015 under Virginia Del. Kirk Cox’s HB 1897 to ensure a Virginia university’s move to a higher division or adding a sport doesn’t financially burden students too heavily. JMU was the first school to go before this commission.
Maggio said JMU was around a 58% subsidy percentage in November 2021; the disparity from the USA Today number, he said, likely exists because some would-be fees like spirit groups — costs related to the Marching Royal Dukes, for example — and debt from capital facility projects before the commission’s creation can be exempt from the calculation presented, according to Cox’s bill. JMU was closer to 55% than the 70% subsidy cap imposed on Virginia FCS programs.
“It wouldn't take much movement in order for them to get below [55%],” Maggio, who was a notetaker during JMU’s presentation to the commission, said. The pro forma suggests JMU will be at 54.1% subsidy by 2028-29 and already below 55% the year prior.
“When the members [of the commission] looked at that, they saw that as being sort of, somewhat favorable,” Maggio said.
If JMU fails to meet the subsidy percentage progress requirements as determined by Virginia’s auditor of public accounts (APA), who does an annual report on compliance, it results in “reduction of the financial and administrative operations authority granted to the institution,” according to HB 1897.
“The APA is sort of our watchdog on this,” Maggio said. “If [JMU] were to fail entirely on that, then the consequences are — one of the things would be [they] lose some of their decentralization authorities that they have.”
In JMU’s case, however, missing the 55% didn’t surface as a likelihood — Maggio said no one on the committee opposed King’s pro forma, and commission members voted unanimously to approve JMU’s FBS jump.
What’s left for JMU is the aftermath tied to leveling up: more revenue, more costs and heightened stakes. As Bourne said Nov. 6, through all the pomp of the Sun Belt announcement and Homecoming weekend: “We have a tremendous amount of work to do internally.”
“They're looking to this to be next as a natural progression for them,” Maggio said. “They believe that it'd be beneficial for the program, and so the data that they provided seems to support that.”
In 2029, Maggio said, that'll be known.
Contact Grant Johnson at email@example.com. For more sports coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.