Opinion: Delaware’s rise to FBS not without risk, but raises ceiling for sports programs, university

BY DANIEL STEENKAMER
Managing Sports Editor

Thanksgiving has come and gone. 

At many households, a familiar scene unfolded at dinner time: You had the adults’ table and the kids’ table. 

Sure, everyone got to eat the meal, but the big person table was the place to be, the room where it happens.

In that spirit, university athletics just pulled up a chair. 

In a press conference on Wednesday at the Whitney Athletic Center, Delaware formalized and celebrated its 2025-26 elevation to Conference USA, a Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) league. Long a subject of speculation and hypotheticals given the Fightin’ Blue Hens’ history of football success and support despite waning results in the last 20 years, Delaware-to-FBS at last became real with university President Dennis Assanis, athletic director Chrissi Rawak and Conference USA Commissioner Judy MacLeod assembled before media and fans in the Whitney’s stadium club.

By bolting the Coastal Athletic Association (CAA), jettisoning CAA Football and accepting an invitation to Conference USA (CUSA), Delaware joins the NCAA’s highest tier of Division I football, trading in Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) national championship contention for bowl game selection and increased revenue in the FBS.

The increased revenue will be a very happy return via CUSA’s media rights agreements with ESPN and CBS Sports Network, which went into effect this fall. As part of ESPN’s portion of the CUSA deal, the ESPN family of linear networks carries eight weeknight football games per season through the conference’s October midweek scheduling.

With its select work-week football games, Conference USA mimics the fellow FBS Mid-American Conference’s “MACtion” weeknight games televised on linear platforms in November. The Sun Belt Conference is yet another FBS “Group of 5”-level league that occasionally showcases its football contests by bending to TV’s midweek evening openings.

In other words, there is no shame playing on Tuesday or Wednesday night a couple or few times a year as an FBS mid-major. Not when the revenue and exposure generated helps offset or rationalize the initial cost of doing business entering the Bowl Subdivision.

That number is steep. Just on arrival or as the transition begins, Delaware incurs a cost of $6 million when one combines the NCAA’s freshly installed FBS reclassification fee with the CAA’s exit fee and CUSA’s entrance fee. The Blue Hens, in their release sharing their CUSA move, assure that the needed dollars “will be fundraised from external sources” and that “no university subsidy will be provided for these fees.”

Other aspects of Delaware’s ascension to the FBS will involve cost hikes, such as the football program’s scholarship count rising to the FBS maximum of 85 (from 63 in equivalencies in the FCS). Correspondingly, the Hens will take on more financial obligations with their women’s ice hockey program to come in 2025. The new sport sponsorship will ensure Delaware’s Title IX compliance.

Speaking of sport sponsorship, CUSA does not possess all the sports in which Delaware competes at an NCAA Division I level. The Blue Hens are grappling with where to turn for affiliations in field hockey, men’s and women’s lacrosse, swimming and diving, rowing and men’s soccer. 

What illuminates the wisdom of the jump to Conference USA, though, is that even those sports that currently cannot expect to play a second in CUSA will benefit from Delaware’s impending FBS status.

Field hockey’s Rolf van de Kerkhof, for instance, is the most successful active head coach at the university and recruits against established FBS brands that, today, have an edge on Delaware in “household sports name” recognition. Think Maryland and Penn State, just for state neighbors. 

The Blue Hens will not enjoy Power Five conference clout like those two while in CUSA, but the Hens will, starting in fall 2025, reach significantly more eyeballs playing conference games on ESPN+ as opposed to streaming rival (and comparatively niche) FloSports, the CAA’s media rights holder.

FloSports is having trouble eating ESPN’s market share of the college athletics digital inventory. That is not a positive for the intercollegiate sports economy but it is a reality that made the CAA feel more small-time than it should have. After James Madison University’s (JMU) exit to the FBS, the CAA’s perception has taken a hit with the admission of full members Monmouth University, Hampton University, North Carolina A&T State University and Campbell University.

Stony Brook University, previously a football-only affiliate, also joined the all-sports CAA in a less damaging move as far as Delaware would be concerned. The 2024 football-only welcoming of Bryant University, though, further distanced the future CAA and CAA Football from Delaware’s desired trajectory.

With recent conference realignment, the CAA looks much different than it did a handful of years ago. Maddy McManus/THE REVIEW

In its press release, Delaware’s stated inspiration for its CUSA move was quite clear: “…the desire to move to the FBS level was the impetus for the University of Delaware changing conferences…”

As it should be. Delaware has long prided itself on its prestige within the FCS realm (regardless of 21st century football struggles versus high expectations), boasting one of the subdivision’s premier gameday settings at Delaware Stadium and a legacy of diehard fan support.

When one scrutinizes the FCS landscape, however, one finds that Delaware has fewer and fewer FCS colleagues that share its pedigree of past success and commitment to continuation and enhancement of football tradition.

This is in reference to the east coast, even expanding to a look at the central time zone. It is not just James Madison that is a former FCS champion that now occupies the FBS.

Add Georgia Southern University, Marshall University, future CUSA mate Western Kentucky University, Appalachian State University and another CUSA member in Sam Houston State University. 

This is a crowd with which Delaware has historically been associated, at least in a football sense, setting all-sport conference particulars aside. Sure, the College of William & Mary, the University of Richmond, Towson University and archrival Villanova University remain a CAA Football cohort with extensive history with Delaware. Aside from Villanova due to rivalry game status and Towson due to proximity, though, the Blue Hens see those and other desirable opponents less often in CAA Football as it balloons with expansion that stretches the competitive expectation of the conference – well – generously. Hampton, Monmouth, North Carolina A&T and Campbell, while not outrageously behind and while flashing potential, are not ready to meaningfully grow the CAA’s level of football, at least not in comparison to the FCS powers concentrated in the midwest.

North Dakota State University, South Dakota State University and Montana State University (along with, this season, Delaware’s Saturday FCS playoff opponent, the University of Montana) hold the cards in today’s FCS. The greatest interest in the FCS lies in that direction of the nation, as NDSU has taken home nine national titles since 2011, disrupted only by JMU, Sam Houston and SDSU. Naturally, two of the three are now in the FBS.

While NDSU did travel to Delaware Stadium for a matchup in 2019, most of the remaining FCS powerhouses are nonconference foes for the Hens. Louis Mason/THE REVIEW

Even NDSU fans themselves show signs of restlessness with the stagnation of repetitive FCS dominance, slipping only now with South Dakota State’s eerily similar strength on the gridiron at present. 

North Dakota State has proven the ceiling of FCS membership through the Bison’s remarkable golden age. NDSU has put together perhaps the greatest decade-plus of college football by any program ever and yet it faces concerns about sustaining fan engagement without the intrigue of regular competition that rises to the Bison’s level. This fall, NDSU had its most disappointing “down” regular season in recent memory and still went 8-3. 

For all its competitive success and national awareness through being “the FCS king,” North Dakota State is stuck with that label. Its profile as an institution is capped at that, at least as it stands now. This is not even the fault of NDSU itself, as its geography limits its realistic FBS conference options. 

Just consider JMU, though, which was similarly powerhouse-like compared to NDSU in its final time in FCS football. The Dukes these days do not have to annually march deep into the FCS playoffs to get on linear TV, teaching viewers across the country what their university’s three letters stand for. This fall, helped by on-field prowess, JMU played eight times on linear networks in the regular season, including twice in prime time and twice in the main mid-afternoon slot of 3:30 p.m. 

That is the game-changer. JMU also reeled in ESPN’s College GameDay and the Pat McAfee Show for a visit on campus in Harrisonburg, Virginia as the 2023 wins piled up. At this point, the Dukes’ athletic department can feel confident that life in the FBS has been successful enough at generating national headlines to boost applications and university brand respect. 

After all, college recruiting, of the student-athlete or of the “regular” student, is all about marketing and the brand. Factoring into that is who is at the table with you in your conference. Also influential are your nonconference opponents, an area in which Delaware is about to upgrade in football seasons to come. Think (perhaps) Temple University, the nearby service academies, the University of Connecticut – the list extends down the coast. 

After years of broad-based athletic department rebuilding and infrastructure improvements by the Assanis/Rawak administration and after the deterioration of Delaware’s eastern FCS brethren (we have not mentioned Coastal Carolina University or Liberty University’s FCS-to-FBS success in this time zone), the Blue Hens have bounced to the grown-up table.

And there, with enough victories and the right dominos to fall, Delaware can realize its full athletic potential. And yes, that includes College GameDay on The Green.