Mountain West Stable, For Now

The Mountain West appears to have won a large victory with the recent additions (or not losses if that’s how you choose to look at it) of Boise State and San Diego State.  That may in fact be the case.  However, there is also the possibility that in its quest for stabilization and increased stature, the Mountain West endangered itself by giving away crucial member equality in order to re-acquire Boise State.

Reports indicate the Mountain West has or will (among other things): 1) re-negotiate its television contract with CBS Sports Network which will allow teams on national television (i.e. Boise State) to make more money through bonuses, 2) sell Boise State’s home games in a separate package, and 3) allocate half of BCS (and future equivalent) bowl game revenue to the participating team (i.e. Boise State) before splitting it among the remaining conference members.

From the quotes of Big East commissioner Mike Aresco, it sounds as if Boise State wanted to stay in the Big East if it would match the Mountain West’s offer.  Smartly, Mr. Aresco and the remaining Big East schools’ (bonus points if you can name them) presidents said thanks, but no thanks.  In a time when it must feel like everything is crashing down around them, the Big East brass found a line they wouldn’t cross.  Good for them. Let’s face it, Boise State to the Big East wasn’t exactly the perfect mix of chocolate and peanut butter.  So for the Big East to grant unprecedented perks to a school 2,600 miles removed from the conference office didn’t make a whole lot of sense.  Navy Athletic Director Chet Gladchuck even went public with his disdain for the proposed deal, saying:

“What Boise State wanted was outrageous and unprecedented. It was not palatable to any of the other Big East institutions,” Gladchuk said. “In the final analysis, Boise wasn’t worth it. There is zero television interest in Boise along the Eastern seaboard. What it tells me is the Mountain West was desperate. Clearly, the Mountain West was willing to make whatever concessions necessary to keep Boise in the fold.”

But surely it made sense for the Mountain West to do whatever was necessary to bring Boise State back under its tent, right?  Maybe, maybe not.  The money grab that is conference realignment also has an undercurrent of trying to create and/or maintain stability and long-term viability.  As mentioned earlier, the Mountain West seems to have stabilized at 12 members.  But when gross member inequality is part of a league’s structure, there can be problems.

Example:  When the Big 12 was formed in the mid-90s, its structure was similar to how the Mountain West is currently proceeding.  Most notably, it did not share bowl and television revenue monies equally among the members.  Rather, the participating teams were first entitled to a larger share.  This obviously funneled most of the revenue toward the traditionally successful programs, and smaller amounts to everyone else. (Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman wrote about this structure in 2010.) As time passed the Big 12 and its membership experienced the difficulties of operating a conference successfully when there’s a sense that a few schools are driving the bus and collecting the checks, and the rest are just passengers along for the ride.  Ultimately, that and other issues led to the departure of 1/3rd of the Big 12’s schools (Nebraska, Colorado, Missouri, Texas A&M), and a near collapse of the conference entirely.

Whether the Big 12 leadership decided the original structure was a mistake, or that times had changed and therefore the structure needed to change with it, the powers that be agreed to a more (though not completely) equal distribution of revenue in the summer of 2011.  It also put a stake in the ground on stability by having each member grant its television rights to the conference for a long period of time (initially six years, but recently extended to 13), essentially removing the largest incentive to other conferences who may wish to come poaching in the future (the importance of this “grant of rights” was well articulated by Mat Winter in a BusinessofCollegeSports.com post last month).  I have not read or heard anything along the lines of Boise State or the other Mountain West schools making similar commitments.

So while the Big 12 (barely) escaped the inequality trap and the Big East has avoided it for now, the Mountain West may have fallen right in it.  Sure, Utah State and San Jose State are excited to be new members in a league which just got considerably stronger.  And the other Mountain West schools no doubt see the tremendous value Boise State brings to all of them.  But give those non-Boise State presidents and athletic directors a few years of conference meetings looking over financials, and watching the revenue flow into the conference and out to Boise State.  Give them a few years of conference meetings observing how decisions are made.

The camaraderie that exists today may not continue very long.  And without a grant-of-rights or similar level of commitment, Boise State is for all intents and purposes a perpetual free agent, available to accept the next best conference offer that comes along.  The Mountain West’s current and future members no doubt wanted to make decisions which ensured stability over the long-term.  And while the league certainly got immediately stronger with the addition of Boise State, it may be that the deal they made guarantees the long-term will be anything but stable.

Follow Daniel on Twitter: @DanielHare

2 thoughts on “Mountain West Stable, For Now”

  1. I completely disagree with this. There’s a very public perception that “inequality” makes a league unstable, but there really isn’t any evidence behind the assertion.

    Consider that the Big East was quite equal among its football members, and if anything artificially inflated the revenues of the all-sports members to heighten equality, and they got raided even more heavily than the Big 12 (and if memory serves, Rutgers took a specifically unequal deal to join the B1G, where they’d get less than the other members for a while, because they wanted to be in that specific club more than they wanted to be in a club where everyone was “equal”). So “equality”, in an of itself, isn’t nearly enough to save a sports league.

    Meanwhile, the Big 12 has had plenty of issues, but in no case did anyone actually leave the league just to go to a “more equal” environment (though in fairness, it does create an awfully convenient excuse so that you can blame the league for your decision to leave). A&M, Mizzou and Nebraska all jumped ship to leagues that were much more powerful and wealthy (and like Rutgers, Nebraska took a “less equal” deal when joining; apparently more money in an absolute sense was more important than ensuring that they didn’t get less money than their fellow league members). You can try and argue the case for Colorado, except there the decision was in large part a culture issue as opposed to a TV revenue distribution issue.

    The truth is that Boise has made it abundantly clear that they’re ALWAYS going to be willing to jump ship to a higher prestige league (and it’s worth noting that the rest of the Mountain West is too, they’re just less obvious about it and/or it’s abundantly clear that power leagues simply have no interest in their programs). This is regardless of the nature of the TV deal and financial distributions. The Mountain West isn’t unstable because they treat Boise different, they’re unstable because about half their membership has atrocious football programs, their league as a whole is culturally irrelevant (which is why the mtn project failed even when they still had BYU, TCU and Utah), and there’s no evidence that either of those things is going to change.

    If anything, treating Boise unequally (and it’s worth noting that some of these benefits accrue to WHOEVER is doing well, so if Boise struggles and, say, Wyoming suddenly becomes good, then Boise doesn’t do so well in the deal) helps ensure that Boise is less likely to actively seek new opportunities. When you have a league, what’s most important is keeping your relatively powerful members as happy as possible.

    The Big 12 still exists, even in a diminished state, because at the key moment Texas decided they’d rather stay in the league. Had the Big 12 enforced equality among membership that was very obviously not equal, would Texas have decided to stick around? If not, then that would have been FAR more devastating to Iowa St, Baylor etc. than having to live with treatment that reflects their inherently unequal status (and if anything, they’re getting treated much BETTER than their inherent status indicates, given that it’s not their programs who drive the league’s TV revenue, and it’s only because they’re part of the same league that they can get Texas to play them on a home and home basis instead of for bodybag paychecks or 2:1 or 3:1 deals).

    Ultimately, what makes a league truly unstable isn’t whether or not it treats members equally, it’s whether or not there’s a wide distribution of program worth (which the Big 12 still has; there’s no way to make Baylor as valuable and popular as Texas, even if you do force their TV revenues towards equality), and whether or not the league makes so much money that it papers over all other issues (which is a good way to describe the Pac-12 right now; UCLA/USC don’t care that they only make as much as Wazzu when that number is still much higher than they thought they’d end up getting at the start of TV negotiations).

    1. Certainly I would agree that treating every member equally isn’t enough to save a league. I would just argue that setting up a structure obviously more favorable to the schools at the top does not contribute to stability over time. It will be interesting to watch over the coming years.

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