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.
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