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A Lesson in Superconferences: How Can the WAC Survive?

Over the last 24 months, conference realignment has reshaped the landscape of collegiate athletics.  The constant flux of teams switching conferences, along with conferences working  to amass the greatest number of member institutions leads one to question whether superconferences are all they’re cracked up to be.

The apparent victim in the most recent round of conference realignment is the WAC.  Reports indicate that WAC members Utah State and San Jose State are set to leave the conference for the Mountain West Conference in 2013.  Additionally, UT-San Antonio, which was set to join the WAC this season is expected to break with those intentions and join Conference USA.  With Utah State and San Jose State leaving for the Mountain West and UT-San Antonio not joining the conference, the WAC is left with only four football-playing schools.

In response to these reports, WAC interim commissioner Jeff Hurd asserted that the conference will remain viable and the conference is evaluating different options to address its defecting members.  In considering options, should the WAC seek out numerous new members with the goal of becoming a super conference, or rather, should it rebrand itself as a conference focused on a specific sport?

Founded in 1962, the WAC initially was the conference of six members:  Arizona, Arizona State, BYU, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.  The creation of the wake resulted in the demise of Border and Skyline conferences.  While Arizona and Arizona State experienced competitive success as WAC members, they eventually left the conference to join what would become the Pac-12.  However, by 1980, the WAC had increased its membership by 50 percent, adding UTEP, Colorado State, San Diego State, Hawaii and Air Force.  The expanse covered by the WAC was growing as the conference’s membership grew.

In 1996, the WAC achieved the ranks of superconference status when its membership totaled 16 schools.  Along with its previous 9 members from 1980, the WAC added:  Fresno State, Rice, TCU, SMU, San Jose State, UNLV and Tulsa.  Started as a conference limited to a specific geographical region, the conference now had schools in four time zones and stretched across 3,900 miles.

While the saying “bigger is better” may be true for most things, it was not so for the WAC.  With schools located across 3,900 miles, travel expenses skyrocketed for member institutions.  Additionally, reports indicate that some members were concerned that the original academic and athletic focus of the conference was lost in expansion.  The consequences of superconference expansion were felt in 1999, when three of the remaining four original members, along with three WAC newcomers left the conference to form the Mountain West Conference.

The lesson here, is an important one to the WAC (and other conferences, for that matter), when it comes to drafting plans to move forward as a conference under the current landscape of collegiate athletics.  While in recent months, there have been vigilant efforts by conferences to organize coups of other conference’s members, superconference status does not always guarantee success.

Rather, conferences should be concerned first and foremost with drafting a long-term vision for their conference.  Will the conference achieve success by fielding football teams, or will it find steadiness in focusing upon other sports?  Would the conference be better suited if its members were located in one region of the country or would it be more financially responsible for the conference to be spread out across all corners of the nation?  In seeking out members, is it important to the conference that institutions represent academic integrity and success?

Ultimately, when you look at the most successful conferences of past decade, there is a cohesiveness about them that the WAC was lacking.  The “Big Six” are tied together by geography, success in either football or basketball and institutions that for the large part, promote academic excellence.  In moving forward, any conference on the verge of death, should spend considerable time fleshing out what the conference’s new keystones will be before arbitrarily inviting institutions to become new members.



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