This is a plan I liked enough to write the principals about.
Merge the WAC with the Big West under the leadership of current Big West commissioner Dennis Farrell.
The WAC position
The WAC competitively has a lot in its favor. They are one of 11 conferences that offer FBS football. (Moving up to the FBS ranks now requires an invitation from an FBS conference and more than half of the FBS conferences would not even consider offering an invitation to an FCS school to make the jump.)
The newly-expanded WAC looks to be a very good mid-major basketball conference when league play opens in 2012.
A big part of the WAC's problem is that it lacks the kind of appeal that makes teams want to join It has a better academic profile than the Sun Belt, but it isn't overwhelming by any means. Its footprint is large but its media market is a bit spotty, and its athletic programs and fan support are both under-developed, which has its broadcast partner ESPN taking a hard-line stance with the WAC's TV payout.
Then there is the potential of future raids.
Schools like Montana can say, " Eh...Maybe in a few years..." and feel confident that the WAC will have slots available because the conference has few committed suitors in its footprint.
The Big West position
The Big West is an appealing academic conference. The Big West's issues are that it is seen as a laughable athletic conference—a cost-savings league, one step above Division II. They don't play football at all and are considered a joke in basketball by recruits and fans.
While it has a combined enrollment of more than 235,000 students at any one time in the state of California (suggesting alumni and fan bases that offer legitimate statewide support), the limited size of the Big West's footprint and lack of success in the revenue sports limits media interest.
On top of that, the state of California has some ridiculous rules regarding raising taxes that constantly undermine all of its public schools.
A marriage between the two conferences would allow both memberships to keep their advantages while adding the other conference's advantages.
Step 1: Add Lamar. Lamar probably closes the door on the Texas schools jumping to the Sun Belt. It would give the Texas schools a feeling of control over the future direction of the conference that they would never have in the Sun Belt.
(A couple years ago, UTSA, Lamar, and UT-Arlington were three of the four non-football members of the football-first Southland Conference. Texas State was a football-playing member.)
Lamar averaged 14,443 in football per game attendance last year (17th-best in the FCS ranks).
The three-county Golden Triangle has just under 400,000 residents and no NFL or NBA teams. An FBS Lamar would be the only FBS school in the Golden Triangle, which should allow for strong attendance numbers in both revenue sports. Lamar also claims to have a fair number of alumni living in nearby Houston.
Texas has eight Designated Market Areas in the top 101 in the U.S. Adding Lamar would give the Southwestern quadrant some argument to a presence in five of the top eight media markets in Texas.
(Obviously, if UT-Arlington follows up on the rumors and uses its natural gas windfall to restart football— possibly by 2016 or so—the WAC will be in even a better position in this regard. That UTA even got an invitiation to the WAC after the conference insisted it would only be adding football-playing members suggests it is under serious consideration. And that doesn't even take into consideration the curious quotes given by school leaders in their announcements upon joining the WAC.
Step 2: Offer a merger to the Big West on favorable terms.
The Big West has to know that the only thing that kept it from losing its Northern California schools was the economic downturn. Cal Poly's president wants to play FBS football. If the WAC survives, when the economy turns around, Cal Poly will jump at an offer. When it does, Davis will likely follow. Pacific could also rethink its position.
It seems that San Diego State basketball coach Steve Fisher has no desire to coach in as weak a conference as the Big West. Former Aztec players have publicly suggested it will hurt SDSU's recruiting. Anyone who understands RPI can see it will clearly hurt SDSU's seeding in the NCAA Tournament.
Fisher may have the clout to make it an issue. The new WAC appears poised to be a much stronger basketball league than the Big West. The Big West could easily trade out a weak western WAC school like Idaho with San Diego State in men's basketball, making Fisher a lot less unhappy.
A merger with the WAC eliminates two of the most destructive scenarios for the Big West.
The Big West appears to be saving its last slot for San Jose State. It solves a lot of trouble for the WAC if it can still count San Jose State as an all-sport football member, but push SJSU's Olympic sports into the Big West division. It is a win-win for both conferences.
A great part of this is how quickly this could be implemented. Rather than hiring a new commissioner, the WAC would simply pay Big West commissioner Dennis Farrell an additional $350,000 annually to also oversee the WAC side of the house and have all of the WAC's staff simply report to Farrell. (This amounts to almost a $100,000 savings over what the WAC was paying Benson).
Given that the MWC/CUSA merger is in part about shedding their existing TV deals, it is entirely possible that a merged WAC/Big West may at minimum be able to shed the WAC's oppressively one-sided TV deal with ESPN if they merge under the Big West name.
(As a marketing device, the WAC brand is thoroughly compromised. The Big West brand was as damaged as today's WAC 15 years ago, but today it is relatively unknown outside of the West Coast. A new larger Big West might quickly draw some positive parallels in fans' minds with the Big East—an automatic qualifier conference at the BCS level.)
The new Big West could probably make more money and get a ton more exposure broadcasting its content on other national networks. That would be a huge marketing win.
This would give the conference a strong presence in both California and Texas (and many of the major markets in between) to fuel future TV deals.
As far as TV goes, that bodes well. If you look at the alumni numbers, the markets covered and the potential strength of the sports, in a few years this new configuration could pay fairly close to what the MWC/CUSA is building, at least in terms of payouts to football members.
It also could pay non-football members enough that a school like San Jose State might feel inclined to only consider moving football to a conference with Mountain West Conference members in it, should an invitation arise. Solid TV payouts combined with the small costs of California travel could make it viable for SJSU to bow to pressure from its Big West conference mates and keep its Olympic sports in the New Big West, should such an offer arise.
Step 3 (feasible): Invite the Montanas again on the condition they committwithin a reasonable time frame. No more delays with their intentions.
With your markets covered, you can go after programs. Both Montana schools have well-developed programs.
Montana flirted with the WAC for months in 2010. Their AD wrote an amazingly candid letter spelling out his opinion that remaining at the FCS ranks was unviable long term. Montana's president went into a meeting with the state of Montana Board of Regents and came out sheepishly saying in a video interview that Montana had decided to stay in the FCS with in-state Rival Montana State. BOR members publicly praised Montana's president at the time for the decision.
Cynics have long maintained that Montana was tied at the hip with Montana State politically. They pointed to this decision as proof, saying that the Montana BOR which oversees both schools did not want Montana State left behind in a dying FCS conference with no shot at an FBS invite.
The idea is that the Montanas are a two-for-one deal. Because the only conference willing to make them that offer is the WAC, it will be on the Montanas' schedule.
It should be noted that in early October 2010, just prior to the meeting with Montana's president, the Montana Board of Regents approved an expansion plan for Montana State's football stadium to raise its capacity to just under 18,000. How much resistance would there be to Montana—by far the best draw in the conference—leaving MSU behind right after the board approved that expansion? That seems to be a valid question. Would such a move have cost BOR members credibility? Did they have a vested interest in Montana and MSU remaining peers?
Both schools seem committed to feverishly upgrading facilities, which doesn't make much sense if they are staying at the FCS level. It does make sense if Montana is waiting for MSU so they can jump to the FBS together at a point when neither would struggle for too long.
The University of Montana released a feasibility study last year that suggested upgrading would have cost several million dollars more a year, including "recommended facility upgrades" that "could have run tens of millions of dollars more."
Again, it should be noted that university presidents are not totally ignorant to financial numbers. It isn't like Montana had no idea of the costs. The school talked to the WAC for months and were guests of the WAC at the meeting where UTSA and Texas State made their presentations. To suggest Montana's leadership was just gobsmacked by the numbers and therefore decided to stay at the FCS level seems unlikely at best.
University presidents crave associations with top academic programs. Montana mentioned the addition of fairly prestigious University of North Dakota joining the Big Sky as a reason it felt comfortable staying.
The New Big West would have prestige in spades, creating a lot of pressure on both Montana presidents and the BOR to join if the offer felt like it was not open-ended. (It is worth re-reading the section of the letter by Montana's AD about university peers.)
If Utah State does get an invite by summer, the New Big West would be at 24 teams—perfect for four divsions with six teams each to cut travel costs.
If the Montanas hemm and haw...move on. Sam Houston State would take an invite to this kind of Big West and would give an undisputed Houston DMA presence, which only would help the TV offering. That gets you to 24.
If Utah State leaves this summer, offer its slot to Utah Valley University, if they agree to add football.
Last year Utah Valley's AD stated that if Utah State wanted UVU in the WAC, UVU would be in the WAC. UVU may be a Boise State-level academic school, but it has the largest enrollment in Utah and its president is on the record as saying starting up football is not "off the table." Reportedly, the braintrust at UVU has put some thought into starting a football program if it would get it nto the WAC and has a savings fund for athletic program upgrades. Perhaps starting up football was not offered as part of its presentation to the WAC; Perhaps it was, but its time to implement a program was not what the WAC wanted at the time.
Step 3 (Longshot): Offer an invitation to Rice University.
Many will call this step hugely unrealistic and even more than that—risky—comparing it to the infamous "project," where the WAC tried to steal BYU from the MWC only to suffer a retaliatory raid.
While it is a long shot, once you realize what fishes out of water the three top-notch academic CUSA private schools (Rice, Tulane and Tulsa) are in the merged conference (or in a new CUSA), there is a chance to appeal to a top academic school like Rice. (Denver, Pacific and The UC schools are much better academic peers.)
I'd argue that it isn't risky either because you know the MWC/CUSA merger (or the two conferences separately) will be coming after WAC schools regardless of what the WAC does.
For Rice, attendance is a key factor in its future.
Rice is one of the best academic schools in the FBS ranks. Rice has an enrollment of 6,000 and an endowment of $3.6 billion. Simply put, it isn't hurting for money.
Rice has the smallest enrollment in the FBS ranks. A Houston paper reported a few years ago that if you put every living Rice alumnus into Rice's 47,000-seat stadium, you would not fill it.
To compound the issue, Rice Stadium is three miles from the NFL Texans' Reliant Stadium and less than five miles from Robertson Stadium, the home of the now BCS automatic qualifier, the University of Houston. That is a lot of competition for the Houstonian sports entertainment dollar. NFL cities in general tune out college teams unless they are winning big. Houston is no exception.
This has led Rice to have wild attendance fluctuations in the old Conference USA, depending on its level of competitiveness. If you ignore a game where it hosted Texas in Reliant Stadium in 2010 (70,445) and an end-of-the-season showdown with Houston for the CUSA West title in 2008 (35,534), you get a very unflattering picture of Rice as an FBS program.
Without those two games, over the last seven years, Rice has drawn between 10,072 and 18,091 per game in a C-USA with a very friendly divisional footprint.
The C-USA of the future will not offer Rice the same level of travelling fan attendance and it is very likely Rice may find itself at a competitive disadvantage in its new league.
Now Rice can stack its schedule against former SWC foes in BCS-AQ conferences, but how often will Rice have winning seasons if it does that?
Will Rice be a geographic outlier in its conference? How does Rice compete for media attention with not only the Texans but also a newly minted AQ school in the Houston Cougars?
If Rice loses, 10,000 to 13,000 show up for Rice football and people start talking about shutting down the program again.
Rice needs attendance far more than it needs money.
This new Big West will have a number of schools capable of delivering fans in in-conference play. Texas State has a large alumni base in Houston and is noted in the state for having travelling fans as well. UTSA has a very large enrollment, averaged 35,521 per game last year playing NAIA schools and is three-and-a-half hours away.
Lamar is 90 minutes away and averaged 15,260 in the first two years (95 percent stadium capacity) since reinstating football. Louisiana Tech could also be a decent draw. It is a five-and-a-half drive, but many of its lumni live much closer to Houston.
It seems likely that Rice would be more competitive in the new Big West and would draw better attendance numbers. It could load up its out-of-conference schedule with second-tier football programs in the area the likes of SMU, Houston, Tulsa, Baylor, Texas A&M, and Tulane, and end up with a schedule that is both gate-friendly and manageable.
Recent history suggests that when Rice is a winning team, its attendance is closer to 17,000 to 18,000 a game. A manageable schedule filled with schools that can bring 1,000 to 3,000 travelling fans per game could have Rice's attendance near 20,000 every week. With Rice's academics, that might create enough of a perception of a local fan base to get the Big 12's attention.
Every FBS school wants to be in an AQ conference. Rice dreams of Big 12 membership. Rice is one of the few FBS schools (very possibly the only one) that could move to a lower-tier conference like this one and probably improve its chances of being invited.
Absolutely, Rice is a long shot, but the great thing about a New Big West built this way is that the conference could actually have appeal to a Rice University.
This New Big West might have a very good chance of weathering losses. Utah State is probably gone, but in this type of conference, San Jose State might be talked into keeping its Olympic sports in the Big West by the other Cal state schools, if SJSU gets an MWC/CUSA offer.
Likewise Louisiana Tech might jump at an MWC/CUSA offer, but there would be no shortage of local candidates (Louisiana-Lafayette jumps to mind—as well as most of the Big Sky) to replace them.
If Rice is in, the prestige in Texas and reasonable TV money are such that UTSA might decline an offer from the merged conference. If Rice isn't, UTSA would likely still be a candidate to jump ship, but again there would be plenty of willing replacements in the Big Sky ranks.