Frequent flier Boise State appears to be preparing for another conference move.
Friday, May 11 saw an article on CBSsports.com stating Boise State was considering backing out of their agreement to join the Big East in order to rejoin the Mountain West Conference (The MWC has made a very public appeal to both Boise State and San Diego State to attempt to convince both current MWC members not to leave for the Big East.)
Combine that with the article from the previous day stating Boise State had requested help from the Big East to place their Olympic sports teams in a conference, and it appears Boise State may be playing the two conferences against each other.
An ailing WAC
Boise State is seeing their current conference, the Western Athletic Conference, crumble as its last two football playing members, Idaho and New Mexico State, panhandle for an offer from any conference with a heartbeat.
A month ago, Boise State was probably thinking the WAC would survive as at least a respectable I-AAA conference. If the WAC imploded, Boise State had to think they would simply join one of the two other lower level western Division I conferences (The Big West and Big Sky).
Now it looks like the protracted hand wringing of Idaho and NMSU look likely to drive away other members.
The Big Sky made news recently by revealing they had little interest in Boise State's Olympic sports. With the Montanas as a bit of a flight risk, it is not that surprising that the Big Sky is not interested in adding a school that shows no loyalty to its home conference. Why introduce that thought process to a surprisingly cohesive group?
The Big West passed on Boise State before Boise Alumnus and former WAC commissioner Karl Benson convinced the WAC membership to readmit the Broncos.
Boise probably assumed they could buy their way in to the Big West this time—perhaps with travel subsidies like Hawaii did.
Now Hawaii has edges with the Big West that Boise State does not. Hawaii is culturally similar and had a significant history with the Big West schools. They are also good in sports the Big West values like baseball and volleyball.
Boise's public "request for help" from the Big East suggests if the Big West was approached with an offer, the Big West was not interested.
The passes on Boise State's Olympic programs really aren't that surprising if you think about it.
The Big West is pretty much a "bus league." Boise is quite far from the BW footprint and would not have a nearby travel partner. The Big West already has one situation like that with Hawaii—do they want another?
The Big Sky hopes to lure Idaho back to the FCS level. They prefer the more academically prestigious University of Idaho as the final piece of their conference. Boise State is one of the lowest ranked academic institutions in the FBS ranks.
Boise's Olympic sports have next to no TV value for a conference, but the Broncos' share of Big East TV money could make those sports dominant in either of the other two Western conferences.
No TV value, bad travel, and a deck stacked in favor of Boise against the current membership is not a winning argument for Boise's inclusion.
Is Boise really scared of the WAC collapsing?
How concerned is Boise really about the WAC collapsing to a point where it isn't even a I-AAA conference? Have Idaho and New Mexico State done that much damage?
Was Boise's call to the Big East was sincere desperation or was it an attempt by Boise to leverage their plight into a full Big East membership?
Really, who calls their football conference and asks them to place them in a better basketball conference?
What is that all about? Was that action aimed at San Diego State to force the Aztecs to aid Boise State in moving to the Big West or was it aimed at the Big East membership itself?
Certainly the former is very possible, but doesn't Boise generally think bigger in realignment decisions? Could the Broncos want full sports memberships in the Big East now with other western schools like UNLV and Fresno State added to form an all sports Western division to ease Boise's Olympic travel?
That could easily be the ruin of the new MWC's TV dreams.
The Big East turned down $14.4 M per school from ESPN to test the free market with their TV content. That kind of money is less than other BCS conference members make, but it is at least on the scale.
If the AQ conference designation no longer exists and there is no automatic berth into an elite bowl for the Big East, it would seem likely that the Big East might be paid as a non-elite conference with a value slightly better than the MWC, rather than as an elite conference with a value slightly less than the ACC.
Could that number be $7-9 Million for a football playing, all-sports member? If so, a football-only member like Boise State might be looking at 2/3 of that or $4-6 million.
Is it worth it to Boise State to put their football excellence at risk with distant travel for that reward?
Opinions of fans and insiders are quite split on how much the new Big East contract is likely to yield per school. Some expect the Big East's new TV deal to exceed ESPNs offer. Others think they won't come close to it.
On the positive side, the Big East's TV rights will be in an open market and they can argue they have content in all the mainland timezones. Perhaps that would lead to a strong bid from a darkhorse network. That could have some real value to a network trying to make it's mark nationally, like say Versus.
On the negative side, many of their schools seems to have small fan bases. Additionally, the schools are so far spread out that they may not generate traction in their weaker markets from other member schools' fan bases in those markets.
Is Boise looking at the likely money and not seeing a huge difference between conferences? Is the difference still worth the risk to their football program?
What leverage does Boise State have vs. the Big East? Well, Boise State could always pay a $5 Million penalty prior to July 1st and stay in the MWC instead of joining the Big East (it will be double after that date and they could be required to give 27 month advanced notice).
There does seem to be a reason for Boise to make a decision on this before July.
If Boise rejoins the MWC, San Diego State may have some tough choices to make. Unlike Boise State, SDSU seems sold on the Big East for now.
San Diego State, probably fearful of losing out on their Big East opportunity, has advised they will attempt to use their influence to help Boise State find a conference home for their Olympic sports. They appear to be working the Big West to get Boise State in.
Is their sales pitch, "Add Boise or be prepared for us to rejoin the MWC?"
SDSU wisely got an escape clause from their Big East commitment should the mercurial Broncos leadership jump to yet another conference.
A pessimist might suggest an entirely opposite view of that situation. They might say SDSU could also be getting cold feet, but is telling the Big East membership that they will try to help Boise State into the Big West, so when Boise bolts, the Big East will be more willing to let SDSU go back to the MWC without any further hassle—but there are no news articles that hint at that.
How much would Boise State leaving hurt the Big East?
It is hard to say.
There is a question of the value that Boise State brings to the Big East in the near future.
The inclusion of Boise State, a Western school, was considered an admission of weakness by Big East fans.
Boise was needed because the rules that measured whether a conference was worthy of being a BCS bowl automatic qualifier were based in part off top 10 finishes --- of which the current Big East schools had none.
Boise State's value is all on the football field.
The BCS bowl automatic qualifier designation seems destined to go away in 2014, so there is a question in that regard to how much the Big East still needs Boise State.
Fans of all kinds of teams tune in to watch a Boise State match up out of morbid curiosity.
"Will they stay in the national title hunt or does this game eliminate them?"
The Big East tried to land geographically sensible western travel partners with national followings to compliment Boise State's media attributes (BYU and Air Force), before ultimately settling on distant San Diego State. SDSU is more of local brand.
Although Boise State may be one of the Big East's best TV properties, the failure to land Western based national brands like BYU and Air Force hurts the conference's argument to nationwide relevance. Missing out on BYU and Air Force could limit how networks view the value of Boise in the Big East.
The Big East of today is more of an eastern conference with two western bugs on the windshield.
The current configuration appears geographically unstable to many Big East fans and very well could be. A Boise State defection to the MWC would damage the Big East brand in the eyes of the public and elevate the MWC brand.
The Big East could easily invite a willing and valuable candidate like East Carolina as Boise State's replacement if that were to happen though. The Big East could fill the slot overnight with a quality addition that would ease the sting and reinforce the conference's eastern identity, pleasing eastern fans.
FBS schools still recognize that the Big East is higher in the realignment pecking order than the MWC/CUSA merger.
ECU would not bring the media value of Boise State, but they would be a more attractive Bowl candidate to the southeastern Bowls. The Big East absolutely needs good bowl associations long term in order to protect the view of the conference.
Additionally, Boise's TV support outside of the Boise DMA is intensely tied to the level of dominance shown by their teams. Networks could value Boise State's media value quite conservatively as the networks do not know how Boise State will deal with a tougher Big East schedule and much more demanding travel.
It seems that Boise's value to the Big East may be quite a bit less than what the Big East had hoped when they invited them.
Would the Big East allow Boise State to manipulate them, or would they draw the line?
What value does Boise offer the MWC?
The MWC is now essentially the same WAC Boise State dominated—with a few more middle of the pack schools.
There is no reason for networks not to assume Boise will continue to dominate their conference mates in this conference, therefore Boise State football in the MWC may be valued more highly than it would be in the Big East.
Boise would give the MWC a heavyweight, giving the MWC some credibility and arguably narrowing the gap with the Big East.
Additionally, if the MWC/C-USA merger occurs in a few years, the new conference would be better able to provide a nationwide platform to maximize Boise's TV appeal.
Boise State would be the lynch-pin for the conference, assuring sincere interest from broadcasters in the merged conference's product.
Chuck Neinas of Neinas Sports Services fame—the company the MWC and C-USA hired to help come up with a plan for their merger—had a damning comment about the Big East to USA Today just before the articles about Boise State's cold feet came out:
"Now, there are five [elite-level FBS conferences]. It's just an honest evaluation. The other leagues (Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pacific-12 and Southeastern) have separated themselves."
The comments do open Neinas up to criticism considering the timing of the Boise State indecision and his company's consulting role with the MWC and C-USA. The MWC adding Boise State would seem to make landing a TV deal a lot easier. It certainly doesn't hurt his company's track record if the two leagues should merge and seek a TV deal in the next few years.
It doesn't seem out of the question that the MWC might offer to pay Boise's $5 Million exit fee to recover the Broncos' football program.
A very small cost on a good investment
If Boise State leaves the Big East—burning their bridges there—it closes the door on likely their only avenue into a better conference than the MWC.
The academic elites in the Pac-12 would never vote to admit a school with Boise State's academic reputation.
The Big 12 might, but there is a growing argument being presented from a few sources on line (some credible, proven sources for Big 12 realignment news—some unknown quantities) that the conference's troubles are in the past and successful big time realignment gains are near.
These people argue that the Big 12 now has the stability and financial allure to land 2 strong eastern schools to get to 12. Florida State and either Notre Dame (ideally) or Clemson appear to be their likely targets, although BYU may still be on the radar. Florida State would be a substantial improvement over the Big 12's biggest loss, Texas A&M, in a variety of ways.
If that is the level of candidate under consideration, it appears highly unlikely Boise State is a consideration.
Plus Boise State is the wrong kind of candidate for the Big 12 in TV terms. The Big 12 needs to expand their footprint for long term growth, they aren't hurting for the entertaining football content that is Boise State's chief asset.
Geography alone would eliminate Boise State from consideration by the SEC, Big 10, and ACC (but several other reasons would as well).
So there is the potential that literally an investment of $5 Million could deliver the MWC a long term affiliation with Boise State. One would think with the Neinas group's goals for the conferences, they would encourage this effort.
Possibly the MWC schools could even offer to match or even exceed what Boise would make as a football only member of the Big East off the top of the MWC TV revenue—before splitting the rest of the money evenly between the other schools.
It seems likely that Boise is worth far more than a Big East TV share to a network each year, meaning that the rest of the money would effectively be a profit for each member school in the MWC for buying back Boise State football.
Can the schools of the MWC resist that?
And then there is the downside
The MWC is attempting an up conference pecking order raid. When the WAC tried to do the same and steal BYU from the MWC, the MWC effectively crushed the WAC for daring it.
I would strongly question whether Craig Thompson is a more insightful commissioner than former WAC commissioner Karl Benson.
The MWC is assuming that the now leaderless Big East is too bloated and conflicted to similarly punish the MWC for their insolence. That could be a catastrophic miscalculation.
Time will tell.
It does seem that any conferences that get involved with Boise State get sucked into a lot of drama.
Will Boise State end up in the Big West? Will they end up a full member of either the MWC or the Big East within the next few months? Stay tuned for the next exciting episode of the Boise State soap opera.