They did it. The Mountain West Conference (MWC) conformed and signed their contract with the BCS. They did it begrudgingly, but they did it nonetheless.
On the surface, it would be easy to call the conference a group of sell-outs, but in reality they had no choice. The BCS really does hold all the cards in terms of power and money, and with their recent partnership with ESPN/ABC, the Mountain West Conference could not risk being left out in the cold.
It appears as though the conference may have finally figured out how to play their cards against the BCS, however. In recent years, the members of the MWC have made negative public comments and attacked other conferences such as the Big East when they felt they were being slighted.
Now, though, the personal attacks seem to have subsided. With that the perception of the conference has gone from whiny children who were mad about not getting their way, to now being looked upon as sympathetic figures who are not being treated justly by the bigger, more powerful bullies in college football.
A SEAT AT THE TABLE
Whether the decision to back off of the negative public commentary was a conscience one or not is debatable, but it has worked regardless of its intent. And in all honesty, it would make sense for the Mountain West to try and gain allies within the BCS as opposed to try and alienate themselves from the BCS' current members. Who should the MWC be looking to befriend? Well the Big East of course.
Now it may sound crazy, but no other conference in the country comes under the constant scrutiny that the Big East endures. Talking-Head-Blowhards such as ESPN's Colin Cowherd attack at every opportunity, lying in wait to exploit any perceived weakness shown by the maligned Big East. If ever a conference needed a friend, it is definitely the Big East.
So why partner up with the Big East?
Well, for starters, the Big East occupies the largest collective group of television markets in the entire country. The whole reason for the Atlantic Coast Conference's raid on the Big East in 2003 was commissioner Jim Swofford's greed and covetous desire to take over the northeastern television markets and eliminate competition.
However, the Big East has survived and is still a full-fledged member of the BCS, something that the MWC desperately wants like to be a part of. The Big East has a seat at the table, and if the powers that be in the MWC were smart, they would try to align themselves with the Big East instead of trying to make an enemy of them. They have done this in the past several years with their unprovoked jabs at the Big East in the media.
By partnering with the Big East, they essentially give themselves a voice at the table and have someone speaking on their behalf, bringing their concerns to the other BCS members when BCS meetings are held. Yes, every conference gets its opportunity to sit in on certain meetings and are allowed representatives to the BCS, but those opportunities are still limited.
And as I mentioned, the Big East needs a friend. No conference is more aware of the value of BCS membership than the Big East, mainly because they live with the constant threat of having it taken away. The schools within the Big East base their athletic budgets off of the money they have received from the BCS. If that were ever taken from them...let's just say there is an old expression about writing checks that you can't cash.
A partnership between the Mountain West and the Big East could prove to be lucrative for both conferences, but more so for the MWC. The scheduling opportunities that could come from an alignment in basketball and football against schools in the valuable northeastern portion of the country would be—to quote HDNET's Art Mann—"TV gold."
THE TIME TO EXPAND IS NOW
So let's assume the MWC has formed an informal partnership with the Big East. Now what? Now is the time for the MWC to begin positioning itself for eventual inclusion in the BCS.
According to the BCS bylaws stated on the official BCS website:
The champions of the Atlantic Coast, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and Southeastern Conferences will have annual automatic qualification for a BCS game after the regular seasons of 2008 through 2013, based on mathematical standards of performance during the 2004-2007 regular seasons.
The 2008-2011 regular seasons will be evaluated under the same standards to determine if other conferences will have annual automatic qualification for the games after the 2012 and 2013 regular seasons. The champions of no more than seven conferences will have annual automatic berths.
So what does that mean for the Mountain West? It means they have an opportunity to have a seat at the table—an open door policy with conditions—so to speak. The problem the MWC faces is the severity of its lack of parity. As good as the top three or four teams have been over the last few years, the bottom five members of the conference have been equally impressively bad.
Prior to the 2008 season, only the current six conferences that make up the BCS finished with overall winning records for the season in the previous five years. This past season, the Mountain West finally achieved the feat as well, giving itself a little more ammo to its competition argument.
Still, another overly weak season at the bottom half of the conference and last season's gains will be all but negated. That is why the conference must expand now. By expanding, they all but eliminate the potential for falling below .500 as a conference ever again.
There are many options out there for the MWC to considere, but the first choice on almost everyone's lips is obviously Boise State. Although Boise is not a large television market, the Broncos have created a national following with their upset over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. Their penchant for producing 10-win or better seasons has also helped keep their name in the minds of fans that don't necessarily reside west of the Mississippi River.
Without question, Boise State should be the Mountain West Conference's number one draft choice. They give the conference the extra added muscle it needs to push it to the top. Boise State operated on a budget of less than $22 million in 2008. Imagine what they could do with more revenue. Their average attendance of nearly 31,000 fans per game since 2005 would climb as well with upgraded across the board competition that joining the Mountain West would provide for them. It is a win-win situation for both parties.
If the conference decides to expand to 12 teams (and I highly recommend they do just that), their next move needs to be for more than just on the field muscle. They need to consider television market appeal, and make it priority number one.
As we mentioned earlier, there are definitely candidates that could and should be considered, but the pool of actual viable options is limited. Just grabbing teams at random will not achieve the goals they need to accomplish.
Still, adding teams in large television markets that are not competitive on the field is irrelevant, since fans generally will not tune in for a sub par product anyway. With that said, the next logical choice for the MWC has to be Fresno State.
What Pat Hill has done with the Bulldog program has been wonderful. With an upgraded budget over the $26 million they performed with last season, coupled with additional butts-in-seats ticket sales over the 38,000 they have averaged during the last four seasons, will ensure they are a viable asset to the Mountain West Conference.
Further strengthening the conference's visibility in the California recruiting area to go along with San Diego State, and the addition of the Fresno State television market (the nation's No. 55 market), should help the MWC's cause immensely.
The last addition to the conference, bringing membership to 12, is a tougher call. Therefore, it has to be the right call. Adding a strong program with a desirable TV market and fertile recruiting ground is imperative. Choices range from Hawaii (which has a larger athletic budget than all but two of the current MWC members), UTEP, Nevada to Tulsa, and Houston.
At the end of the day, the choice has to be Houston. Adding Hawaii just kills travel budgets for your non-revenue producing teams. Tulsa is competitive, but they are a small private school that will never be a large revenue producer for the conference.
UTEP is a nice geographic fit with a passionate fan base, but they don't bring in a large enough market to merit their inclusion. Nevada is a competitive team, but what market they bring is already covered by UNLV, and their recruiting area is not that large.
No, those other schools have some nice things to offer, but Houston brings the No. 10 TV market, a large University (23rd largest in the U.S. with over 36,000 enrollment), a natural in-state rivalry for TCU which also helps improve visibility for the conference in the state of Texas, and makes conference members that much more appealing to the ridiculously rich recruiting area that is the state of Texas.
Houston is not perfect, as they lag behind in attendance. However, improved conference match-ups and affiliations coupled with their $30 million+ athletic budget will only help improve attendance and grow the program as it continues to improve annually.
OTHER REASONS TO EXPAND
Aside from BCS inclusion opportunities, the MWC has to consider what adding additional teams means for them long-term. One of only two conferences that currently have their own cable network (the Big Ten is the other), "The Mountain," could use the additional material and market demand to improve upon its ratings.
After a long drawn out fight with DirecTV to get them to carry their channel, the MWC has to begin making the network more nationally appealing. Having better conference match-ups between teams with more national appeal and a conference championship race between two inevitable divisions will drive demand for access to The Mountain to new heights. While it won't replace ESPN, it will definitely increase its national appeal by adding the likes of Boise State, Fresno State, and Houston.
The other reason to consider expansion is direct competition with the Pac-10 and the Big 12. Sandwiched in between those two BCS conferences, the MWC can often look like it gets lost in the shuffle. The geographic footprint of the Mountain West makes it the perfect bridge between the Midwestern states and states from the west coast. Both the Pac-10 and the Big 12 could use the competition, as neither is seriously challenged in their regions by any other conferences.
On the eastern portion of the United States, you have the Big Ten, Big East, ACC, and SEC all fighting it out over money and viewership. Once you cross the Mississippi River, you have a large gap between the Big 12 and the Pac-10. The Mountain West Conference is the perfect entity to fill that gap.
If the MWC is proactive, they too can gt a seat at the BCS table. They need to act fast. The clock is ticking and if they wait to long, they may miss a golden opportunity just sitting there waiting for the taking.