Why The WAC Should Consider a Meaner, Greener Future.

Tobi WritesAnalyst IJune 3, 2010

AUSTIN, TX - SEPTEMBER 2:  Maurice Holman #41 of the North Texas Eagles looks on against the Texas Longhorns on September 2, 2006 at Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin, Texas. The Longhorns defeated the Eagles 56-7. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Once more there are rumors and speculation that Boise State may jump to the Mountain West Conference.

If this occurs, the WAC should really consider offering a slot to North Texas.

I can hear the groans across WAC-land: "North Texas? We already tried that—and they turned us down!  Plus they suck at football now! Why would we want to offer them a slot again?"

Well, because times change. If Boise leaves, the WAC will need UNT for public relations purposes.  

The hurdles that prevented UNT joining are gone now. UNT can now afford the travel, and, perhaps most importantly, the WAC has the leverage to force UNT to accept now.

The WAC with Boise

With Boise, the WAC is just a hair's breadth behind the MWC in the pursuit of the BCS's 7th Automatic Qualifier Conference slot. 

In an ideal scenario for the WAC, the MWC would see Utah join the Pac-10 and BYU join the Big 12, leaving only TCU carrying the weight for the MWC.  At that point the WAC would hope Boise would not jump to the MWC with TCU, instead showing extreme loyalty to the WAC. (How likely is that?)

The trouble with this scenario is that it entirely hinges on the idea that Utah will be able to land 10 affirmative votes from the leaders of the 10 Pac-10 schools.  Remember, these are the schools that hemmed and hawed about adding Colorado when they were a very strong football program and could not get the votes for UT or Texas A&M.  UT and A&M could not clear the Stanford/Cal/USC triple hurdle (Colorado eventually did). Those are two public Ivy's and a third school not far from that caliber.

With that in mind, is it reasonable to consider Utah a done deal just so the Pac-10 can get a title game? Maybe not.

That puts it back to a duel between the MWC and the WAC.

The trouble is that the MWC is seen as a conference with 3 good BCS caliber teams, while the WAC is seen as a one horse conference. The BCS group that would ultimately decide on whether either conference would get that berth would likely feel pressure to admit the MWC that they wouldn't feel to admit the WAC.

Even if Boise makes a title run this year or falls just short, what is to prevent the MWC from just adding Boise and killing the WAC's hopes?

Now, one can imagine scenarios where BYU and Utah are raided and TCU and Boise defect to a new SWC conference comprised of western CUSA schools that would be the new conference pushing for BCS inclusion. 

That is a scenario that could have the WAC in line to land the 6 "bottom feeders" from the MWC -something that would not help the WAC towards BCS inclusion, but would at least stabilize the conference, add TVs, and cut travel.

But that could also have the WAC raided of Fresno State and Nevada by those bottom feeders, putting the remaining WAC schools in a situation where the conference falls below the Sun Belt in terms of perception and they might be entirely reliant upon FCS upgrades to rebuild.

Overall, it seems likely that the WAC's strong BCS standing seems a bit of an illusion and their stability as a conference may be as well.

The WAC without Boise

So let's assume Boise is gone. What does the WAC have at that point?

Liabilities: An enormous footprint, few media markets, dissatisfied members looking for an out, and the black eye of not being strong enough or unified enough to retain its membership.

Assets: Higher athletic budgets than the Sun Belt Conference, higher attendance averages, and an edge in perception about the caliber of play in the WAC over that in the Mid-American Conference and the Sun Belt due to historic football performance, even if the current performance levels as measured by the Sagarin ratings  (outside of Boise) are disturbingly similar.

 

The biggest tumblers remaining

There would be two noteworthy realignment tumblers left in the WAC—Fresno State and Louisiana Tech.

The MWC could offer a slot to Fresno if they chose, but Fresno hasn't played defense in almost a decade and as such thier win total doesn't offer the ratings boost they once would. 

Additionally, it seems that, in general, membership in conferences do not like killing other conferences.  The presidents and athletic directors realize that conditions change and that people change jobs.  The person their decision screws today could be the person whose vote or influence they need tomorrow. 

I think, even if the MWC goes to 12 teams, it is very unlikely that Fresno gets the call.

La. Tech is another story though. No better conference appears poised to consider adding La. Tech, rather the threat is that there may be a desire by Tech to leave a weakened WAC.

CUSA considered them a contender for a slot the last time they expanded, but the school reportedly was third in CUSA's eyes, behind eventual #12 UTEP and runner up UNT.  In the event of a new SWC emerging out of CUSA West, La Tech could be considered but, in truth, like most other candidates they don't bring a ton of assets to the table today.

The concern the WAC should have is the possibility that La. Tech might swallow their pride and join the Sun Belt.  Or the MAC if they really still don't want to consider a future with ULM. 

That would dispel the illusion of WAC superiority and would almost definitely relegate the WAC to adding an FCS upgrade—a move that would be a second blow to that illusion.

La. Tech would seem to be the school with the leverage if Boise leaves.   La. Tech could very well say, "add another school or we are going to the MAC". 

The MAC has a slight edge over the other two conferences in terms of athletic budgets.  This could push the MAC ahead of the other two in esteem.

What happens then?

The last time the WAC looked to expand, they had very few options that they considered good options.  UNT was their first choice, as the Denton, TX school has a lengthy history as an FBS school and at the time had a very accomplished FBS football program.

At the time, UNT had about a $13M athletic budget despite it's enrollment of 34,000, due to no permanent student athletic fee.  With a small budget and no way to make up shortfalls, UNT decided that a move to a conference with few media markets, later starting games, less media, and big travel costs like the WAC was beyond their ability to manage.

The WAC possibly could have considered Arkansas State or ULL, but both schools increased the travel footprint and added no significant media markets.

With no better FBS options, the WAC was forced to take on Idaho, a school that did not add any media markets of note and that the schools at the top of their conference did not want.

As much as they might not have wanted to add Idaho, the options were to stay at 8—
revealing how little lure the conference possessed, add Idaho, or do what the top WAC schools felt would have been degrading their conference—add an all-sports FCS member school like Montana (assuming they could upgrade without Montana State.)

Without Boise, today the options would be pretty similar.

Without Boise, the WAC's dreams of being an automatic qualifier conference are dead, so then the conference goals should logically become maintaining their status and adding more TV relevance to their conference while not expanding travel costs too much.

When you add those factors together, even with the slow pace of Todd Dodge's rebuilding effort of the football program Darrell Dickey built up and then tore down, UNT is still one of the few new candidates that make sense for the WAC.

North Texas has been an FBS school forever.  Their financials are headed in the right direction. They are based in a recruiting hotbed.  They give La. Tech one "short trip" in conference. 

They are a very good basketball school, even if attendance lags. Their facilities have all been upgraded withing the last 10 years. 

They have a new high profile 30,000 seat football stadium (The nation's first LEED - "green" - stadium designed by the guys who designed the Dallas Cowboys' Billion Dollar "Jerry Dome".) that will be ready to go in 2011.

They have one of the largest alumni bases in Dallas/Fort Worth, meaning they have a lot of TV potential in one of the nation's largest markets.

UNT now has a dedicated athletic budget that they can raise bit by bit over the years until it reaches the state maximum of $20 per semester hour.  When you multiply that by 34,000 students, it is entirely likely that, if admitted to the WAC, UNT would have the largest athletic budget in the WAC by 2025 or so.

That alone greatly increases the odds of UNT joining and makes UNT a far better candidate today than they were a few years ago.

 

The importance of athletic budgets

Athletic budgets are vastly underrated by fans in looking at realignment.  Louisville had the largest athletic budget among non-BCS schools last time there was a major realignment and that was a big part of why Louisville's inclusion into the Big East was never an issue despite comparatively unimpressive academics. 

Louisville spent so much money, they were able to build up strong programs with strong fan followings in football and basketball.  It doesn't take much thought to realize athletic budgets are a key to being competitive in multiple sports.  You have to be able to offer similar benefits to your prospective recruits vs. what the schools you compete against offer their recruits.

The WAC has a number of schools with limited athletic budgets. Budgets at schools like La. Tech, New Mexico State, Utah State, and San Jose State are below the WAC average, some of them well below.

This, combined with the travel costs schools like La. Tech and New Mexico State endure, limits their competitiveness. 

This has been helped some by BCS revenues Boise & Hawaii have brought in, but when you get down to it, that share of Boise and Hawaii's BCS money may only push one of these schools into the black for a year.  It is not enough to help them be competitive over multiple years.

 

How UNT could fit into a larger WAC strategy of acquiring markets and football programs at schools with large athletic budgets.

The WAC has a hammer to use on UNT this time around—UTSA, led by Head Coach Larry Coker.  UTSA will be adding football and has a very high profile, BCS elite-caliber coach in Larry Coker.  They have already secured football series with a number of BCS schools and have the interest of media outlets around the state. 

Their students have already voted to max out the $20 per semester hour student athletic fee and the school has an enrollment of just under 30,000, meaning they could potentially enter the WAC with the conference's largest athletic budget. 

They have an empty pro stadium and no pro competition.

It is entirely possible that they will be the rare upgrade school that doesn't have to do its time in a Sun Belt level conference.

Any addition of Texas schools that includes an addition of Larry Coker is immediately media-defensible for the WAC.

UNT's AD Rick Villareal would be risking an uprising if he turns down the WAC and they offer a slot to UTSA or slots to UTSA and Texas State.

The WAC could try telling UNT that the Mean Green are their first choice, but if UNT turns it down, UTSA will get the slot.

Mean Green alumni are not unified on much of anything, but the idea of UTSA or Texas State passing them by for a better conference would galvanize them like nothing else could.

Going further, it would make a lot of sense for the WAC to offer both UNT and the upgrading Texas Southland trio slots to allow the conference to split into two separate divisions.  This would dramatically cut travel costs for their poorer members. 

UNT could not allow three upgrading Texas schools to pass them by for a more highly regarded conference any more than they could stomache one doing it.

UNT, Texas State, and UTSA would give the WAC 3 schools with large alumni bases in three of the top four DMAs in Texas.  Lamar is not in the Houston DMA (the fourth), but they are close enough to that DMA that, over time, the WAC might become relevant in that DMA.

This does a number of things.  First, it offers the chance for the WAC to develop strong audiences in good TV markets.  If, for example, UNT or UTSA take off and dominate the division, you could see their fan bases suddenly start delivering very good ratings in those markets, as the conference they are in has some credibility.  Adding a single school makes the success or failure of the expansion entirely based on a coaching staff.  This helps the odds.

Adding the four schools pretty much ensures at least one will do well and the rest will fight like hell not to be seen as the weak link.

Also, keep in mind those schools would give the WAC about 100,000 students in Texas.  That is an enormous combined alumni base.  It is not inconceivable that the WAC could develop a statewide following in Texas in 10 years or so.

The travel for at-risk members La. Tech (a potential defector) and New Mexico State (potential for a cost saving downgrade to FCS) would be immediately cut and both programs would likely see a major bump in Texas recruiting, helping them compete. 

San Jose State would also see a drop in their travel costs with split divisions.  That is a lot better than just getting back to nine members and still having crushing travel costs and little TV revenue.

Cutting travel costs plus potentially adding what might be $1-2M of added TV revenue to each school's bottom line could offer the WAC long term stabilization.

 

Selling it to the public (and not losing face) and (potentially) taking it a step further

When you get down to it, it is what it is.  I am advocating adding an FCS school and two IAAA start-ups as well as an FBS bottom feeder.

That said, it is immensely spinnable.

If the WAC were to focus on Larry Coker, the athletic budgets (UTSA, Texas State, and UNT should have the 3 largest budgets in the WAC by 2025 allowing them to compete at the highest level in the WAC in all sports), the stadiums (all either top notch or being upgraded), and the TV potential, this is a solution that is saleable in terms of Fresno, Hawaii, and Nevada saving face. 

It is not like adding an upgrading ULM (like the Sun Belt once had to) or a Montana/Montana State duo (another WAC option that offers no media bang).

With UNT moving over, I think that move could be spun to be seen as the WAC still being a cut above the MAC and Sun Belt.

 

For most readers this would be a big enough move.

For most, this would be a big enough move; It is a major move that is an appropriate solution to address a possible conference collapse.  Further action to most might be seen as overkill (as if this wasn't already). 

I get that, but I personally would argue for taking it a step further.

By really hammering on markets and athletic budgets as what ought to be focused on by fans, it offers the potential to further obfuscate the fact that the WAC would be adding upgrading schools  - and it would allow adding additional members from that lower level as non-football members.

I would suggest moving to a hybrid conference format with 12 football playing members and 16 total all sports members.

It would cut travel further in other sports, get the WAC brand showcased in other major markets, and set up potential upgrade members.

I would advocate adding Portland State, Sacramento State, Northern Arizona, and Denver as non-football members. (PSU, UNA, and SAC State could play FCS ball in the Great West.  That conference would likely go along as it would allow the Great West to have an auto-bid to the FCS playoffs.)

By not adding them as football members, the WAC could sidestep any stigma from adding them.  As the WAC should be able to offer better money than their current situations as well as offering those schools hope for a better future, it seems unlikely that any of the schools would decline.

Attendance guidelines, arena minimums, and marketing budget minimums to drive ticket sales growth could be requirements of admission and retaining membership.

Pacific division
Hawaii
San Jose State
Fresno State
Nevada
Idaho
Utah State
Portland State (non-football)
Sacramento State (non-football)

Southwest division
New Mexico St.
Texas St.
UTSA
UNT
Lamar
La. Tech
Denver (non football)
UNA (non football)

These four schools would give the WAC varying levels of media penetration into the Portland, Sacramento, Phoenix, and Denver DMAs.  Combining that with the San Francisco, DFW, San Antonio, and Austin DMAs would give the WAC a real chance to generate money as these programs grow.

With membership in a greater athletic conference and revenue dispersal from a TV deal of presumably some value, the potential exists for Sac State or PSU—
two somewhat forgettable FCS football programs—to find their financial feet. 

It would dramatically increase the chance that one or both might one day move up to the FBS level (both have 20K stadiums), funnelling even more money into the conference and in the case of Sacramento State, helping neighboring San Jose State's finances—a team pretty important to the conference's bottom line. 

 

==Breaking news: Pac-10 rumored to be preparing to add 6 Big 12 schools .  A change that major could have ripples affecting all conferences below.==