BYU Going Independent Pre-empted by Mountain West Moves

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BYU Going Independent Pre-empted by Mountain West Moves
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Update: The Mountain West Conference, rather shrewdly, has undercut Brigham Young's plans to bolt by inviting Fresno State and Nevada to leave the Western Athletic Conference.    Fresno State and Nevada have already accepted the invitations.   This now leaves the WAC with only 6 football members, and minus two of their strongest programs.

Is it still viable for BYU to join this shell of a conference? I don't know.  I suspect the WAC will replenish their numbers by inviting two Sun Belt conference members, which doesn't really make them more appealing to BYU.

If BYU could convince Boise State to bolt back, and have Air Force turn independent with the same WAC deal, then yeah, it could be viable.  But I don't see either of those things happening.

If BYU is really desperate to become independent, they still could join this weakened WAC or perhaps even the WCC.  But scheduling will probably become a lot harder if the Mountain West threatens to blackball them.   We'll see how it plays out.

Original article: Multiple reports indicate that Brigham Young University is soon set to leave the Mountain West Conference, becoming a football independent and joining the Western Athletic Conference for all other sports.

When I first read these reports, I was shocked.  After all, the MWC is on the rise! The WAC is terrible!  Didn't BYU leave the WAC in order to found the MWC?

But the more I think about it, the more it becomes obvious that it's the right move.

Utah's decision to leave the MWC for the newly re-branded Pac 12 was just the breaking point.

See, BYU and Utah have always been in the same conference.  Both dreamed of joining the Pac 10.  Now that Utah has done it - and BYU realizes it'll never happen for them - it was time to go back to the drawing board.

So why go independent in football and join an unmistakeably weaker conference for other sports?

BYU's general sports programs already dominate the MWC.  They'll likely roll over most of the weaker WAC.  But make no mistake, this decision is about football. 

The only other sport that remotely matters is basketball, and Gonzaga has proved that you can build a Western powerhouse even while being in a weak conference.

In football it comes down to three things: prestige, money and control.

Prestige

With the door to a major conference shut, BYU was looking at a future in a second tier league while their top rival basked in the glory of the Pac 12.  As an independent, BYU would instantly gain more attention.  It would make their program unique, not unlike Notre Dame.

This added prestige would be important if BYU wants to continue its season ending rivalry with Utah.  After joining the Pac 12, Utah was reportedly undecided on whether the series would go on, and for good reason. 

Playing a school from a lower conference as your top rival doesn't hold much appeal.  Look at Colorado versus Colorado State.  How many embarrassing early season losses have the Buffs been saddled with due to that rivalry? 

Playing a powerful independent though has more cache.  Look at Purdue versus Notre Dame.  No one holds it against the Boilermakers when they lose to the Irish.

Now obviously BYU wouldn't have the same national standing as Notre Dame.  For one thing, there are a lot more Catholics than Mormons. 

But Mormons largely hold BYU in as high if not higher esteem than the average Catholic does with Notre Dame, and Mormonism is a fast growing religion in the United States.

By having its own separate TV deal, as well as more programming for its expanding TV network (yes, BYU has its own network), BYU will become a much bigger piece of the national conversation.

Money

As for money, it would definitely be better as an independent.  I base this conclusion on three factors: TV money, gate revenue and bowl money.

The MWC was an innovator when it came to TV, being the first conference to found a sports channel, The Mtn.  But this network has not seen the success of the later founded Big Ten Network.  In fact none of the MWC's TV partners - The Mtn. (8 million subscribers), CBS College Sports (38 million) or Versus (74 million) - are as widely available as ESPN (100 million).

Reports indicate BYU is in negotiations with ESPN for a TV deal.  Imagine an exclusive Friday night slot for BYU home games on ESPN.  That would bring more prestige to BYU while also being more lucrative.

In 2008, the MWC brought in $23.7 million in TV revenue.  That was $2.63 million per school.  BYU can definitely top that on its own, while also arranging for its games to be more widely viewed.

In terms of gate revenue, BYU would be better off as an independent as well for one main reason: more home games.  As a MWC member, BYU is guaranteed four road slots every year.  (4.5 if they continue their series with Utah)

While the rumored agreement with the WAC involves playing WAC teams 4-6 times a year, I suspect they'll mostly be held at Lavell Edwards Stadium.  Trips to Hawaii (where BYU has a satellite campus) would add an extra home date as per NCAA rules.   Eight home games a year could become normal.

In 2008, the MWC received $11.9 million in bowl revenue and BCS distribution.  That's $1.32 million per school.  BYU, with its legions of fans and quality football team, I believe would have no trouble making all that by itself.  And if BYU did ever make the BCS, as an independent they would get to keep all the cash for themselves.

Control

As a member of a conference, BYU is just one among many.  As an independent, it would be able to set its own destiny.  This means keeping the revenue it makes, not having to apologize for its conservative political views to anyone, and scheduling who it wants.

And yes, BYU would be able to schedule who it wants. In recent years, Arizona, Washington, Oklahoma, UCLA and Florida State have all played BYU.

Would some be scared of scheduling a tough out of conference opponent? Sure, but make no mistake: BYU is not Boise State.

BYU is a much more long term, well established brand than Boise State.  This means teams get more credit for beating BYU and less embarrassment for losing. 

Also, Boise could probably play whomever it wants if it agreed to two away games for every one home game.  BYU however will have the power to insist on 1 to 1 ratios - as it did with the aforementioned BCS schools it played.

Why?  Because BYU is a top draw at home and on the road.  Millions of Mormons, many of them BYU graduates, in the western states mean Pac 12 teams usually see boosts of 10,000-20,000 in attendance when BYU comes to town.  It's for this reason that BYU will never lack for opponents to play.

There's also very little lost in terms of rivals.  Mountain West powerhouses Boise State and TCU are not traditional rivals of BYU.  WAC members Fresno State, Utah State, Hawaii are though.  I also have made the case they're more likely to keep the Utah rivalry as an independent rather than in the MWC.

And that's the real downside of staying in the Mountain West.  While BYU could develop rivalries with TCU and Boise State, why would they want to? 

Those schools are ascendant football powers...with relatively little national following.  (Ok, who doesn't love Boise State?  But they still are a small market school.)  Point is they won't get big money from playing them, but they could lose regularly to them.  Worst of both worlds!

Downsides?

So what are the downsides to such a move?  None really.  As long as BYU leaves the MWC before September 1st, there's no financial penalty imposed by the conference.  Independence can start as soon as 2011.

Such a move might smack of arrogance and make BYU a team people love to hate.  Oh wait...they already are a team people love to hate!  If anything, that might help their ratings, not hurt.

It could make qualifying for the BCS harder.  BYU is apparently in discussions with the BCS, trying to get the same deal Notre Dame has: automatic entry if BYU is in the top 8 and has at least 9 wins.

I think it's unlikely that the BCS gives them such an assurance.  However, things have changed a lot since 1996, when BYU went 14-1, was ranked #5 and didn't get picked for a BCS bowl.

Now there are 10 slots, rather than eight, and last year showed that the big bowls are willing to take top non-BCS teams even when they aren't forced to.

Closing Thoughts

At the very least, contemplating such a move has given BYU enormous leverage against the MWC, which is bending over backwards trying to keep BYU.  Changes to revenue distribution in order to help BYU are certain if they stay.

And if they leave and it doesn't work out?  The Mountain West will still be there.  Look at how the WAC - a conference BYU spurned to create the MWC - is now giving special concessions to attract BYU.  Years down the line, the MWC would likely do the same.

Since the MWC is locked into a bad TV deal for the next several years, now is the time for BYU to try this experiment.

Don't be surprised to see the Cougars independent in 2011.  I for one think it would be a good move.

Thoughts?

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