No one wants to rebuild the Western Athletic Conference entirely with FCS schools only, but the reality is the WAC may have to take that path forward. If the University of North Texas won't join to provide the WAC any credibility with other potential realistic current FBS targets like Arkansas State and UL-Lafayette, what choice does the WAC have?
It appears the WAC is prepared to take that path.
The league's membership committee began the process of taking in presentations from as many as 10 potential members yesterday. Hardcore realignment followers like the Mighty Quinn (Matt Peloquin of Bleacher Report and CollegeSportsInfo.com fame) have discussed models that may have the WAC coming out with as few as 8 full members (adding UTSA and Texas State) and 10 basketball members (adding Seattle and Denver).
With the conference acknowledging the need to take this path forward, the WAC has a lot of options. I personally believe that as the WAC is comprised mostly of schools with smaller athletic budgets today, the WAC needs to hit 12-14 members at least for basketball and the non-revenue sports to cut travel costs.
I believe cutting travel costs and adding media markets to generate more TV revenue have to be key components of the rebuilding plan if the conference wants to avoid losing strong members like Montana and UTSA programs to the Mountain West Conference in three to five years and being right back in the same situation. If the WAC doesn't have the potential for good TV revenue coming in, any team that emerges will leave for greener pastures.
So, what should be the criteria the WAC follows in terms of their expansion plans? Who are the 10 candidate schools likely to try to earn WAC membership this week? And finally, what is the best scenario that can be arrived at for the WAC at this point?
Building a better WAC
The problem with just adding one or two schools who appear the most ready for FBS membership is that it leaves the WAC in pretty much the same place they have been for the last decade - with a handful of struggling schools and two to three improving schools who are trying desperately to escape a poor financial situation.
The WAC only has a short window of opportunity to get things right. Eventually the MWC's lousy deal will expire, and if the WAC hasn't built something of value by that point, they can fully expect the MWC to steal two more WAC members to garnish themselves a title game and the travel savings split divisions allow.
The WAC has to have superior revenue generation, solidarity, and controlled costs by that point.
All of this is possible, but I think the WAC has to follow six guidelines in their expansion.
1) Cut travel costs. The WAC is a collection of small budget schools quite distant from each other. Going to 8 or 10 schools only increases the travel costs for one or more of their financially struggling schools (New Mexico State and San Jose State). I believe the WAC would be foolish to not end up with a minimum of 12 schools allowing money saving split division scheduling.
2) Help your struggling schools. If NMSU or SJSU cannot sustain their programs, the WAC loses. If SJSU can't sustain football they may drop it and move to the Big West. If that occurs, the WAC potentially loses their automatic bid to the NCAA basketball tourney (more on this in a second). If either school drops football, the WAC takes another blow to the esteem of the conference. WAC expansion efforts have to be designed with both schools in mind.
3) Add Media Markets. The more large native media markets the WAC has a presence in, they more leverage the conference will have in TV negotiations. Having presences in large media markets gives the conference a greater chance of drawing good ratings. TV networks pay for what you bring to the table overall and the WAC has embarrassingly few media markets of note.
4) Add schools with media relevant stories. Give the broadcasters something to sell. "Will Montana be the next Boise State? Will Larry Coker build a national power in San Antonio?" Those are a pair of stories a national audience might tune in to see each week.
5) Don't forget about basketball. In my opinion the biggest mistake serious football conferences make is neglecting basketball. As the Big East proved, football may fail a conference, but good basketball can generate noteworthy supplemental revenue.
6) Demand loyalty. You don't like the MWC; They don't like the WAC. Get what loyalty you can secure from your existing membership that they will not join the MWC (or at least if they do, set things up in a way that requires them to do so in a way that doesn't cost the conference it's basketball tourney bid). Demand the same or more loyalty from the new schools coming in. Seek commitments with the eventual goal of stability in mind.
Who are these 10 neophyte WAC-ers?
Well they aren't all football schools. Some are seeking non-football membership.
We know some of the names for certain. UTSA and Texas State will be there seeking full membership. They have already made informal presentations to the WAC and will be making formal presentations with the other candidate this week. Denver will be seeking non-football membership.
The article by ESPN's Andy Katz that confirms Denver as an "applicant" suggests Denver is hoping to be admitted with Seattle University - suggesting they are another likely candidate. It also states a source told Katz that Montana was another school that will be presenting an argument to join.
Quinn has confirmed Montana and Lamar as other participating candidates through what he described as multiple sources. (I was unable to find source articles confirming that, but Quinn one of the nation's foremost authorities on college conference realignment. There is a good chance he may have his own direct primary sources.)
Those six schools appear to have been fairly likely participants.
I would argue it also seems likely that Cal Poly and UC-Davis did not present as they recently joined the Big Sky - a move that suggests they plan to play at the FCS level of the foreseeable future. That move also suggests the Big Sky may have felt a motivation to expand, suggesting Montana may not be the only loss that conference believes it could be forced to endure.
I am going to speculate that three of the last four schools are Big Sky schools. Portland State, Sacramento State, Montana State and Weber State appear to be the four realistic upgrade candidates after Montana. So three out of those four. I hope PSU is one of the schools as I think they have great potential at the FBS level and are dying a slow death at the FCS level, but I would not be surprised if the third is Weber State instead.
The 10th school...I am going to say the 10th school will be a surprise. The most likely candidate is Sam Houston State. They paid for an FBS evaluation survey and it came back with a recommendation that the school should move up. They haven't done anything much since then about moving up, but with the possibility of joining three of their closest (geographically) current conference mates in an FBS conference looking more and more possible it would be a little surprising if they weren't talking to the WAC behind closed doors.
I would rank the other schools that fans have suggested may be petitioning the WAC as long shots to actually be doing so. Maybe a Sun Belt school like ULL or Arkansas State (all sports) or UALR (non-football) would. Perhaps a conference's geographic outlier like (non-football) Oral Roberts. A California school like San Francisco State (as a non-football member) or one of the former Big West football members - possibly Pacific (They would help San Jose State keep costs in line in non-revenue sports and as a non-football member who might see some value in having the flexibility to consider reinstating football down the road) - could be in the mix.
It is not that I don't think these schools would have an interest in joining the WAC. They may not feel they have a very good shot at inclusion. Most are non-football schools. Most have stable conference homes.
Non-football schools like Denver and Seattle who are applying have no conference home. Additionally those two privates rightly have a high opinion of what they offer. Both feel like the WAC is an appropriate caliber and location for a conference home.
With the candidates more or less identified what is the best scenario possible?
Everyone has an opinion on this. As Ferd Lewis of the Hawaii Star Advertiser rightly pointed out, there are two camps in the WAC. One is lead by the University of Hawaii (possibly consisting of UH and SJSU, but also possibly only consisting of UH) wants a minimal expansion with western schools with convenient travel for UH. The other is led by Louisiana Tech (likely with support from NMSU) and seeks a larger expansion to 12 teams allowing expenses to be cut by divisional play.
I personally think a larger expansion makes more sense.
The WAC could just do another band aid fix, but really they need something done to resolve the long term issues of member insecurity and dissatisfaction. Those are fueled by high travel costs and a lack of revenue generation in the conference.
The WAC could just cherry pick a school like Montana from the elite ranks of the FCS and UTSA with high profile coach Larry Coker and have something to sell ESPN of some merit, but that isn't a home run and leaves the conference just as unstable as it has always been. Plus there is a question of whether Montana could or would join as member seven of this eight knowing that if Hawaii of La Tech left the conference would probably lose it's automatic basketball tourney bid due to violating "the 5/6/7 rule".
Section 220.127.116.11 of the NCAA's DI membership bylaws, commonly called the 5/6/7 rule, requires a conference to maintain a membership of 6 core DI schools who have played together for 5 years to be joined by a seventh DI school to maintain a BCS basketball tourney bid.
"18.104.22.168 Additional Requirements, Men’s Basketball. The member conference must include seven core institutions. For the purposes of this legislation, core refers to an institution that has been an active member of Division I the eight preceding years. Further, the continuity-of-membership requirement shall be met only if a minimum of six core institutions have conducted conference competition together in Division I the preceding five years in men’s basketball. There shall be no exception to the five-year waiting period. Any new member added to a member conference that satisfies these requirements shall be immediately eligible to represent the conference as the automatic qualifier. (Revised: 8/14/90, 12/3/90, 4/27/00, 4/29/04 effective 8/1/04)"
The WAC still has their 6 core DI schools who have played together for 5 years (no thanks to the MWC who tried to drop them to 5 members). Today, they can add any DI school that is designated a "core member" (like 98% of all DI schools) and still satisfy the rule to keep their tourney bid when Fresno and Nevada leave.
Having an automatic basketball bid puts them on equal terms in that one regard in basketball with 30 of the other 31 DI conferences and would allow the added lure of FBS football in the WAC to pull in new schools.
The problem is the loss of a single member of the WAC six would scuttle all of that, potentially costing the WAC their automatic basketball tourney bid for three years. (Five years really, but the rules do suggest there is a two-year grace period - Section 22.214.171.124.1 - so effectively three years).
One may think three years is not a big deal, but a lot can happen in three years. You could have further defections restarting the six core member clock.
Securing the WAC's automatic tournament bid long term
If there is one thing Karl Benson and the presidents at the WAC schools should know by now it is that you cannot trust the WAC membership. Going with the UH plan for small expansion assumes you can count on UH and La Tech not to leave. If I were one of the other four schools, there is no way I would bet my program on either school's fealty.
The top WAC programs are not loyal. They never have been.
This chronic issue with untrustworthiness now threatens the conference's very ability maintain the tournament bid that would allow them to rebuild. Something needs to be done to resolve this potential cancer in the conference.
Logically the way to cover the potential of a WAC defection is to raid a big conference for six core members who have played together for five years who are not likely to go anywhere when admitted to the WAC.
Two conferences come to mind as "donors". The Big Sky and The Southland.
Both conferences have many schools that would make fair to great full sport FBS members of the WAC. The Big Sky has Portland State, Sacramento State, Montana, and Weber State. The Southland has Central Arkansas, UTSA, Texas State, Lamar, Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin, and McNeese State.
Both FCS conferences would likely lose their automatic tourney bids if the WAC raided them of 6 members. I would argue it makes a great deal more sense for the WAC to protect the Big Sky.
The Southland is just a football conference. As there is no compelling need for a FBS conference to play FCS schools in football, they offer the WAC nothing of value. If you are going to nab three of their members anyway for FBS football, you might as well grab three more and get protection for your NCAA tourney bid. After all, you won't be able to gain that benefit later when they stop playing each other each year.
The Big Sky Conference is decent at basketball and other sports, could be nearby for a lot of member schools in a larger WAC, and could be a good partner long term.
Raiding the Southland
UTSA, Texas State, and Lamar all want to play FBS ball. UTA and TAMU-CC are non-football members in a football-centric Southland Conference. They could all see the rules reworked to force them out at any point. They know that since they do not play FCS football, there is no loyalty to them in the Southland. UTSA, Lamar, TAMU-CC, and UTA have lived with being unwanted and unappreciated aberrations in a conference that is football first (and last). There is probably a good deal of familiarity and a history of cooperation to prevent total abuse at the hands of the Southland football schools. So you have five teams right there who you know the WAC could probably secure.
UTSA has a large enrollment, what will be one of the largest athletic budgets in the WAC, a national title winning football coach Larry Coker, the Alamodome, a DMA of noteworthy size and a big city, no local competition from pro football teams in San Antonio, and really only UT owning the high end local area talent. (One of the two main advocates for UNT's inclusion in the WAC, La Tech, appears to have become a vocal advocate for UTSA's inclusion since UNT passed again.)
Texas State is enlarging their stadium to FBS capacity, has a similarly large enrollment and athletic budget, has a strong football and basketball program, is in the Austin DMA, and is located between San Antonio and Austin.
Lamar's enrollment has been growing since they announced the return of football and is now just under 15,000. They have former OU basketball coach Billy Tubbs as their AD, a rebuilt stadium, and a strong basketball program that draws one of the largest average crowds in the Southland.
UT Arlington is admittedly an embarrassment of an athletic program today. They have DII caliber facilities and as such a disinterested fan base to match. Still, they are making some moves in the right direction. They are building a 6,500 seat basketball arena called the College Park Center. UTSA is in the dead center of the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex and has a large alumni base. With that enrollment and without a football expense, they can turn their athletic program around immediately whenever they develop the will to do so. Their inclusion would give the conference a touchbase in DFW for the fans of the other WAC schools. Potentially UTA could bring some TV value of their own down the road. DFW is one of the nation's best basketball recruiting hotbeds. That would help the WAC, too. That is pretty fair value for a non-football slot.
TAMU-CC gained Southland inclusion by what a lot of Southland diehards describe as allegedly feigning a deep seated interest in adding FCS football, but really today they are just a I-AA school with few pretenses of bigger dreams. While there is a stadium in Corpus Christi that could be upgraded to host TAMU-CC football, their enrollment is too small for a public school to bear FBS costs. They aren't a total loss, and in fact could be an optimal solution for the WAC central schools. TAMU-CC draws well in basketball and have a solid program overall.
Who could join them as team 6?
Well, Sam Houston State (in the Houston DMA) is the obvious target as team No. 6. SHSU has looked into FBS play, but they appear more timid about their chances of success at the FBS level than Lamar, UTSA, and Texas State. Still if this type of WAC scenario presented itself, the sheepish BearKats may feel secure in following the lead of the other more visionary Southland schools and moving up.
SHSU probably thought the best case scenario for them was joining the Sun Belt - as marginal of an upgrade as a school can make moving up to the FBS level. No one can anticipate how they would feel about WAC membership today, but one would think the lure of a good relationship with ESPN may be enough to move the needle on the scale.
SHSU offer strong programs in the money sports. That would give the WAC six more core DI schools who have played together for five years.
McNeese State has not expressed any interest in upgrading, but they are an FCS power with good attendance. Stephen F. Austin brings next to nothing to the table market-wise, but they are a competent football program and one of the better basketball programs in the Southland. They are both core DI members.
(Central Arkansas will not be a core member of DI until the end of the decade, so they provide no value to the immediate goal, but they are a very strong FCS football program that is technically in the Little Rock DMA. They have real growth potential as an FBS program and have made enough comments that one could speculate they may very well be interested in an FBS future as a 7th school if the WAC wants to go there. Adding them for their TV value and a high profile annual La Tech showcase game at War Memorial Stadium that would improve the value of both university brands.)
So lets say the WAC adds UTSA, Texas State, Lamar and Sam Houston as all sports members and UTA and TAMU-CC as basketball only members. (Potentially with UCA as a 5th upgrading all-sports member.)
(It should be noted this would drop the Southland to five core members. If they kept UCA -even on a short term basis - The Southland could potentially petition the NCAA for an exception as they would still have six members who have played together for 5 years, even if UCA is not a core member. Their lawyers could probably successfully argue that the Southland satisfies the intent of the rule if they violate the exact wording. I suspect they could land an exception or at least an injuction buying them enough time to move back into compliance.
Alternatively, the remaining Southland schools could seek a basketball or all sports affiliation - temporary or permanent - with another FCS conference - maybe the OVC or MVC - or one of the I-AA conferences in the general area. Additionally there are a number of DII schools and Great West schools in the general vicinity that would love Southland membership. Unlike the WAC, the Southland schools would have a lot of options -unpleasant as they may be to their membership - to manage the loss of their automatic bid.)
Adding six from the Southland totally covers the WAC in case UH leaves. The four Southland football schools won't get a better offer from an FBS conference. The move of the six (or seven) Southland schools into the WAC would create big time stability for those schools and the six (or five if you don't include Hawaii) WAC schools.
Ultimately, there are 11 core DI members in the Southland. It may seem harsh for me to advocate taking that conference's tourney bid, but when you consider six of the 11 - the majority of the core members - would be invited, I think it has to be looked at as "their" bid.
For the last decade or so the Soutland has operated with a mentality that it's non-sports members (UTSA, Lamar, UTA, and TAMU-CC) are second-class citizens there strictly at the grace of the FCS members. There would be a lot of Karma there.
Cherry picking the Big Sky to balance the divisions
Lets start with the obvious choices. Portland State & Sacramento State both offer huge markets and have sufficient capacity FBS stadia. Montana is the most developed football program with the largest fan base in the western half of the country at the FCS level.
Invite all three.
That would potentially leave the the Big Sky with six DI core members who have played together for six years joined by two more DI Core members in new members UC-Davis and Cal Poly meaning the Big Sky would keep their automatic bid for the NCAA basketball tournament.
This kind of raid is a normal one. Not going overboard shows the remaining members of the Big Sky respect and allows the potential for the WAC to work with the Big Sky to stabilize both conferences.
Finishing out the WAC
Our current suggestions would have the six all sports WAC schools joined by four (or five) all sports Southland schools, three all sports Big West schools, and two non-football Southland schools.
It is easy to see the Southland schools, NMSU, and La Tech in one division and the Big Sky trio, UH, SJSU, USU, and Idaho in another. Adding a couple non-football schools here and there to balance the divisions and land more large "native DMAs" would help the WAC build viewership in those cities and as such help the conference have better leverage with ESPN. It would also really help build up the basketball relevance of the conference.
This is where Seattle and Denver figure in.
I would suggest adding Denver and Seattle as well as going after Oral Roberts and San Francisco State (or Pacific) as they offer the WAC great value at little cost.
Let me explain why I advocate this direction. If Seattle played FCS football, given their resources they would not be very successful. The WAC could not add a university like Seattle because it would hurt their reputation.
There is no backlash for the WAC in adding non-football I-AA members, so it is a convenient way to add TV relevance in markets where WAC alumni may live.
Seattle is a private religious non-football DI school that would like to rejoin the West Coast Conference, but so far no offer is forthcoming. They just resumed DI play and drew over 3,000 fans per game last season. They play in a longtime NBA city with an enthusiastic large fan base trained to follow basketball but without an NBA team currently. That suggests if they were in a strong conference they would quickly build a strong fan base. WAC membership could allow Seattle to ramp up their program and fan support quickly to a point where the WCC would feel a need to offer them membership. In the interim, the WAC would profit.
In spite of having the largest athletic budget in the Sun Belt, Denver was unceremoniously forced out of the Sun Belt under the guise of Denver refusing to add a full pallet of Sun Belt sponsored sports. (Many observers, myself included, would say it was really about the Sun Belt schools trying to save a penny in travel costs. Given their location, the limited number of sports Denver would play in the WAC may actually make them a stronger candidate for WAC inclusion.) Denver is a private school with respected academics. Denver has a big market and a competitive basketball program, but also has major competition issues. The NFL Broncos' presence pretty much assures Denver will never add football. The presence of the Nuggets likely assures that Denver will never draw more than 3,000-4,000 per game in basketball at the high end. (Their current multi-year average attendance as an outlier in the Sunbelt is a little under 2,000 a game.) All that said, pro cities can be worth adding because fans will watch the games on TV.
Oral Roberts is located in Tulsa. They have averaged right at 6,000 fans per game over the last decade and as a school where the fan base has deeply personal religious ties, they may be able to draw well on the road in conference. ORU is an outlier in the rather forgettable Summit League. Joining the WAC would be a tremendous step up in terms of perception and would put the ORU name out in front of folks in areas where Oral Roberts had more of an impact, which would help enrollment and that is the main point of having athletic programs from a university perspective.
San Francisco State is a DII program. Calling them a basketball school is a stretch. I would still champion them for a number of reasons. First, you can run a I-AA program for very little money. The actual financial difference between DII (non-football) and I-AA is not that pronounced and would likely be made up due to stronger support from alumni and boosters and media payouts. The Cal State system is worried about the WAC and San Jose State. The additions of two large Cal State schools in the area at minimal outlays could do a lot for all three schools and minimize the risk.
Secondly, while there is an NBA team in Oakland, there is not one in San Francisco. The school's enrollment is also quite large at 30,000. These factors create the potential for a strong draw from the community against better competition, although early on the small size of the arena would be a bottleneck. Additionally, their addition protects and enhances the WAC's TV presence in the critical Bay area DMA (#6/210). With the university's enrollment, SFSU has a huge local alumni-base for TV purposes. Finally they are a natural rival for SJSU and Sac State and quite close by. Getting SJSU healthier is of vital importance to the survival of the WAC.
Pacific is located in kind of a small city (Stockton) not far from Sacramento. Like Seattle, Denver, and Oral Roberts they are a private school playing at the I-AA level. Like Denver, they have a strong academic reputation. They would be a good alternate choice as they are close to both Sacramento State and San Jose State and could be good rivals to help excite the fans at both schools. They have averaged a little under 4000 per game for the last decade. Finally, for what it is worth they do have a 30,000 seat stadium from their FBS football days in the Big West.
That would give the WAC an eventual 14 for football and 20 for basketball. The conference would play their regular seasons as two largely autonomous entities, controlling costs by reducing out of division play.
The media picture
The large membership (and many large fan and alumni bases) would give a huge amount of people reasons to tune in for WAC games. In working with networks, it is what you bring to the table in total as a conference.
The WAC could offer ESPN an argument of local relevance in the following top 75 DMAs:
#5 Dallas/Fort Worth
#6 The Bay Area
#35 Salt Lake/Utah
#37 San Antonio
#57 Little Rock
...Many with large resident alumni bases. It would also offer the potential of all day sports content that would go well into the night (with home games in the state of Hawaii).
These markets encompass most of the big media markets from Texas westward. These alone account for almost 13 percent of the US population living in DMAs where the WAC would have teams. When you consider 2/3 of the nation's population live east of Texas and the six WAC schools currently only have about 4 percent of the nation's population in their local DMAs, it seems a pretty good approach.
The more large DMAs the WAC can string together, the more "lost alumni viewers" the conference can reel in to strengthen their TV numbers, which really gets to the idea of what you can bring to a network as a whole.
The Big Sky Addendum
I mentioned a partnership with the Big Sky, above. Lets talk about the Big Sky part of this equation.
The Montana State hurdle
Now this WAC scenario glosses over the potential problem with adding Montana. It has long been speculated that any FBS conference that attempted to add Montana would be forced by the Montana state legislature to also add Montana State. (This is of course assuming Montana wants to increase their costs and move up. Montana was pretty vocal in the recent past about not desiring to move up. Their president is a proponent of playing at the cost-controlled FCS level. I understand he is retiring. I take it that Montana's leadership has changed it's tune due to the reports suggesting Montana was a school that approached the WAC about moving up and not vice versa.)
Now if you add Montana State, the Big Sky drops under six members who have played together for five years, could lose their basketball tourney bid, and could be pulled apart. More to the point, doing so would be an unnecessary PR black eye to the WAC and would infuriate all the Big Sky members.
Plus there is the fact that the US is in a recession. While Montana can afford to upgrade, Montana State with its smaller fan base and turnout may have problems upgrading in this environment. The state may not want any part of funding it at this point.
I think in this environment, with all the principles knowing that Montana State is not quite ready for the jump in attendance terms and that unlike PSU and Sac State who aren't all that ready for the jump either, there is no major media market to make it a worthwhile gamble, the WAC today might be able to get by offering a bid to Montana and an IOU to Montana State.
Montana State could get an offer that says they will be re-evaluated every five years and if their attendance average over the last two seasons of that evaluation period hits 20,000 per game they will be granted WAC membership. Something spelled out, tough, but reachable would likely do it.
Making a rebuilt Big Sky a partner for better revenue potential
The Big Sky could add the strong Dakota four-pack (North Dakota, South Dakota, North Dakota State, South Dakota State) and the last Great West football member (Southern Utah) as all sports members and western non-football Great West member (Utah Valley University) and once more be a power FCS conference. This would create a 13 team, two division football conference with UVU balancing the divisions at 7 each in all other sports.
The Dakota schools may or may not prefer to all be in the same conference. Considering the history the schools have as rivals, the power they would have as a voting block, and the reality of expenses today, it could be a very popular solution in the Dakotas.
The WAC could work tightly with the Big Sky to help each other's attendance (profitability) and to game the basketball strength of schedule to help their strongest teams make the NCAA tourney and land optimal seeds each year.
This would also allow for a solution to the problem of where to hold the WAC basketball tourney. While playing it in Houston might seem sensible, it is quite a ways from the basketball teams with the best support and could quickly be marginalized. Salt Lake City is a sensible site as most WAC schools are equidistant from there, but there is a question of how much local support there would be with only one WAC school in the immediate vicinity.
It would make a lot of sense to have a shared Big Sky/WAC tourney if NCAA rules don't prohibit it.
Both conferences would be wise to give their regular season champions the conference's automatic bids and then have a shared conference basketball tourney in Salt Lake City that might get a third or fourth of their schools into the NCAA tourney. As they would both play in split divisions, the team with the best record in conference play could be named the champion (in the event of tie-breakers, it would be smart to give it to the school with the highest ranking).
Perhaps teams with the second to ninth-best conference record in the WAC could join teams with the second to fifth-best record in the Big Sky in Salt Lake.
Teams could be seeded by rankings.
Thursday: 5 v.12, 6 v.11, 7 v.10, and 8 v 9
Friday: 1-4 play the reseeded winners of the Thursday games
Saturday: The winner of the game involving the No. 1 seed v. the winner of the game involving the 4th seed. The winner of the game involving the No. 2 seed v. the winner of the game involving the No. 3 seed.
Sunday: The title game.
The goal would be to try and get a 3rd or 4th school in by giving them an end of season strength of schedule bounce. (If the rules allow, the two regular season champions could play each other to keep the rust off as the tourney unfolds to try to get one of them out of a 15th or 16th seed. The higher ranked team could have home court. Or the game could follow the tourney championship game.)
All of these strategies leverage the strength of the two conference's numbers.
With strong member basketball schools from each conference in the immediate area in Weber State and Utah State in the area, and it being somewhat convenient to over half of the two conferences' members, the tourney would likely be pretty successful. Utah State has averaged well over 8,000 fans per game for nearly a decade. Weber State is no slouch at over 4,000.
Trading the Big Sky's current big gun (Montana) for an affiliation with the WAC and the studly Dakota schools would be a good financial solution to the question of what to do if Montana leaves.
Some final thoughts
As you have just read, I advocate a 20-team WAC.
I strongly hope for a larger expansion to at least 12 that adds Montana, UTSA, and Texas State, allows for two divisions, and keeps Utah State in the West.
...But I am also realistic enough to recognize that if UH (a long time opinion leader in the WAC) has their way, the number could very well be eight.
Smarter guys than me will be involved in the decision making process, but alternatively, this will come down to a vote. Voters often delude themselves counting on unlikely best case scenarios to avoid voting for things they need but don't want to admit to needing. Smart choices usually lose votes to sexy choices.