When Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky and Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson announced last fall that their two conferences were in discussions to merge football operations by 2013 in hopes of attaining a lucrative BCS automatic qualifying bid for their member institutions, it was ostensibly a move to stave the bleeding of its best and brightest. By the time the two conferences announced the day before Valentine’s Day that their union was to go even further, the best and brightest had already bled away and the move took on the stench of survival at all costs.
All the talk about superconferences in the past few years has come to fruition. What is ancient history is reborn anew, and once again it is the mid-major element of college football that has reached that magic number of sixteen before the superpowers. We all saw what happened last time a conference extended itself far beyond the realm of sane geographical confines. But while ten of the teams involved in the current merger were involved as well in the futile extension by the WAC in the mid-1990s, the stakes are even greater this time around.
Is history doomed to repeat itself once more? All the problems that sank the bloated WAC are even more prominent in this attempt at rendering a superconference.
- GEOGRAPHIC FOOTPRINT: Where Rice and Tulsa served as the eastern terminus for the WAC from 1996-98, now they are the central buttress that links east to west in a conference that will push all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. Where travel across nine states and four time zones proved to be too much, now this new conference takes root across five time zones and thirteen states. Even with an east/west divisional format, travel budgets are going to balloon.
- MONEY: All these extra expenditures are going to require additional funding. The ten-year contract signed by the Mountain West in 2006 pays out $12 million per year over its life. The deal signed by Conference USA in 2011 earns the league $14 million per year. While BCS appearances have helped improve the overall payout in the former, there is no guarantee that this conference as constructed would be granted a regular seat at the table. Which means that new TV negotiations for the reconstituted league will require exponential increase in revenue.
The problem for this conference, though, comes down to a dearth of marketable assets. The two leagues, negotiating at the time with the benefit of programs like Utah and BYU and Houston and TCU, still were able to only negotiate for one-tenth the money doled out annually to the Pac-12 and SEC and the Big Ten — combined. Now they link up just as Utah gears up for its second season in the Pac-12, as TCU readies for its first Big XII season, and Boise State and Houston lead the exodus to a Big East that is equally bloated geographically but at least guarantees a BCS spot… for now.
Of course, the school presidents and conference commissioners are saying all their soothing somethings:
- “We will have 16 to who knows, maybe 24 teams in all five time zones including Hawaii so we span coast to coast with a real solid presence. On top of that, we will have a very large number of sets in America. We think having our teams on nationally from coast to coast is very strong. We frankly think that improves our market value.” – UNLV president Dr. Neal Smatresk to Yahoo! Sports
- “We’ve had some very preliminary and high-level conversations with the TV network, not at the detail-level. We think this new conference will draw considerable interest from the networks.” – Tulane president Scott Cowen to SI.com
But while it’s one thing to say that the networks are showing considerable interest in such a wide-reaching conference, it is entirely another to fork over even half the money that one of the four biggest BCS conferences pulls in annually. And without at least that much — without a minimum of $128 million annually, which spread around would net each of the schools $8 million (still comparatively low to the $20+ million AQ schools are pulling in) — the pie will be sliced too thinly to help any of the sixteen schools survive in an even more expensive operating environment.
Maybe this will all turn out well in the end, and we’ll be watching schools from whatever this conference is eventually named winning national championships for decades to come. The more likely ending is one we’ve already seen, though… remember, the Mountain West only exists to announce this merger with Conference USA because sixteen teams proved to be too many for the charter institutions that broke away.