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WAC cracked

Boise State's departure leaves the conference scrambled and its members scrambling for options

By Stephen Tsai

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 01:53 a.m. HST, Jun 12, 2010


The departure of Boise State - the league's dominant football team the past decade - is causing concern and uncertainty to the WAC and, to a significant degree, the University of Hawaii, the league's senior member.

In a decision that was expected earlier this week, Boise State announced yesterday that it is seceding from the Western Athletic Conference to join the Mountain West Conference beginning in July 2011.

But there is a possibility the proposed divorce might be only a temporary separation.

WAC commissioner Karl Benson is expected to meet with WAC presidents this coming week. The intent is to empower Benson to pursue expansion plans - one of many, according to a person familiar with the situation, would include a proposal to merge the WAC and Mountain West.

That scenario would only be possible if the Mountain West incurs membership losses in the rapidly shifting college-football landscape.

In the past week, the Big 12 has been Ground Zero, with Nebraska intent on joining the Big Ten and Colorado heading to the Pac-10.

Five other Big 12 members - Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State - also appear ready to boost the Pac-10's roster to 16 schools, which would be split into East-West divisions.

UH left with mess

With Boise State leaving the Western Athletic Conference and Big 12 Conference teams scattering to other leagues, the fallout has hit the University of Hawaii, which faces an uncertain athletic future.

» The money: Boise State's departure could cost UH television revenue, as the WAC-ESPN deal is certain to be rewritten. WAC members share ESPN's $4.5 million annual payout.

» The games: UH would be forced to scramble to find a football replacement during a period - October and November - when most teams are unwilling to play nonconference games. The Warriors net an average of $700,000 per home game, with gate receipts as much as $1.5 million. And that does not include pay-per-view revenue for home games.

» The conference: The WAC could merge with the Mountain West Conference, pick up other schools from various levels or do nothing at all.

If the Big 12 suffers significant defections, as expected, it likely will rebuild by pilfering schools from the Mountain West and Conference USA. The Mountain West's Brigham Young University, Utah and Texas Christian would be likely targets. If those three were to join the Big 12, that would open the possibility of the WAC and Mountain West entering consolidation talks.

If the Mountain West remains intact, with the addition of Boise State, the WAC could stay put, try to recruit UNLV or San Diego State, or look to invite Division I-AA schools such as Sacramento State and UC Davis.

"I don't think the dominoes have stopped," UH athletic director Jim Donovan said.

The WAC and Mountain West share the same DNA. After the 1998-99 academic year, eight schools - BYU, Utah, Colorado State, Wyoming, New Mexico, San Diego State, Nevada-Las Vegas and Air Force - seceded from the WAC to form the Mountain West. Three years later, Texas Christian joined the Mountain West to create a nine-team conference.

In the past 12 years, the WAC added Boise State, Nevada, Idaho, New Mexico State and Utah State, while losing Texas-El Paso, Rice, Southern Methodist and Tulsa.

Not long after joining the WAC, Boise State became the dominant football team - and, almost as quickly, it sought to move to what it claimed was the more geographically compatible Mountain West.

This past Monday, Boise State's latest plea was rejected when the Mountain West announced it would not expand. But with news of the probable Big 12 defections, the Mountain West extended an invitation that Boise State accepted yesterday.

The Broncos are the 13th team to withdraw from the WAC in the past 12 years.

And their departure could affect the bank accounts of the WAC and what would be the remaining eight members.

The new six-year television contract between the WAC and ESPN has a clause that allows for the financial terms to be restructured if the league's composition changes. The $4.5 million annual contract calls for an even split among the nine member schools; the league's office does not receive a cut.

Boise State, which has dominated WAC football the past decade, is the league's most popular television attraction. The Broncos are scheduled to appear on ESPN or ESPN2 at least six times this coming football season.

The Humanitarian Bowl, which is played in Bronco Stadium, was used as a bargaining chip when Boise State applied for WAC membership a decade ago. The WAC now is a significant shareholder in the bowl. But like the ESPN contract, the bowl agreement is subject to change if the WAC's membership alters.

UH and the remaining WAC teams now must fill future football schedules. In 2011, the Warriors are booked every weekend in September. There is the flexibility of moving the Dec. 3 game against Oregon State to Thanksgiving weekend. In 2012, there is only one open weekend in September.

Donovan said there is a possibility the Warriors, who are permitted to play up to 13 regular-season games each year, might play only 12 in 2011. The Warriors earn a net average of $700,000 per home game in ticket revenue; the scheduled 2010 season opener against Southern California is expected to net $1.5 million.

Donovan said the Broncos' departure "impacts the WAC in terms of status in the sport of football." But he noted the Broncos have not dominated the other revenue-generating sports.

At least one UH fan is hopeful.

"Boise State has been a premier team," Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann said. "This is an opportunity for UH to really step up. Instead of looking at this as a crisis, we should look at it as an opportunity for UH to be the next Boise State."






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