For the Western Athletic Conference, it turns out there is something tougher than beating the Boise State football team after all.
Attempting to replace the dominant Broncos.
With Boise State’s announced departure to the Mountain West Conference effective July 1, 2011, the WAC Board of Directors has begun grappling with the considerable challenge of attempting to find a replacement — or several — for its most visible member.
The task of filling the puka left by Boise, which has won seven of the last eight football championships, takes on urgency and financial importance because, under the terms of the WAC’s TV contract with ESPN, the network has the right to renegotiate in the event of a membership change.
It took the conference nearly a decade to reach its current $4.5 million annual deal with ESPN, and now it will have to go back to the negotiating table minus its biggest TV draw. The Broncos are scheduled to appear in five of the 10 WAC games on ESPN this year and have six regular-season games shown overall. In seven previous years, BSU has made 33 regular-season appearances on ESPN, triple most of the teams in the conference.
The problem for the WAC is there isn’t anybody among current prospective replacements that can come close to filling those shoes.
"I really don’t know what (they) can do," said Chuck Neinas, who runs Neinas Sports Services, a Colorado-based college athletics consulting firm. "There isn’t much in the West in terms of value that isn’t already taken."
The WAC Board of Directors held at least one conference call last week, apparently without reaching consensus on whether they will remain at eight members, go to nine or expand to 10 or 12.
Commissioner Karl Benson, who has guided the WAC through a series of shake-ups since 1994, said the WAC "will work in a deliberate and thoughtful manner" with an as-yet-unannounced timetable. Though to add new members timed with Boise State’s departure, they would likely have to notify their conferences by Sept. 1, 2010.
Manoa Chancellor Virginia Hinshaw said, "The WAC is thinking strategically about adding other schools based on consideration of academics, geography, competitiveness in different sports and general fit for the WAC. There are a number of universities that could fulfill those considerations now or in the near future, so we will discuss the feasibility of adding such universities."
Benson has, in the past, touted a 10-team conference for the ease of basketball scheduling and travel partners. But that was during times when there were multiple Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly known as Division I-A) candidates to choose from. Among 120 FBS schools in 2009, there were no football-playing independents west of the Mississippi — and few aligned ones willing to move.
The challenge, UH athletic director Jim Donovan said, "is to think strategically instead of tactically. We have to consider where we want the WAC to be in five or 10 years. We have to think, ‘Does what we do bring us value?’ "
The most likely possibility, people in the industry say, is North Texas, currently a member of the Sun Belt Conference. The Mean Green turned down overtures from the WAC six years ago to remain in the Sun Belt, but indications are they want to make a move. Conference USA, which passed UNT over for Texas-El Paso in 2004, apparently is the Mean Green’s first choice.
UNT has undertaken an ambitious facility improvement project and expects to open a $78 million, 30,000-seat football stadium in 2011.
For the WAC, UNT is attractive as an entry back into the lucrative Texas recruiting picture and as a travel partner for Louisiana Tech on the far-flung eastern wing of the nation’s most widespread conference.
Indications are the WAC has sounded out former members San Diego State and Nevada-Las Vegas of the Mountain West and possibly even UTEP of C-USA, without reciprocal interest.
When Hinshaw talks about prospective members "that could fulfill" WAC requirements "in the future" it is taken to mean present Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) members such as Montana, Texas State (San Marcos), Sacramento State and others who might seek to move up.
Currently there is an NCAA moratorium on stepping up until 2011, which means current FCS schools couldn’t be full-fledged conference members until at least 2012.
Of those, Montana, Texas State and Sacramento State are the most logical candidates, should they choose to switch categories.
Montana has won two FCS national championships and advanced to the title game nine times in 16 years. The Grizzlies averaged 24,488 per game last season to lead FCS schools.
"They have a great thing going on," Neinas said. "Would they want to make a move?"
A Grizzlies spokesman said the school has yet to commission a feasibility study about the ramifications of such a move.
Montana’s budget is $13 million, when the WAC average has been nearly $20 million. In addition, people there say the Board of Regents might want Montana and Montana State to be a package deal.
Texas State, which is located between San Antonio and Austin, has a $19 million budget and a growing football program, but its stadium seats just 15,218.
Sacramento State, a WAC associate member in baseball, has been on the conference’s radar for several years and has proximity to three current members — San Jose State, Fresno State and Nevada. But its $15.8 million budget would have to grow substantially and facilities would need to be upgraded.
When all is said and done, for the time being, "They (the WAC) might just have to live with what they have," Neinas said.
|THE POTENTIAL REPLACEMENTS
FBS: Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly known as Division I-A). FCS: Football Championship Subdivision (formerly known as Division I-AA). Sources: Individual schools and Star-Advertiser research.