Thought the board might find this interesting. I've also heard some new stuff on the Big 12 I might share later.
It might not be a better day for the MWC, but it is a new day - new teams, a new brand, new rivalries and, most importantly, a new boss.
Yes, Craig Thompson is still collecting his hefty paycheck for running the head office, but the most influential man in the Mountain West is a guy named Bob - Bob Kustra to be exact.
The thing about conferences is the money-maker is always the real boss. Back in the old WAC and MWC days, BYU and Utah were the leaders in tandem. They didn't get everything they wanted, but they did get most of it. The three front range schools (and to some extent TCU) would almost always lean toward the BYU/Utah side of things as well.
Now the money-maker is Boise State. They've only been an official conference member for a few weeks, but Kustra and Gene Bleymaier (the AD) have already been moving and shaking things for months. About the only thing they've lost out on so far is the all-blue uniform thing, but that was technically debated before they even agreed to join. And, new members Hawaii, Fresno State, and Nevada (and to some extent SDSU and UNLV) are all BSU allies. The power in the conference has dramatically shifted in the past year, and the evidence of change is starting to mount behind the scenes.
Exhibit A - Inviting the new members
When the MWC went on the offensive by inviting Fresno and Nevada (with the TV big-wigs explicit blessing, by the way), Thompson didn't even make the informal invitation call himself. Who did? That's right, Bob Kustra. The university president who technically was still a member of the WAC made the important first call to convince his old friends to risk a $5 million bill to ditch the old party and join a new one.
Fast forward a few months. By late October or early November, word had gotten around that TCU was working out the final details to join the Big East. The short list for a replacement was already posted. Hawaii got the invitation, but it wasn't the first choice of the front-range schools or New Mexico (it also wasn't the first choice of Comcast/CBS - no small issue). They all wanted UTEP or another Texas school. Remember, this was two months before C-USA finalized its new TV deal. UTEP showed a lot of interest, and there were only seven valid MWC votes at the time (because of some technicality FSU and Nevada didn't get a vote yet and TCU obviously abstained)
Why did Hawaii get the invite instead? In large part because their friends in Boise stepped in to help mediate a deal and convince the others. Hawaii had to give up a lot of concessions, but they escaped a bad situation with the new WAC, and nobody was more thrilled to see them join than the Broncos.
Fast forward one more time to January of this year. At a meeting with the seven presidents, possible expansion to twelve teams was being decided. CBS/Comcast were tabling a new offer with reduced annual revenue, but they offered to add $5 million a year to the pie if the MWC added some new inventory and staged a football championship game. The TV partners were (once again) very explicit about who they wanted. They were pushing Thompson to add UTEP and Utah State (side note: Comcast wants a team in Utah because they invested so much distribution and advertising effort there, and don't want it to go down the drain). But, just hours before the meeting officially started, UTEP said "no thanks" and backed out. The TV partners encouraged them to add San Jose State instead.
After an initial roundtable discussion, the conference voted 6-1 in favor of expansion. Guess who the one opposing vote was?
The next afternoon, the MWC made the big announcement - they weren't expanding. They would stay at 10 teams for now.
Somehow, 6-1 in favor had turned into 7-0 the other direction. Kustra had thrown his weight around again. After that initial vote, he had waited until that evening when the presidents were on their own. He took control of the conversation and convinced them all to change their minds.
This all leads us to...
Exhibit B - TV negotiations
Ever since last August, the MWC has been in revenue recovery mode with Comcast (or NBCUniversal to be exact) and CBS Corporation.
By now you're probably wondering what Comcast/CBS thinks of this new school from Idaho coming in and scuttling all of their plans. The real question is, what does Boise State think of this new outfit out in Philadelphia controlling all of their TV appearances?
The outspoken Chris Petersen (who wasn't afraid to call the all-blue uniform prohibition "ridiculous" in front of all his peers last week) told us all we need to know about BSU's relationship with the MountainWest Sports Network:
"It (being on ESPN) has been as important as anything we've done," he said. "Everybody is very concerned about the (new) TV thing."
In short, Boise State doesn't like their new TV deal - especially now that BYU and TCU are gone. And this is where things start to get interesting.
The current TV contract states that Comcast/CBS can scrap the old deal and offer new terms based on the recent membership changes. Under those circumstances, the MWC has two options - accept the new terms (which may include lower annual revenue), or reject the new deal and go back onto the open market. However, the open market doesn't look all that attractive right now.
Fox has been embroiled with its Big 12 and Pac-12 deals and isn't very interested in another cornerstone deal. NBC is no longer an independent option it's now a Comcast subsidiary. And then, there is ESPN.
The problem there, is that the MWC and ESPN aren't the best of friends. In Thompson's own words: "If people are saying, 'Good, we can go back to ESPN on Tuesdays,' that's not going to happen."
There are a few points of reference behind that comment. For one, that's all ESPN is willing to offer - mediocre money for filling its off-peak inventory requirements. And, ESPN's relationship with Thompson in particular is lukewarm at best - and not because he didn't sign a new deal back in 2004. On the contrary, ESPN has still shown interest in the MWC product and approached them several times about trying to buy select games in recent years. Naturally CBS/Comcast played hard ball. The problem came when ESPN asked Thompson to help them work out a deal. The commissioner chose to play it politically correct and side with his contracted partners. That didn't sit well in Bristol.
How does Boise feel about ESPN? Naturally the exact opposite of Thompson (and most of the other original MWC members). Sure, the mid-week games can be a drag, but it's those time slots that BSU has built its entire brand on. The Broncos have gone from I-AA afterthought to being in the national title conversation with ESPN's mediocre money and Tuesday-Friday night primetime events. They'll enjoy the Saturday afternoon kickoffs when they have them, but they're not afraid to jump back in bed with the Worldwide Leader. And, unlike the front range schools and New Mexico, they really dont care if The mtn. regional channel folds either.
As of today, Comcast/CBS has decided to stick with the status quo. They have not scrapped the old contract, or tabled any official new offers to the MWC, although the conference expects a re-evaluation at some point (probably after this season).
But, in the meantime, Boise will probably use its influence to try and minimize any new deal with the current partners and ultimately push the conference back to ESPN.
All of this brings us to...
Exhibit C - The Boise State plan
What exactly did Kustra say back in January that changed everybody's mind? According to sources, his appeal was two-fold - financial and competitive.
First, he reminded them of a possibility that is just beginning to cause rumbles in the national media. The BCS is holding an evaluation in the Spring of 2012, and the MWC will most likely be able to appeal for a provisional waiver granting them two-year automatic qualification. Kustra asked his colleagues to hold on for one more season and see how that all plays out. If the MWC has a strong 2011 and succeeds in pressuring the BCS into provisional AQ status, having USU and SJSU coming on board in 2012 may hurt their chances of obtaining permanent AQ status.
Still, the practical numbers at the time were there for everybody to see. Under the circumstances, it appeared very certain that adding Utah State and SJSU would result in increased revenue. Again, Kustra's argument was one of patience. Yes, at that time in January, the Aggies and Spartans were the best option, but things could change. Better, more lucrative teams could become available.
Who are these teams?
Most people immediately turn to C-USA and wonder about SMU, Houston, or UTEP. Those are good options that would certainly be more attractive than USU or San Jose. But, in case you haven't figured it out already, Boise is more precocious than that.
Not surprisingly, they're thinking very big when it comes to expansion. They want the trophy fish.
Relax Utah State fans, Boise State doesn't dislike you. In fact, they really hope that you will join their conference, because they know if the team they really want comes, you'll be coming with them.
Boise State wants to use BCS AQ status, and a new ESPN deal to bring Brigham Young University back to the Mountain West.
I know what you're thinking. BYU probably won't be interested. You're right. In fact, BSU hasn't even begun to approach BYU about this yet. But, they have a plan and they're going to give it a shot.
Which leads us to...
Exhibit D - Boise loves everything Thompson hates
It's hilarious, and it's true. Bob Kustra and team are really the anti-Craig Thompson. You've already read a few examples of this, and there's one more worth mentioning.
Not surprisingly, Thompson has issues with BYU. They had a tolerable professional relationship up until last August, but it has turned icy cold since then. But, there's really only one thing the MWC can do to try and hurt BYU now - refuse to schedule them.
A few teams are on board with blacklisting BYU anyway - namely Wyoming, San Diego State, and possibly a couple of others. But not everyone is.
Enter Craig Thompson. The commissioner is throwing around all the weight he can to keep teams from scheduling BYU, and especially to keep them from playing in October and November. The problem is BYU could be very limited in getting deals done under those circumstances, because the September slots are prime real estate right now. They're being snapped up by the marquee BCS games, and BYU is respectfully hesitant to plug a mid-major in when there are other teams available.
As you can probably guess, Boise State isn't going to sit around and wait for Craig Thompson's approval. They are fully prepared to book more games with BYU and put them on the calendar whenever they would like. Some other schools aren't so bold, but they don't have to be. Once Thompson caves for the Broncos, any attempted scheduling freeze of BYU will crumble.
BYU will most likely be playing regular October and November games against MWC competition in the future. And, they will have their new best friends - Bob Kustra and the Boise State Broncos - to thank for it.