What happens to the Mountain West if the Pac-12 comes calling?
Call it what you want—posturing, maneuvering or simply self-preservation—but Mountain West Conference commissioner Craig Thompson struck the right chord on Thursday when he told Colorado’s KOA Radio that the conference is fielding interest from Big 12 and Pac-12 schools, as well as fellow Group of Five powers, in the wake of UCLA and USC’s decision to exit the Pac-12 and enter the Big Ten in 2024.
What else is Thompson supposed to do, pretend his hand is weak while the rich go all in? It’s a commissioner’s imperative to Act As If, even if it’s a bluff. Thompson had to suggest that MWC is a destination.
But deep down, Thompson has to be shuddering at what could unfold over the next few months.
If Oregon and Washington follow the Los Angeles schools to the Big Ten and the Big 12 ultimately swoops into the west and seizes Utah, Colorado, and the Arizona schools, a no-holds-barred battle could take place between the MWC and a reeling Pac-12.
And once the dust settles and consolidation reaches its final form, the biggest winners in the game may just be a surprise.
For the time being, the college football universe remains fully focused on the fortunes of the Flush and Famous while the Forgotten Few remain frozen in time. Boise State and San Diego State, Cincinnati and Houston, BYU and Texas San Antonio: For the best of the rest, this game of musical chairs could end up resulting in beaucoup bucks.
Let’s take the Broncos and Aztecs. In 2020, the Mountain West Conference inked a 6-year, $270 million media rights deal that saw school distributions almost quadruple from roughly $1.1 million per year to nearly $4 million. Even with the Pac-12 reeling from the loss of UCLA and USC just as it plans to accelerate its media rights negotiations, the conference is simply at a different status than the Mountain West and all other Group of 5 conferences.
As it stands, the Pac-12 has a $3 billion deal over 12 years, which distributes nearly $21 million per program per year. With the two Los Angeles teams in the fold—and the No. 2 national media market that they occupy—the conference was expected to double revenue in its next TV deal, which was slated for 2024.
If the Pac-12 can convince Oregon and Washington to remain, while perhaps fortifying itself with SDSU and Boise State and maybe even a pair of schools from east of Idaho, the league will still almost certainly increase its distributions. (Another wrinkle: Sports Illustrated reported earlier this week that the Pac-12 and ACC are discussing the possibility of a new broadcasting alliance with ESPN.)
What could that mean for the Aztecs and Broncos if they join the party? Quite simply, it would mean drastically more to them than even the richest Big Ten deal could mean to UCLA and USC. Those blue-blood programs are already in the stratosphere. What’s next? Another galaxy?
But SDSU and BSU getting their just due would be game-changers for both programs. And it’s not like they haven’t earned it.
The Aztecs, once a laughingstock in football and men’s basketball, have been relevant in both sports for more than a decade.
The football team has five 10-win seasons in seven years and is set to open a $300 million-plus stadium. The basketball team produced Kawhi Leonard, as well as regular tournament appearances. In recent years, both programs have fared more than well against the Pac-12. Academically, San Diego State has surged in recent years, shaking off the label of party school with an incoming freshman GPA near 4.0 and an average incoming SAT score of nearly 1,300.
And Boise State, though knocked off its perch as perhaps the pluckiest mid-major in the game, is still one of the top football programs west of the Rockies, with five Moutain West titles since 2014 and bowl wins over Utah, Arizona State, Washington, Arizona, and Oregon since 2010.
Should more chips continue to fall, they look more and more attractive to the conferences that once rejected the very thought of them.
That has to tear Craig Thompson up inside.
Even if he hasn’t let it show yet.