How conference realignment wiped WAC football off the map
In the last two years, conference realignment and expansion have remodeled the NCAA landscape, so much so that San Diego State will be playing conference games on the East Coast and West Virginia will be making trips to West Texas. While the scene is still somewhat fluid, a lasting consequence of the realignment craze has materialized: A football conference will be completely wiped off the map.
After more than a decade of membership changes, the Western Athletic Conference will not play football in 2013, barring a miraculous wave of schools joining the ailing conference. Interim commissioner Jeff Hurd denied
"We didn't make a formal announcement, but I think it's obvious from an FBS standpoint that we can't continue [playing football]," Hurd said. "That doesn't eliminate the possibility down the road. ... But for the '13-'14 year, we are trying to maintain the WAC as a Division I conference in sports other than football. That's our priority."
Currently, only four non-household names are set to remain in the conference: Seattle, Denver, New Mexico State and Idaho, with the Vandals exploring independence in football and Big Sky membership for their other sports. In 2012, the WAC will be a diseased seven-team football league limping through its 50th year. And come July 1, 2013, the once-respectable conference will be a carcass.
The WAC's demise didn't occur in one fell swoop. Rather, its fall from grace began in 1999, when the WAC was a swollen 16-team conference. That year, eight teams split off to start the Mountain West Conference. "Since then," said Hurd, "the membership change has been considerable, and it's been constant."
The WAC turnstiles have rotated like those at a Saturday night movie premiere. Since 1999, 24 teams have come and gone through the NCAA's most turbulent conference. The revolving door has spun even faster in recent years, as 14 teams have left or will leave the conference between 2005 and the end of the 2012 season. After this season, five schools (four of which play football) will leave the WAC, with Idaho possibly adding to that tally.
In an effort to explain the constant departures, Hurd cited a chicken-and-egg dilemma regarding television deals and conference instability. Securing a larger television contract had been a priority for Hurd and his predecessor, current Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson, but the conference's volatility made that difficult. The WAC was earning around $4 million per year from ESPN, but following Boise State's exit in 2011, ESPN dramatically cut that figure. In 2011-12, each of the eight WAC schools received $104,873 in television revenue. In contrast, Mountain West schools will earn $1 million apiece in TV revenue this upcoming season.
"It's virtually impossible to generate any sponsorship dollars and any long-term television opportunities when you have a constant change in membership, and that goes back 10 years," Hurd said. "When you try to negotiate a better or new deal, the issue [with television providers] always is, 'What are we buying? What's the commitment on the part of the conference?'" Restructuring a media deal now is impossible, Hurd said, because he has no idea what the conference membership will be in 2013.
In addition to TV dollars, Benson felt another issue led teams to frequently flee.
"Individual institutions chase more prestigious conferences, and there's a hierarchy that's always existed," said Benson, who left the WAC in February. "WAC teams always wanted to elevate to the Mountain West because there's a perception that it's more prestigious. The club that they're currently in doesn't have the social status that perhaps another club has. As a result, they want to be part of this other club. ... That's just as important as money."
None of these problems are new, though, and the WAC was able to live with its revolving door ethos for more than a decade. But universities are not a renewable resource, and the conference in the Intermountain West already had a shortage of programs from which to choose. After the Mountain West was established, the WAC had to expand its footprint from Louisiana to Hawaii. Even though the conference widened its swath, teams continued to leave, and the WAC pipeline of universities has now run dry.
"The trickle-down effect that's happened over the last 10 to 15 years has eliminated many of the options available in the West," Hurd said. "There just aren't as many FBS or even FCS level institutions in the western third of the country as there are in the eastern third. Our options have gradually dwindled."
Hurd's job from this point forward is thorny. The last reservoir the WAC could have tapped for membership was the Big Sky Conference, a league that has weathered the realignment storm and held strong in small Western media markets. The two conferences discussed a partnership in recent weeks, but those talks have largely fallen apart.
Once again, a lack of WAC stability was the cause.
"The idea that the WAC and Big Sky would do something together was first discussed 15 years ago," Fullerton said. "Unfortunately, when my [university] presidents looked at it this time around, [they weren't sure] the people we were dealing with were committed to the process and the same vision that the Big Sky has."
With Big Sky talks stalling, the WAC now must scramble to find schools beyond the desired Western footprint. Hurd has placed calls to a number of schools at both the FBS and FCS levels to gauge interest in the WAC, but has received no commitments. "Any school you can possibly think of, I've had discussions with them," Hurd said.
The WAC's always-fickle membership has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In order to rebuild the conference, the remaining four members must stay in the league for the foreseeable future, which, despite Hurd's optimism, is no guarantee.
Idaho and New Mexico State, the two remaining WAC football programs, were openly lobbying for a spot in the Mountain West, which turned down the two schools in July. If Idaho succeeds in leaving, the WAC would have to add five schools to field a conference of any type in 2013. Hurd said if the Vandals leave, it would be a major obstacle to the WAC existing beyond 2012.
The remaining schools also have tough decisions to make. The end of WAC football means that NMSU and Idaho, unless they receive an unlikely invite to another conference, must try to make it as football independents.
"Not an option I'm thrilled about," said NMSU athletic director McKinley Boston. "There's no way over the long term that we could sustain ourselves as an independent. How many Notre Dames are there where their tradition alone can provide a 12-game schedule?"
Unlike other WAC schools, Idaho has an invite to ponder. The Vandals are not considering joining the Big Sky in a football capacity at this time, but Fullerton thinks that will eventually change for the same reasons Boston pointed out.
Fullerton said the Big Sky will likely discuss bringing on other WAC schools, but those talks would only begin if Idaho joins the conference, as the Vandals are the Big Sky's lone target as of now. This means that options could become available for WAC schools, but their current conference won't reap any benefits.
So the WAC will die, at least as a football conference, after this season. It will be the first conference to fold since the Southwest in 1995. The college football elite won't miss a beat as a result.
"There's no major effect on us," Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said of losing the WAC. "There are areas where we had been cooperating with the WAC in terms of officiating and other topics. So maybe on an operational level in a few areas, but in terms of direct impact, it's hard to identify one."
But for those involved with the WAC, things aren't so simple.
"College football is not going to stop because the WAC is not playing it," said Hurd, "but it's sad, quite honestly, that what happens in college athletics today results in the demise of a conference. ... The WAC turned 50 [on July 28]. Even though the membership has changed, there's some tradition there, and that's gone."
The WAC does indeed have tradition. Former WAC member BYU was the AP national champion in 1984, and the conference sent three teams to BCS games. Boise State played in and won the 2007 and 2010 Fiesta Bowls, and Hawaii reached the 2008 Sugar Bowl.
Those associated with the WAC are frustrated by the quick triggers some member institutions have pulled. Four schools left the WAC for the Mountain West less than two years ago, and San Jose State and Utah State will also join the Mountain West in 2013.
"You look at the Mountain West now, it looks like the old WAC," said NMSU's Boston. "We thought the WAC makeup as it was, was a solid conference. We were... disappointed in losing the WAC, but at the same time you can't control other people's agendas."
Hurd feels the WAC would have thrived had school officials been more patient. He said many schools that left the league haven't found the "pot of gold" they thought was awaiting them.
Benson pointed to Boise State as an example. "When they made their decision to go, Utah, BYU and TCU were going to be in the Mountain West," Benson said. "They went to a conference that wasn't what they were expecting." As a result, the Broncos are now joining the Big East for football.
Pot of gold or no, the teams left, and as a result WAC football won't last past its 50th season. And while the league looks much different than it did in even its 49th year, that final season needs to be played.
"The other coaches who have found a conference are happy and secure," said NMSU head football coach DeWayne Walker. "Like I keep telling our players and coaches, at the end of the day, we get a chance to play in the WAC one more year, and that's what we're focusing on."