With 11 NCAA tournament bids in the last three seasons, and at least three more looking very likely this upcoming year, Mountain West men's basketball is at its competitive apex. There is significant talent spread across the league, extremely well-regarded head coaches at many of the programs, and some of the loudest, toughest homecourt environments in the country. The product is undeniably good.
In theory, the rise (and presumed staying power) of MWC hoops should be a valuable asset for a conference reexamining its broadcast rights in light of the shuttering of the conference's The Mtn. Network this past spring. But when asked about the value of basketball in ever-changing broadcast rights negotiations, league commissioner Craig Thompson made a sobering and salient point.
"I think the greatest example a couple summers ago was Kansas," Thompson said, noting how at one point, the Jayhawks looked like they were going to get squeezed out of the realignment picture when a Pac-16 and a defunct Big 12 appeared possible. "... Really, Kansas basketball was arguably not an issue in anyone's mind."
If no one values Kansas basketball as a piece of this ongoing national shell game, then you can forget about UNLV, San Diego State or New Mexico moving network needles. It's a football-driven world, which explains pretty much everything that's gone on the last couple of years in the Mountain West, and what's still to come as the reinforced league continues to try to find its footing.
Given the shortcomings that helped lead to The Mtn.'s demise -- very limited distribution outside of a premium tier on DirecTV, no high-definition broadcasts for basketball outside of the conference tournament -- it's easy to forget that it was the first conference-specific TV network. The league, tired of what it considered second-class treatment from ESPN in terms of broadcast times and dates, struck out on its own in a precursor to networks that are now printing sheaths of money for the Big Ten and Pac-12. Six years after the launch of The Mtn., the concept clearly has been validated, but the football product in the Mountain West was never good enough or stable enough or in markets large enough to make other vendors want to pay for distribution or for the BCS to fully let the MWC into the party.
So, faced with earning around $1 million a year from Mountain West rights, schools like BYU, Utah, TCU, Boise State and San Diego State all made financially prudent (if, in some cases, geographically curious) decisions. Most are grabbing many times that from a BCS conference while BYU elected to go independent and control its own product with its own TV network that has five times the distribution (65 million homes) The Mtn. was able to claim. It's hard to blame any of them for the moves, but the result is, as the Mountain West continues to try to shore up its football side, a really good basketball league dangles a bit in the wind.
Perhaps it's positive spin on a move forced upon him by administrators trying to offset massive budget cuts in the California state school system, but San Diego State head coach Steve Fisher actually seems enthusiastic about his program's looming move to the heretofore low-prestige Big West starting in 2013-14. His Aztecs, who are loaded this season and also likely will bring a ranked team into the Big West next year, are set to become the latest program attempting to thrive with a Gonzaga/Memphis model: Load up for bear in nonconference play and try to use your program to elevate the rest of the league closer to your level. But for Fisher, the potential for better TV exposure could be the biggest plus to switching leagues. Not coincidentally, the Big West has a broadcast deal with ESPN.
"What is going to happen [next year], we're going to have a much more impactful TV schedule when we're not burdened with what we've had to deal with since we went away from ESPN. It's been an albatross on everybody," Fisher said last week. "First, [it will help] internally, administratively, financially, then exposure-wise, people would laugh and say [San Diego State's] in the witness protection program because no one could see you. We could not have a nonconference home game on ESPN. That will all change dramatically for the better, so we're already ratcheting up our nonconference schedule to fit what we're going to be."
Similar to what's happened in Conference USA and, especially, the West Coast Conference, landing the Aztecs as a cornerstone program could help transform the Big West into a multi-bid league. Fisher should be more interested in the league's history, though: UNLV won the 1990 national title as a member of the conference. Times (and the money that impacts the sport) certainly have changed since then, but as VCU, Butler, George Mason and Memphis have shown in recent seasons, you don't have to be from a major conference to make a major national title run.
UNLV head coach Dave Rice also understands what's possible in terms of program elevation, having been a player on the legendary 1990 and '91 UNLV teams. With San Diego State (and Boise State) moving out, the Rebels are positioned to be the league's marquee program. They have the glitz of Sin City to generate buzz, but Rice and his staff have also assembled a monster roster in what could be the most highly anticipated season in Vegas since '91. He's also trying to build a program that is not dependent on others for its success.
"I'm fortunate that I have background and can speak from personal experience that when I was a student-athlete at UNLV, we won the national championship and we were in the Big West, " Rice said. ..." I would say that we're very proud of our association with the Mountain West Conference, but I also believe from experience that UNLV can transcend conference. From a specific recruiting standpoint for UNLV, I'd say that to some degree, UNLV transcends conference."
With Nevada and Fresno State entering the league this season and Utah State and San Jose State next year, the league should continue to prosper on the court despite the slew of departures. For this season, CBS' and NBC's new sports networks will pick up some of the available inventory, and Thompson continues to work on the conference's new broadcast strategy going forward. A large part of it will be a much more ambitious digital offering, which should allow the league to really experiment with and enhance how it presents its basketball product across multiple platforms.
"I have a senior in college myself and he doesn't watch his content on television, he watches on his iPhone or iPad," Thompson said. "I'm 56 and I watch on TV. I'm old school. So we're going to enter a whole new place where the content is going to be available where people want it."
Still, regardless of how good the product is or how many people want to watch it, money talks. The strain of the last few years on Thompson was almost entirely due to trying to keep the conference stable against the ceaseless siren of football money. For now, it looks like he has done that, but nothing is ever certain in this environment. What seems clear, though, is that the Mountain West has built itself into an excellent basketball league -- even if it was an accidental byproduct of the neverending quest for football and broadcast revenue that, in theory, would stimulate stability.
"Really, the focus has been on football and I don't think basketball has been the driving force for our interest in sustaining membership," Thompson said, noting that league membership didn't have much interest in keeping San Diego State's and Boise State's non-football sports. "... Basketball does play a part, but most of these TV rights fee packages are based on the football product."