“What times’ the game on?” This might be the most commonly uttered phrase for a sports fan, but it is probably a more important question for some of college football’s smaller conferences. While these smaller conferences (like the Mountain West) fight to make their on-field product on par with that of the “big boys” the teams are unable to completely control who gets to see them play, and ultimately how much money they can generate to improve their programs.
When deeply examining how TV deals and media exposure really dictate our sports intake, it almost becomes sobering to see how sports really just are another form of entertainment. The difference between sports and some run-of-the-mill reality show is that these collegiate sports programs have been around forever and there are deep ties for fans. If a reality show flops it goes off the air and no one remembers it, but for sports we almost feel an ownership towards our team and think that somehow our opinions and preferences need to be catered to. To an extent they do, we are the consumers of the product they are providing. What differentiates collegiate sports, namely football and basketball, from that of professional sports is that there are so many more games and teams to cover in college sports. Any given Saturday in fall there can be upwards of 50 different games, and all those games are played in different cities with different fans wearing different colors with different interests. For the most part, if you want to watch your team on TV you can, whether you like Alabama or Appalachian State, the game is probably on somewhere. The real issue for teams not in the Power 5 conferences is getting their game on nationally at a time where people all across the country can watch, but sometimes that can come with a sacrifice that is becoming cumbersome for smaller conferences and their programs.
Before we delve deeper into the Mountain West TV conundrum, the best example of trying to adapt (and sacrifice) in the name of better television exposure is the MAC conference. Comprised entirely of Midwest schools, the MAC has actually produced some very respectable football teams in the last decade or so, and they boast a handful of NFL players who are household names. The MAC might be most notably known for their odd football scheduling however, “boasting” what they call “MACtion” games, which are really just midweek games usually played in front of quiet school-night crowds on cold nights. These games are nationally televised on ESPN, and every now and then they contain two decent teams that can make for an exciting game. Because they play in a region littered with college football blue-bloods, the MAC had to adapt to make their games worth watching. Because nearly all college games are played on Saturdays, these “MACtion” games are in primetime national TV slots that the whole country gets to see.
Despite getting this nationally televised game every week, I’m not certain that these midweek games actually help the conference on a national scale. The atmospheres at these games are usually lacking, and it seems that they won’t even flex to a better matchup when possible, sometimes leaving viewers with two teams with losing records playing subpar football. As noted before, this is exactly the kind of struggle that the Group of 5 conferences face, being forced to make sacrifices that they don’t want to make.
The Mountain West Conference deals with an issue that is literally nobody’s fault, but is the biggest hangup that the conference faces. Time zones, and let’s just say being on the west isn’t exactly favorable. The “East Coast bias” theory is probably more of a fact than an assumption, but the Mountain West currently finds itself playing football at midnight for anyone east of Chicago. In the current deal, MWC programs are getting a little over $1 million per year with CBS with some games occasionally appearing on ESPN, mainly ESPN2 and lower-tier games on the streaming-only ESPN3. The CBS Sports games are the ones that are really giving the conference trouble, with some football games starting 8 p.m. Pacific or Mountain time. To put it in perspective, folks in New York might not be seeing second half kickoffs until well after midnight and some basketball tip-offs as late as 11 p.m. or later. Yes these games might be nationally televised, but at what costs to the programs? For starters, fans do not like these late starts, given that with commercials football games are generally over 3 hours and families with kids might hit the exits by halftime. The most concerning negative is the fact that students are not nearly as interested in these games because they practically eliminate any Saturday night fun/trouble they are looking to get into. With the student body being responsible for injecting atmosphere into games, it can make for some lackluster energy and an eyesore during wide-panning crowd shots with paltry or even nonexistent crowds and student sections. Getting national attention is imperative, but keeping the diehard paying customers that support the programs at home is also something that needs to be considered as well.
If you are of the belief that the Mountain West is trying to compete with the American Conference for mid-major national relevance, the time-slot issue might be insurmountable. With the majority of the American Conferences team’s being on the eastern portion of the United States, naturally their nationally televised games will be at more premium times. Not only will they be watched by the East Coast, but their games are also easily viewable by the Midwest and West Coast. The epitome of how the American has such an advantage was the 2017 tilt between UCF and USF, two nationally ranked teams playing in front of an absolutely packed house in Orlando. The game started at 3:30 p.m. Eastern, and was broadcast nationally on ABC. UCF would win 49-42, in a game where points were coming every few minutes in a stadium that showed the country that mid-major football was a big deal. Granted, the game got so much hype because two really, really good teams were playing but it was a game that every inch of the country could watch at a reasonable time. If the roles were reversed and it was two ranked MWC teams playing late in the season on ESPN, the game might receive hype but it would likely be in a time slot where most of the country would be sleeping by the time the game finished. As a conference, you want these types of games being the headliner on the nightly Sportscenter episode, not one that people read in their Sunday paper. When mid-major conferences get these premium and sometimes rare games, they need to receive the most amount of exposure possible, and right now in the current setup the MWC would be handicapped in that type of scenario.
Mountain West Conference Commissioner Craig Thompson really does need to address this issue, and the sooner the better. Overall, the best way to help this problem is to put a better product on the field as a whole, which the conference can struggle with year to year. The best chance the conference has of attaining a wider national relevance on TV is probably in basketball, mostly because the disparity between power conferences and smaller conferences is much less drastic. Also, the conference contains more noteworthy programs, as UNLV, SDSU, New Mexico and Nevada all have decent tradition that they can bank on on the basketball court. Boise State is really the only headline-worthy football program, but to attach the conference to better time-slots the conference as a whole must improve on the gridiron. Another way in which individual programs can help themselves is by trying to schedule games against other good Group of 5 programs. The idea of an early season matchup for a MWC team against a good American Conference team (where the New Year’s 6 bowl implications could play out) would not only help gain notoriety for their specific team but also for mid-major football as a whole. Naturally, there will still be the “buy” games with SEC teams scheduling Group of 5 bottom feeders, but more talented G5 programs need to work toward scheduling home-and-homes with those bigger programs to drum up more interest for their own hometown fans.
It will be interesting to see if a new TV deal is constructed for the MWC in the coming year, and where the conference leaders try to prioritize the scheduling of games. Attempting to start games, both football and basketball, even an hour earlier could really improve attendance and even persuade East Coaster’s to stay awake for some more notable games. With the Pac-12 also playing around the same time-slots in both sports, bridging the talent gap (or at least attempting too) will be the best way the conference can get themselves noticed. With the Pac-12 in a current down era of basketball, the MWC has a chance this winter to cement itself as must-see West Coast basketball. Even if the conference can trot out 3-4 tournament-worthy teams, that will likely be enough to get more eyes on the Mountain.