Mountain West Media Days are behind us, and there were some interesting topics discussed. The three most interesting seemed to be: the new bowl affiliation announcements, the possibility of a neutral site championship game, and some updates on the media deal negotiations. Today’s post will look at each of these topics in greater detail and weigh in on the impact it has for the Mountain West Conference moving forward.
Neutral site Championship Game:
As someone who was in the stand for the 2018 championship game, I know firsthand how weather can impact the game. The Broncos passing game took a significant step back due to the severe conditions, and it favored the visiting Bulldogs who played a more physical game. It was a challenging game to be in the stands for as well. Weather should not play a factor in determining who the best football team in the conference is.
“Even” Playing Field
Playing at a neutral site can take away the element of home-field advantage. Both teams have to deal with traveling, and the game would likely take place in a warm-weather city where the elements will not impact the outcome. There have been issues in coming with the qualifications of who should host the championship game and there have been times where one division is much stronger than the others, so record is not always a fair measurement.
Have any of you ever watched the MAC Championship? Maybe the PAC 12 championship? These neutral-site championship games all have one thing in common; they look like a ghost town. The Mountain West Championship Game would be no different. Early indications are that the game would be played in Las Vegas or Los Angeles. Both cities have one thing in common, beautiful new NFL stadiums. While the idea of playing in a new NFL stadium sounds great, who wants to watch a game where the stadium is empty. I have had former athletes tell me on multiple occasions that the hardest stadiums to play in are the empty ones.
“Uneven” Playing Field
The idea of a neutral site game being more “fair” is a bit foolish, in my opinion. Whether it is Las Vegas or Los Angeles, teams from the West division will have a significant advantage in terms of travel. Fresno and San Diego are within driving distance of both cities, the rest of the conference would be scrambling to find flights on short notice.
Schools that have hosted the Mountain West Championship have had to deal with the trouble of selling a substantial amount of tickets in a short period of time. The game usually fields around 20,000 fans depending on who is hosting. Imagine having two traveling fans bases and trying to fill an NFL stadium. Ask the MAC how that has worked for them. I worry that the game would struggle to sell 10,000 tickets.
Hard Pass. This is a terrible idea. I don’t know why Craig Thompson or conference athletic directors would even consider this. If this is because of last year’s game. Let’s not overreact. Boise State has hosted the game three times, and the weather has come into play once. I know the idea of traveling to Laramie, Logan, Fort Collins, and Boise in December isn’t exactly appealing. But teams could also be going to Las Vegas, San Diego, Fresno, or Hawaii. Let’s reward the regular season accomplishments of teams and allow the team with the best body of work to host the championship game. The Mountain West is not the SEC, it does not have the geographic flexibility to play a game in one set location every year, and the fan bases don’t travel like those in the south.
New Bowl Agreements:
On the second day of MWC Media Days, the conference announced the bowl agreements for the next cycle, which runs from 2020 to the 2025-2026 season. They reached agreements with six bowls, including the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl (Boise, Idaho), New Mexico Bowl (Albuquerque, N.M.), NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl (Tucson, Ariz.), SoFi Hawai’i Bowl (Honolulu) and “an ESPN Events-operated bowl game, likely to be held in the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex.” Also, they have renewed their agreement to be a backup option with the Cheez-It Bowl (and another bowl expected to announce at a later date), which will take a MWC school if the main conferences can’t fulfill their requirement.
How does this fare for the Mountain West? Let’s take a look.
The MWC renewed with four of their current bowls, which isn’t surprising. For the purposes of this article, they can all be taken the same way, which is pretty neutral. The Arizona Bowl, Hawaii Bowl, New Mexico Bowl, and Potato Bowl are fine options but not sought-after destinations. Two of these bowls are against teams from the MAC (Arizona, Potato), while one is against the C-USA (New Mexico) and the other (Hawaii) matches a team up with either the AAC or the C-USA. Out of those, the Hawaii bowl is the only one that could be considered a featured destination. Plus, if it’s against an AAC team, the opponent is the best out of the four.
Given how there are only so many bowls the P5 is willing to go against the G5, this ratio isn’t terrible. These are the last four options for the conference the quality of the opponent will likely be equal enough for the MWC teams competing in these bowls.
The currently unnamed Las Angeles Bowl, which will put a MWC team up against a PAC-12 team. Basically, this is the new version of the old Vegas Bowl, which was the best MWC bowl in the lineup and usually where the conference champion ended up. Being able to maintain a game against a P5 team is vital, even if it will be a 6 or 7 win PAC 12 team. Considering this wasn’t a given a few months ago, this was a big win.
Likewise, the unnamed ESPN bowl in the Dallas/Fort Worth area against an unnamed opponent should be a good matchup as well. If nothing else, getting a guaranteed 6th bowl is a win no matter what. A team like Wyoming last year won’t be shut out of a bowl due to lack of options. Also, a foothold into the DFW area in Texas will have benefits for recruiting and exposure. These are both a win.
The Mountain West served as a backup in the Cheez-It bowl provided the B1G, or Big 12 can’t fill it and making sure it stayed that way in the new cycle was likely a priority and succeeding was a strong move by Thompson. Securing another unknown bowl with the same type of agreement is even better. One would imagine the second backup bowl would again pit the MWC against a P5 school. These allow a team who has a strong season but isn’t the conference champ to find a bowl worthy to their season instead of being reduced to one of the four bowls mentioned above. Even if this only happens every few years, it’s a great plan to have in place.
All in all, this is a pretty sizable win for the Mountain West. They have one for sure but possibly two strong bowl games (LA and Dallas), four average bowls, and two strong backup options for themselves. A “worst-case scenario” for the conference still allows six bowl teams to find homes, which is pretty darn good. A “best case” could see their teams playing up to four power five teams provided the dominoes fall the right away. And that’s not even bringing a NY6 bowl into the discussion. It remains to be seen how it all will play out, but if the conference ever has three 10-win teams like it did last year, they should all end up playing in meaningful bowls to finish their season how they deserve to be completed.
Media Deal Updates:
Craig Thompson was asked a lot about the impending media deal in his press conference. Surprisingly, he gave quite a few interesting nuggets that can serve as talking points.
Thompson said he expects an increase from the $1.1 the ten schools currently receive (more on Hawaii and Boise State in a bit). The immediate thought is, “Sure hope so Craig!”. Seriously, if the revenue didn’t increase, Craig should be immediately fired. That point aside, more revenue is a good thing. Thompson conceded it wouldn’t be as much as the AAC got (for a few reasons, which make sense), and that’s okay, as long as it’s in the competitive range. $3.5-$5 million sounds about right, since the American Conference has had better on the field results, and the schools are in better TV markets. Plus, it doesn’t sound like they want many games on streaming services and are looking for a shorter deal. Again, more on those points later.
This is perhaps the most forward-thinking part of what Thompson said. He publicly stated the Mountain West is looking for a shorter deal and cited rapid technology changes as the reason why. That makes a lot of sense. There’s no telling what the cable and streaming landscape will look like in 2020, let along 2025 or 2030. Naturally, the tradeoff of a shorter time frame would be less money, but it’s a fair tradeoff. Ideally, a three year deal with some options for another two or three years would make sense. However, even a flat five-year agreement would be fine. As long as there is some flexibility should other options become better or the landscape changes. It was clear Thompson wants to stay close to the front of the landscape instead of getting locked into something which may be awful for the conference a decade from now. This shows a lesson has been learned since the Mountain West TV Network debacle.
Taking a bit of a jump, but it sounds like the Mountain West will be staying with ESPN and CBS Sports. If those are the network’s negotiations are taking place with right now, and Thompson said he expects a deal to be completed in the fall, that doesn’t leave much room for other networks coming in. It would be interesting to know if other networks like FS1 would’ve been willing to give more money or better time slots.
On the other hand, perhaps this deal isn’t forcing a good chunk of the games to be on ESPN+. Thompson seemed hesitant to that idea, and again, probably still has the failed MW Network in mind when playing things a bit conservative here. If these networks find value in filling the later time slots with Mountain West schools and if the MWC values being seen nationally, then the current arrangement may be the best scenario, despite some noticeable flaws.
For fans hoping for changes to game times and days, don’t be expecting change. Craig admitted there isn’t much room for negotiations of kickoff time and day if they want to be on national tv. West coast teams have value for later time slots, and there are only two conferences in the west. Thompson said “You try to limit the number of non-Saturdays and get as many early kickoffs as you can,” basically meaning he doesn’t want the MWC to be a total pushover, but in the tension between being on TV and playing Saturday afternoon games, being on TV wins out.
Much to the delight of a few and the disappointment of many, Thompson said that Boise State would continue to have their home games negotiated separately with ESPN. They will get $1.8 million more in revenue than the other teams, and that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Likewise, Hawaii will continue to not receive a share of the revenue due to travel costs and their local network, does not receive any money unless it reaches $2.3 million. One would hope the new deal reaches $2.3 million.
Overall, things seem to be heading in a good direction. There isn’t going to be a perfect deal, and unfortunately, the Mountain West doesn’t have limitless room to negotiate, so some things have to be compromised. More money and a short-term contract are pros, while the scheduling is a con. Who the MWC is partnering with is probably neutral, at least without knowing what each network is offering. Based on what was said at Media Days, this is a positive at the end of the day.
Bottom line, the Mountain West seems to be heading in a positive track in the immediate future. As drastic as college football can change year to year and given how difficult things can be for Group of 5 conferences, that’s all that can be asked.