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What are the financial implications for the Mountain West in the NCAA Tournament?

Let’s talk units, shall we?

San Diego State Aztecs v Utah State Aggies Photo by David Becker/Getty Images

The First Four of the NCAA Tournament tipped-off last night, though the Mountain West in the tourney begins tonight with the Nevada Wolf Pack against the Arizona State Sun Devils.

For the second consecutive seasons, the Mountain West placed four teams into the NCAA Tournament. For the Mountain West, one of the best mid-majors in America, the financial implications could loom large after previous “units” have dwindled in recent years.

The promising news is that the conference will, once again, be getting a cut of at least $1.3 million from this tournament alone. So it’s on the upswing, but let’s still talk about the financial implications in the tournament and what it means for the future.

What is a unit?

A unit is what each conference, who has a participating team, earns for every game that each team plays in the tournament, financially. For example, one unit was worth about $339K in 2021-22 for each NCAA Tournament game played — thus, each conference made at least ~$339K. The payouts are split between each conference member.

Each unit also has a six-year shelf life. For example, let’s say the Mountain West placed one team in the Mountain West Tournament last season, it would equal approximately $2.03 million for the following six seasons, equaling about $185K for each school. Of course, a conference can earn more units by 1.) putting more teams into the 68-team pool or 2.) advancing further. Or, the best case scenario: Why not both?!

The figure won’t change by round; one unit won’t be worth more in the second-round than, say, the final four. It’s all the same amount, but the financial impact substantially grows the more teams advance.

How much is one unit worth?

The numbers for this year’s tournament have not been disclosed yet. A cost of one unit last year was $338,887 (per Boardroom), a 0.52 percent increase from the previous figure in 2020-21, which was $337,141. Here is a look at the previous unit costs from the past six years:

  • 2016-17: $272,974
  • 2017-18: $273,500 (~0.19 percent increase from previous year)
  • 2018-19: $280,300 (~2.49%)
  • *2019-20: $282,100 (~0.64%)
  • 2020-21: $337,141 (~19.5%)
  • 2021-22: $338,887 (~0.52%)

*no NCAA Tournament was held in 2019-20, but this was the reported number if it happened.

Since the Mountain West put four teams in the NCAA Tournament last year (all went one-and-done), it made a total of $1.4 million for that year and $8.1 million total for the following six years. Divide that up amongst the 11 programs, and it’s about $739,390 per school for the next six years ($123,231 per year).

The unit figure could increase to $340K or more this upcoming season.

How many units has the Mountain West secured over the last six years?

Not many—comparitively to previous cycles. Let’s look at the most recent six-year span:

  • 2016-17: One (Nevada)
  • 2017-18: Four (Nevada - 3, San Diego State)
  • 2018-19: Two (Nevada, Utah State)
  • 2019-20: None (no active NCAA Tournament)
  • 2020-21: Two (San Diego State, Utah State)
  • 2021-22: Four (Boise State, San Diego State, Wyoming, Colorado State)

In total, that’s 13 units over the last six years. Not including 2022-23, the Mountain West has gotten four units in a single season in only two of the last six seasons; in the previous six-year cycle the conference netted at least four units in five of those six years, equaling 27. In the six years before that, it totaled four units thrice, including six in 2009-10, for a total of 19.

Is that a lot?

Well, if you’re referring to the most recent six-year cycle, 13 units in a multi-bid conference (historically) is not a lot, no. The Mountain West — as well as the rest of the nation — received misfortune with the 2019-20 pandemic thwarting the NCAA Tournament.

Need I remind you that San Diego State ended that season 30-2, and would’ve been primed for a potential 2-seed (at worst) with Utah State earning an automatic bid. It’s March — so quite literally anything’s possible, as we all know — but you could’ve reasoned yourself into believing San Diego State and Utah State could have obtained at least an extra 3-4 units, which would’ve netted the conference at least an additional $5-7 million over a six-year span (in that tournament alone). Unfortunate, huh?

On average, 13 units over a five-tournament span (excluding 2019-20) would be 2.6 units per year, which is a great number, financially, for over two-thirds of Division-I conferences nationwide. That’s how you land a mountain of cash to buoy your conference. But in the Mountain West’s instance, they’ve secured multiple bids in all but three years: 2000-01 (BYU), 2015-16 (Fresno State), 2016-17 (Nevada).

This might sound greedy: But 2.6 units over a five-season span is simply not enough for a multi-bid conference. The Mountain West has been one of the best mid-major conferences for the last several seasons. But it’s won just two of its previous 13 NCAA Tournament games — including 0-8 the last three tournaments — despite placing multiple bids in those conferences in each of those three seasons.

Can the Mountain West secure more?

Despite Nevada’s three-game losing streak, they were still able to squeak in as the “last team in” the NCAA Tournament field, along with regular season and tournament champion San Diego State, Boise State and Utah State — all of whom had good resumes.

Boom! That’s four units units right there. This year’s figure will replace the 2016-17 unit figure, giving the Mountain West 16 figures over a six-year cycle—progress in the right direction.

Assuming there’s a 0.6 percent increase on the 2022 unit figure — equating to nearly $341K — the conference would earn roughly $1.36 million per season and $8.18 million for the following six seasons, divying up to ~$744K for each program for the next six combined years.

But that’s if all four flameout in their opening game. Nevada opens Wednesday night against Arizona State, who have two former Pack players in Desmond Cambridge and Warren Washington, who know Nevada’s roster and tendancies as well as anyone. Bobby Hurley’s squads are 1-3 in their last three NCAA Tournament bids, including 1-1 in first-four competition.

San Diego State has the best opportunity to win a game, going up against a high-octane offense in No. 12 Charleston. Leon Rice and Boise State look to snap its NCAA Tournament demons — Leon Rice is 0-3 in the NCAA Tournament, while Boise State is winless in eight previous tries — as the No. 10 seed against No. 7 Northwestern. The Wildcats have lost four of their last five games, but who have very good guard play with underrated guard Boo Buie. Utah State will be the No. 10 seed and have the perfect March Madness guard in Steven Ashworth, but will be up against another high-powered offense in Missouri.

Each of the betting lines suggest that the Mountain West has a good opportunity to squeak at least one win. But, in the end, you still have to play the games.

The Mountain West has made progress each of the last two seasons with its unit figures. Logging at least eight in two tournaments is no slouch, but now it’s time to put the pieces together for a good run.

The Mountain West previously failing come tournament time isn’t just a sting financially, but it’s a public relations crisis: How are we expected to continually give it credence if it can’t win in the most important games when everyone’s watching? It’s a question we — as a conference — have been trying to shake for the last several years. That’s why winning each tournament game is more important than the last, above all else.