Here is what’s not going to happen when the Mountain West Conference opens negotiations for a new television contract this week: A major network swoops in and offers $30 million per school per year that would put the 12-school league on equal footing with Division I’s power conferences.
For the home to most of the University of New Mexico’s athletic programs, here is what could happen: Pretty much anything else.
There is no greater source of revenue or relevance for a conference than its TV contract for football and men’s basketball, and the Mountain West has done nothing to warrant an elevation beyond its current status that commands $1.1 million per school per year: plodding along in mid-major anonymity with the brief, occasional splash on the national stage.
It is what it is. Most people outside the Pacific and Mountain time zones, and even some in them, couldn’t tell you everyone who’s in it. The dollars reflect that.
But how and where you view its games, at what time, on what days, for what price, for how long, could be radically altered from the mix of CBS Sports Network, ESPN2 or ESPNU, regional networks plus web streams of varying quality, obscurity and accessibility that expires in June 2020.
“We have to make some decisions,” Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson says. “How important is linear? We have to balance 8:30 or 9 p.m. kickoffs or tip-offs with a few extra bucks versus a digital paywall. Everybody has their opinion. What I think will happen is there is going to be some compromising, and there’s going to have to be some hard decisions to get to a collective agreement.
“It’s not going to be perfect for all 12 (schools). It never can be.”
UNM athletic director Eddie Nuñez believes that one of the problems with Lobo football’s lagging attendance is undesirably late start times, particularly late in the season and in cold weather. He told the Journal that he believes the league will help get more desirable kickoff times for 2019.
The Lobos won’t get what they want for every game, but they can request an earlier start time when TV wants it to start at 8 p.m., for example, Nuñez said.
Nonetheless, Thompson articulates the problem – well, one of them at least – for the Mountain West, which has 12 members for football and 11 (minus Hawaii) in men’s basketball. It is an amalgamation of public universities from different time zones and climates and market sizes, with different perspectives and priorities. Some want control of kick and tip times to maximize ticket sales, even if it means less TV money. Some want a national platform to enhance recruiting, even if it means weeknight football games and 9 p.m. basketball tips.
“There’s no fit-all,” Thompson says.
Another problem: To keep Boise State from seceding to the Big East in 2013, the Mountain West granted it power to negotiate a separate TV deal for home football games – a carve-out, in sports business vernacular, that pays it (and no one else) an additional $1.8 million per year. And instead of allowing this special treatment for, say, five years, the conference let Boise State do it in perpetuity.
So when CBS Sports’ exclusive negotiating window for the next contract opens April 30, and then ESPN’s window after it, and then everyone else after that, they’ll be buying media rights to the Mountain West minus arguably its most lucrative property.
One misconception is that Thompson, as commissioner, is solely responsible for a new deal. He’s not. He’s more mediator than negotiator, finding common ground among diverse factions, making suggestions, facilitating dialogue.
A five-person television committee that includes San Diego State Athletic Director John David Wicker will listen to offers and counteroffers, then bring proposals to the full group of ADs, who make a recommendation to presidents and chancellors. A decision is expected by fall and would go into effect the following summer.
The American Athletic Conference, with the best football and men’s basketball outside the power conferences, also has its media rights expiring after next year and recently finalized a $1 billion package with ESPN that sounds promising for its mid-major brethren until you start peeling back layers.
At first glance: Each school will get just under $7 million per year starting in 2020-21, still not at the level of the SEC’s $43.1 million from 2017-18 but considerably more than the couch change that Div. I’s have-nots receive.
The fine print: Most games will be on ESPN+, a pay web service ($4.99 per month) with only 2 million subscribers, rather than linear or “real” TV; schools are responsible for on-campus production costs, which some estimate could lower their net annual take by as much as $2 million; and the deal is for 12 years, when technology may change and media rights might be worth more and Div. I athletic budgets will undoubtedly have soared.
“That’s what blew me away,” SDSU’s Wicker says, “that 13 years from now they’re still going to be getting $7 million per school, knowing what things cost today and what they might cost in 13 years. I would be surprised if we got locked into something like that. I think that’s too long.”
Wicker and Thompson both forecast a contract half as long. Neither will talk dollars publicly, but you get the sense from others in the industry that it won’t be appreciably more than they receive now, given Boise State’s carve-out and the conference’s dearth of major markets or national brands.
The bigger question is control. Or, as Wicker puts it, “your pain tolerance.”
Members currently get $1.1 million per year and have little control over days or times when games are televised on linear channels like CBS Sports Network and ESPNU. Say they got a few hundred thousand dollars less for more digital telecasts but can set more attractive kick and tip times. Do you make up the difference in gate with a 5 p.m. Saturday football game instead of Friday night at 7:30?
And it’s not just ticket sales for the upcoming season. Larger crowds build attendance habits over time and grow brand loyalty with family-friendly start times. There’s a residual effect.
“You love the TV exposure,” Thompson says of weeknight fall football games on traditional TV. “But in some of our mountain communities, if it’s spritzing and it’s 32 degrees, a lot of people will say: ‘You know what? I’ll just stay home and watch it on TV. That’s pretty convenient.’ ”
At the other end of the spectrum is SDSU, with a subtropical climate and plans to build a 35,000-seat football stadium in Mission Valley to replace an aging, 70,000-seat venue. Wicker skews toward the network TV exposure.
“Our situation changes a little bit when we open a new stadium,” Wicker says. “Now, if it’s a 7:30 kick you can wait until 5:30 to decide if you want to buy tickets and go to the game. In the future, you’re going to have to buy season tickets and you’re probably more apt to go if you already have the tickets. Plus, it’s going to be a much better in-stadium experience.
“Kick and tip times are not as big an issue for us as it would be for teams in the Mountain time zone. It’s going to be finding what the balance is.”
This is where it gets tricky. Younger generations have cut the cord and are comfortable watching games over the internet – on phones, tablets, laptops, smart TVs, wherever, whenever. But older alumni are not, and they comprise a large chunk of season-ticket holders and athletic donors; they want to know what channel the game is on.
CBS, for years the Mountain West’s primary rights holder, gets the first crack at negotiations. Unless it comes with a big, take-it-or-leave-it number, expect the conference to exercise its option to entertain other offers over the summer.
Big-boy CBS televises only one Mountain West event per year – the conference tournament final in men’s basketball each March. The rest of its inventory is shipped to CBS Sports Network, which isn’t as widely available as ESPN’s channels and still has no online presence, and there appears to be a growing unease among conference membership with that reality.
ESPN and its various platforms might be a better fit, but it becomes a matter of negotiating leverage – not needing more college sports content like CBS Sports Network does. There’s also Fox Sports and NBC Sports, potential wild cards that can get involved after CBS Sports and ESPN’s exclusive windows close. Or maybe the Mountain West completely cuts the cord and goes with Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or another digital-only entity.
“There are just so many different, moving parts to this,” Wicker says. “It will be interesting to see what happens.”
The Journal’s Steve Virgen contributed to this report.