It may not quite be like winning your office pool, but you might have heard screams of delight from athletic department administrators across the Mountain West conference over the weekend.
After a well-publicized, and often-referenced March Madness drought of success, the San Diego State Aztecs not only snapped the league’s 11-game losing streak in the NCAA Tournament by winning on Thursday, but it then won its second-round game on Saturday to advance to the Sweet 16.
Not only is that big news for the Aztecs, but it means money in the pocket, or into the budgets, of the UNM Lobos and every Mountain West Conference member for the next six years thanks to the unique revenue distribution model the NCAA uses for the NCAA Tournament.
Basically every game played by a Mountain West team in the NCAA Tournament means about $2 million paid to the league over six years. After a small, initial bonus given to the teams that actually played the games, the rest of the revenue is split equally among the 11 members over six years.
It all boils down to this: The UNM Lobos, who obviously wish they were in the NCAA Tournament themselves, still get about $31,000 every time a Mountain West team steps on an NCAA Tournament court.
So, Go Aztecs?
The money is the result of the nearly $11 billion that Turner Sports/CBS Sports committed in 2010 for the broadcast and multimedia rights to the tournament.
That contract is why you have to see Lilly telling you about the latest AT&T deals at every commercial break, Charles Barkley trying to get you to get a Capitol One credit card or why you’ll never see a Coca-Cola can sitting courtside at an NCAA Tournament game.
But it’s also why mid-major programs like those in the Mountain West — or whatever phrase they want to call themselves without pretending they are competing in the same economic stratosphere as the Power Six conferences in men’s basketball — all root for their conference rivals this time of year, no matter how much it hurts.
How does it work?
Every game played in the NCAA Tournament equals one “unit share” for the teams playing the games. A unit share is a set amount of money — in 2022 each unit share equaled $338,887.38 — that is paid to a league for six years.
Each league can determine how it divvies up the money. For the Mountain West, after a small, one-time bonus for the team that actually earned the unit share, all NCAA Tournament revenue is split equally for the six-year window among its 11 members.
This year, the Mountain West so far has six units — three (and counting) from San Diego State (two for games already played, one for the game coming in the Sweet 16), and one apiece for Boise State, Nevada and Utah State for all playing one game.
That gets added to the six-year rolling window of revenue distribution that has the Mountain West for this fiscal year getting a total payout for 18 total unit shares this cycle, which includes the 2020 tournament being canceled due to COVID (the MWC had two teams in the tournament that year, including a 30-2 SDSU team that was going to be seeded No. 2).
At last year’s unit share rate of $338,887.38, that 18-share cycle for the MWC means that roughly $6.1 million will get shared with every league member — about $550,000 per school.
Here’s the current unit share cycle for the Mountain West:
• 2018: 4 units (SDSU 1; Nevada 3)
• 2019: 2 units (Nevada 1; Utah State 1)
• 2020: 0 units (NCAA Tournament cancelled)
• 2021: 2 units (SDSU 1; Utah State 1)
• 2022: 4 units (SDSU 1; Wyoming 1; Boise State 1; Colorado State 1)
• 2023: 6 units (SDSU 3*; Nevada 1; Boise State 1; Utah State 1)
• Total: 18 units
(*SDSU is still playing in the 2023 tournament)
That’s good money, but still chump change compared to the big conference payouts that not only enjoy the benefit of getting more teams in regularly, but also win some games on a more regular basis.
For example, the Pac-12 in 2021 had 19 units in just that one tournament — five teams got in the tournament, four made the Sweet 16, three the Elite Eight and one (UCLA) the Final Four.
The Mountain West is longing for one deep run. Other league sometimes get three or four.
Still, despite all the criticism of the Mountain West this year, the 2023 Tournament already matches the second-best tourney ever in terms of unit shares thanks to getting four teams in and one actually winning some games.
Here are the four best seasons of NCAA Tournament unit share distribution in Mountain West history:
• 2011: 7 units (BYU 3; SDSU 3; UNLV 1)
• 2013: 7 units (UNM 1, UNLV 1, Boise State 1; Colorado State 2, SDSU 2)
• 2023: 6 units (SDSU 3*, Nevada 1; Boise State 1; Utah State 1
• 2010: 6 units (UNM 2, BYU 2; UNLV 1, SDSU 1).
(*SDSU is still playing in the 2023 tournament)