Sure, there’s actual postseason basketball happening right now, but conference realignment rumors are not beholden to any particular season. And this one could get weird.
At the WAC basketball tournament earlier in March, administrators met to discuss the future of the conference. It’d make sense for anybody leading a WAC school to be nervous about the league. The conference only has eight members, and one of those schools, Cal State Bakersfield, will be leaving for the Big West in 2020. Basically everybody else would probably like to leave, either to help find a home for an independent football program (like New Mexico State), or find a home without as much travel (like Chicago State).
New Mexico State’s chancellor had some interesting comments about that meeting
While at the WAC Basketball Tournament, I met with the Presidents and Athletic Directors of the WAC schools to discuss business as well as the challenges facing the Conference regarding membership. The WAC is initiating an aggressive membership campaign. Commissioner Jeff Hurd said “something was going to happen and happen soon” regarding conference alignments and realignments. One rumor was the Mountain West would become a 16-member conference with two-8 member divisions. NMSU could come into play as a new member, along with UTEP. Another uncertainty facing athletics is the ongoing investigation of NCAA basketball violations. There is also a special committee analyzing the “transfer” issue in collegiate basketball.
Okay sure, it would make sense that the WAC would be seriously courting other members to help add to the stability of the league (California Baptist joins this year). But it’s that Mountain West super-conference rumor that’s the most spicy.
We already know the Mountain West is seriously considering expanding right now, at least in basketball
Earlier this month, Mountain West Conference commissioner Craig Thompson admitted that the school is talking to Gonzaga, along with five other schools. BYU wasn’t specifically mentioned in that group, but they could be in the mix here as well. The MWC trying to expand, either to 12 or perhaps even more, makes a lot of sense, especially if they can land a big fish like Gonzaga. The league improves their RPI, puts itself in a position to earn extra money from additional NCAA Tournament shares, and with the Pac-12 struggling, could credibly position themselves as a very, very good western basketball league, especially if programs like New Mexico, San Diego State, and UNLV, rebound to form.
Any Mountain West expansion would have trickle down effects all over the West
Even if the MWC just goes to 12 by grabbing Gonzaga, multiple leagues could be impacted. BYU will find itself in a tough spot as suddenly (by far) the biggest program in a dramatically weakened WCC, and could decide to do something different. The WCC would likely try to replace Gonzaga by going to the WAC, approaching either Seattle or Grand Canyon, which would further intensify the need for the WAC to either expand, or watch as they get picked apart by other leagues. And if the MWC decides to add even more programs, then a conference free for all out west could break out.
Who might the MWC be targeting here?
Assuming this idea is about a 16 team basketball league, rather than football (given the public interest in Gonzaga), we can make a few solid educated guesses. Gonzaga makes 12, and New Mexico State (a very solid basketball program) and UTEP (who sits in the Mountain time zone and has historical ties to many MWC programs) make 14. Rice had previously been tied to the Mountain West, and you could get to 16 from some other combination of St.Marys, Grand Canyon, or BYU.
Is this about TV? Sort of, but it’s also about the NCAA Tournament
The Mountain West’s TV deal ends after the 2019-2020 season, and even dramatically improved basketball isn’t likely to shift their next TV deal in a huge way. These moves aren’t really made using the same assumptions behind previous conference realignment deals, like TV markets and cable eyeballs.
But improving basketball conference strength could mean a lot more NCAA Tournament units. With Gonzaga threatening to at least make the second weekend almost every year, and with a massive MWC as a potential four-bid league, some non-trivial amounts of NCAA Tournament money could be headed the league’s way. That’d be a nice way to hedge against big changes to their football TV money, which the league has at least floated in public.
And yes, given the history of the MWC, this would be kind of funny
The MWC, of course, formed as a breakaway from the WAC, the first behemoth mega conference that eventually buckled under the weight of a big league, large travel demands and scheduling problems. Could the league avoid those problems by not being a football mega league? Would the economics of college sports in the 2010s force teams to make nice? Is this at risk for yet another MWC breaking away in a decade? Would it be kind of funny if the next mega-conference isn’t the Pac-16, or a sprawling Big Ten absorbing Texas and creeping across the West, but the MWC and like, UTEP?
Who the heck knows! But this sure is interesting, huh?