The West Coast Conference is one of the most interesting leagues in college athletics right now. A perennial multi-bid basketball league, it enters the upcoming season with another Gonzaga team hungry to make a deep tournament run, and St. Mary’s and BYU teams anxious to take down the conference heavyweight. It’s a league full of small, private colleges in California who may have very different perspectives on pending likeness rights legislation. And it’s a “mid-major” league with two of the least “mid-major” mid-major programs in college sports.
We chatted with conference commissioner Gloria Nevarez on likeness rights, what makes the WCC stable and successful, whether “mid-major” is a fair term to use for her schools and more. The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
SB NATION: I feel like when the national conversation is talking about likeness rights or this debate, a lot of it is really centering on five-star, blue-chip, sure-fire pro kinds of kids at these enormous athletic programs. And I’m wondering, how is this conversation different when we’re talking about universities with $60 or $70 million budgets, or maybe less, who are recruiting a different kind of athlete than maybe the Pac-12 or the ACC might be?
GLORIA NEVAREZ : Well, I mean, your point about our league being unique, we cover the spectrum. Like Rui Hachimura last year. Coming in, his name, image, likeness could have brought in a lot, internationally, of attention. But then, we also have our sports that, in our context, there are a lot of student athletes that wouldn’t have a market value but for the stage we are providing. So, very much like if you work in a lab on campus, and you’re using campus resources and funding and grants and equipment, the IP you create for your work on campus belongs to the campus, right?
But if you go out, start your own company and use your own investment, that becomes yours. So, I foresee a future where, we in the campuses and conference offices, become a lot better in learning our licensing abilities.
SB: Is there a concern amongst some of your member institutions, especially maybe some of the non-BYU or Gonzaga ones that might be a little bit smaller, that if we have a more liberalized likeness marketplace that alumni donations could dry up if they start going to the athletes directly instead of the institutions themselves?
GN: I’ve heard that concern ... I haven’t talked to my schools individually about it. But collectively, from my perspective, the argument goes, ‘Well, if you’re gonna be paying athletes individually, then those dollars won’t otherwise be flowing into the program.’ And there’s two ways that happens. One, sponsorship, and two, just straight up donations. So, I don’t know that this applies to donation, really — the philanthropy part of it. But if we’re talking about the sponsorship component, does a product, or apparel manufacturer or somebody find it more valuable to sponsor the individual athlete? Or is it more valuable to have the sponsorship be side-by-side with that athlete in situations where they’re wearing the uniform and competing?
So, I would argue that the market’s gonna play that out. And in a lot of cases, that would be with the brand of the school and everything, all the colors and festive look that goes around it. Now, again, to your point, there are those athletes that command, by themselves, sponsorship and eyeballs. So, we gotta figure out how we do that, and enable athletes to get use of their name, image and likeness, but also protect schools’ ability to put on the stage and bring in sponsorship and fund the rest of their programs.
But I’m optimistic, I think there’s a licensing answer through this. There are people smarter than me working on it right now, but they’re gonna get there.
SB: I have written pretty favorably about a more liberalized marketplace, as have a lot of my colleagues in sports media. But I also understand that I don’t have the same things to worry about, or concerns that somebody in your position or an athletic director might have. Do you think, in this broad national conversation, that there are things that the media is missing, or unintended consequences that are not being discussed enough?
GN: I believe there’s a very real concern about cheating and using this name, image, likeness rule to cheat at the recruiting game. But that’s the case with all of our NCAA rules — all of the restrictions around recruiting, or extra benefits, or eligibility — and we can’t legislate to the lowest common denominator. So there are very real concerns about enforcing whatever we come up with and ensuring that people aren’t using those rules to gain unfair advantage. However, from our perspective in the WCC, we don’t have football. That’s funding disadvantage number one. Number two, pound for pound, we average 5,000 in enrollment. That’s with BYU. You take BYU out, we drop down to 3,500/4,000.
So, there are inherent disadvantages in just who we are, what we are, and where we are. But you know what? We still compete. We win titles. We’re ranked in the top 10, habitually, in a lot of sports, men’s basketball being first and foremost. So, on the one hand, yes, I am concerned about the negative implications. I do think folks are thinking about that in the right way, but I don’t know that that should prevent us from figuring out how the name, image, likeness policy should be implemented and allowing students to take advantage of their name, image, likeness.
SB: You touched on something else that I think is really interesting about your conference right now, that the bulk of the institutions, as I understand it, they’re private schools and mostly under 6,000 enrollment. And then you have Gonzaga which is a little bit bigger but has a national prominence to their athletic department, at least for some flagship sports, that might outstrip other schools. And then you have BYU, which is massive, and for every definition, a very different kind of school. I know that early in your tenure there was some talk that Gonzaga might look at going to the MWC. Has it been difficult to keep everybody institutionally aligned when you have two very different institutions?
GN: No, and that is the very unique and special sauce behind the West Coast Conference. Our cultural alignment is so strong. We’re the most stable conference as far as membership behind the IVY League because we’ve been around so long. We have a very, I guess, like-minded group when it comes to our mission and core values, and even our contentious debates on policy are done very respectfully, and usually working toward consensus on issues. Our presidents are very aligned in that sense.
SB: That seems a little bit rare, and especially now that we’ve had several leagues get blown because of television, and we see some schools are now kinda placed into conferences of convenience rather than institutional fit. Do you look at some of those as dangerous situations? I would assume trying to find schools that have the same institutional goals and values would be preferable than to bringing in a Grand Canyon or UVU that might help with basketball, but are different kinds of institutions.
GN: Well, every institution has to be looked at individually, same with the conference, but I think the special sauce behind the WCC is the faith-based underpinnings that you have, either founding or currently espoused, among all of our institutions. And when BYU came into the league, one of the conditions was, ‘We can’t play on Sunday.’ And that was okay with our folks for a lot of reasons that matched their individual schools’ missions and core values.
SB: One of the other contentious issues that I’m hearing about from some similar schools is about men’s basketball scheduling. With many larger leagues increasing their conference game inventory, that’s making it more difficult for maybe of your member institutions to find quality out-of-conference opponents. Is that something that you’re seeing right now?
GN: I’ve been seeing that since I started in this business. Scheduling is the most important, and also one of the most difficult things to do across your sports, especially in those sports like football, and men’s and women’s basketball. For us, the challenge becomes how do you construct regular season scheduling, conference tournament scheduling and non-conference scheduling guidelines that achieve the mutual aims of the league? And so in our situation here, Gonzaga, and their aim is national seeding and a national title.
And how do you do that at the same time when other teams in your league are rebuilding or at the bottom? And I really appreciate the work that all of our coaches and administrators came together to come up with a package that serves everyone, because we have went down to a 16-game schedule.
We did a triple bye into our tournament, but along with giving those games back to schools to schedule in the non-conference, we have non-conference scheduling guidelines that are flexible enough that they helped the top and the bottom. And last year was our first time implementing those requirements, and it didn’t hurt Gonzaga in the NET rankings, even though they were winning against teams that may not have been as strong as what you would see in other leagues. Which was huge, for us to hit that magic spot.
The ongoing challenge becomes as the bottom of our league gets closer to the top. Or If 8-9-10 or 3-4-5, they make drastic pushes towards the top, we really have to look at that scheduling and be nimble enough to adjust it so that we’re not unfairly holding those surging teams back.
SB: Have you been or would you be interested in doing something similar to what conference USA did where halfway through the season, they would look at the standings and those standings would determine what additional conference games would be left at the end of the schedule, or shifting the schedule in-season?
GN: It all makes sense. We’ve looked 20 different versions of that. And obviously there are logistical issues, but what you’re trying to achieve there is giving your team good, quality games that will help your NET rating later in the season when you know where your team is at. Because scheduling is so difficult, you’re trying to guess what your schedule should be based on the team you think you’re gonna have. It’s one of the longest collegiate seasons we have, so deep into the season, giving yourself the ability to manufacture that game later when you know what kind of team you have is a really solid principle. And then devil’s in the detail, how do you really enact that? How do you get teams to hold that week open not knowing who they’re gonna play or when they’re gonna play. So, I commend Conference USA for stepping up to the plate and taking the swings. To be honest this season, I haven’t yet checked in to see how it really netted out for them, so I can’t really comment on how it went, but we’re always looking at things like that.
SB: Would the WCC be interested in, or have you talked with any other leagues about, setting up scheduling agreements? I know the Missouri Valley has something like this, and I think a few other non-power leagues do.
GN: Absolutely. Again, something we look at daily if not weekly. What type of challenge? Who should the challenge be? And those are really difficult, too, because of the nature of our league. Our top is so different from our bottom. Can you find a sister league that delivers the right games, year after year? But I just don’t feel that that model [where all WCC schools play every school in a different league] would serve our schools. We need a little bit more flexibility so that we can engineer the matchups to be helpful to both teams year after year, depending on how folks are playing.
SB: That makes sense.
GN: Yeah, for us, I’m not a fan of all ten of our schools playing all ten of another league’s schools. But I would love a challenge of some sort that lets us put those together every year based on team strength and needs.
SB: Like the Gavitt Games or something, with the Big Ten and the Big East?
GN: Yeah, I believe they tried to do that.
SB: How would you define what a mid-major is at this point? That flashpoint seems especially germane in your league, where you have schools that — based on budget and achievement and arena size — would seem by anything other than conference membership to not apply in that bucket. And then you have some that would.
GN: Well yeah, and back up even further in the journey, remember, we used to be Division-1 or Division 1-A, Double-A, and Triple-A, but those are all football designations, right?
So then nobody liked to be called Triple-A or Double-A, because it felt a lot like “junior” or “less than” — or in the baseball analogy, not quite in the big show. So we seek a new name and we get BCS, FCS, and then everyone who doesn’t have football is in what’s called Division-1. Well, that’s super confusing, because what are you? Division-1? Yeah we’re all Division-1. Everyone still calls us mid-major. And because we’re using these football designations, the only way to distinguish us is to say we’re non-football schools, but nobody wants to be called a non-something.
I’m kind of saying, we need someone who’s more creative than me to really find the word that describes who we are. Because mid-major, again, was in that ilk of Double-A, Triple-A, less than. And really, it’s an NCAA revenue, or sorry, championship structure based on football title.
SB: Having a more specific or descriptive term would be helpful. I’ve been to games in the Patriot League. And I’ve been to games at the Marriott Center. And to pretend that what happens at American and what happens at BYU are that similar doesn’t seem to be particularly accurate.
GN: Do you call us basketball-something, like Basketball Championship Subdivision? Well now you’re BCS. That’s confusing. But then what does it say to your other sports? They don’t seem to mind using that designation in football, BCS football champ. But I don’t know, I don’t have an answer. I agree that mid-major doesn’t fit us, but out-performing the mid-major classification is a good thing. I like that people know that we don’t quite fit there.
SB: Do you view that as a pejorative? I’ve heard some people, some schools I think with similar budget levels embrace it. And some will say like, ‘Please don’t ever call us that.’
GN: I do think it’s pejorative for us, because we have schools that don’t fit that moniker, both in success nationally as well as size. And if we’re gonna be clogged into groups of conferences. I would anticipate we’re in the top third if you’re grouping us by basketball and we’re in the bottom third if you’re grouping us by football.