Wednesday, July 20, 2022 | 11:46 a.m.
At a time when everything about college sports seems to be changing on a minute-by-minute basis, the Mountain West Conference remains committed to the status quo.
Commissioner Craig Thompson met with the media on Wednesday as part of the conference’s football media day and addressed the recent machinations in college athletics’ ongoing realignment saga, and his message was clear: While he is monitoring developments in other leagues, his goal is for the MWC to continue on unchanged.
Thompson said the Mountain West has options, including expansion, but seemed focused on maintaining the current composition of the conference.
“We don’t have to do anything,” Thompson said. “We’re a solid 12-team league. We had our most successful year on the court and on the field in probably a decade. Four 10-win football teams, four teams in the men’s basketball tournament. We opted to stay put as a 12-team league last year at this time and if circumstances were to change — I addressed the board on a call Monday, what could, would, should, or can we do if an institution opts to leave the Mountain West conference? — the answer is really nothing, except to explore how we would replace that member.”
In a college sports landscape that is practically screaming for proactive management, Thompson’s advocacy for a steady course stood out during his 45-minute press conference.
Realignment hit really close to home for the Mountain West last month, when Pac-12 cornerstones USC and UCLA announced they will be leaving that conference in 2024 to join the Big Ten. That has led to a whirlwind of rumors that the Pac-12 could fill those openings by raiding the Mountain West, or that the Big 12 could steal away a few more Pac-12 schools and leave that conference in complete tatters — at which point the MWC could add the Pac-12’s leftovers and form an expanded 16-team league.
All of that could still be on the table, according to Thompson, even if it’s not his preferred course of action.
“I’ve received somewhere between less than a dozen but more than a half-dozen calls from institutions expressing interest in the Mountain West Conference if we were to add,” Thompson said. “It’s something we keep our finger on the pulse of. One of the potential options out there is a 16- to 20-team conference. There are going to be two 16-team conferences in the Big Ten and SEC; is that something the Mountain West looks at?”
Unprecedented media rights contracts are at the heart of realignment, with power conferences consolidating, well, power, by adding as many big-brand football schools as they can. That gives emerging super-conferences like the Big Ten and the SEC the leverage to negotiate mammoth television deals.
The Mountain West is currently in the second year of a six-year, $270-million media rights contract with FOX Sports and CBS that pays each member school approximately $4 million per year. Pac-12 schools, under that league’s current media contract, receive about $33 million per year, but the conference will head into renegotiations in 2024 without UCLA and USC as members, which is expected to significantly hinder the league’s negotiating position and lower TV payouts.
The Big Ten, meanwhile, is set to ink a new media rights deal in 2024 — coinciding with the arrival of USC and UCLA — that could top $1 billion in total revenue. That could lead to a payout of more than $62 million per school, per year.
Thompson said he has maintained regular contact with the conference’s athletic directors and board of directors and that the league’s leadership is remaining patient but reactive in the face of widespread upheaval.
The goal remains the same: To remain the same.
“Everyone has an opinion,” Thompson said. “We’re going to stay together and we’re going to bind together. That’s probably accurate to the point. I’ve been struck the cliché recently that a man’s loyalty is as strong as his options. I’m very comfortable with a 12-team league; I’m thrilled with a 12-team league. Will it stay a 12-team league? Will it remain? If someone has an opportunity, for whatever reason — branding, revenue, maybe geography —to improve themselves, they will move on.
“Hopefully the Mountain West is a good home for all 12 current members and will remain.”