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Last Thursday, the Mountain West Conference made things official, and announced the framework for their new TV deal. The new deal, which kicks in for the 2020-2021 season, increases the payouts for each member institution, and shifts from a CBS/ESPN relationship to a CBS/Fox relationship. The exact math hasn’t been finalized, but Wyoming’s AD estimates most schools will bring in a little more than $3 million a year.
I’ve tried to read just about everything I could about the deal, and while I think on balance it seems like a positive development for most member institutions, I came away with a few big questions.
What does this mean for Boise State’s relationship with the rest of the league?
When Boise State agreed to come back to the Mountain West after a brief stint in the Big East, a real conference realignment thing that actually happened, they secured special privileges. Boise’s home games were sold differently from the rest of the TV package, guaranteeing them extra money. Right now, Boise makes $1.8 million more than more anybody else in the conference each season.
These types of arrangements are rare, and generally aren’t great for maintaining conference unity and stability. But in 2013, Boise was far and away the league’s most valuable brand, and the Broncos had all the leverage.
In 2020, Boise State is still the most powerful television brand in the conference. But according to commissioner Craig Thompson, their days of getting special television treatment are ending.
Q. Craig, for the uninitiated, I know when people talk about Boise State, there's some misconceptions about it. I was wondering just in the simplest terms, I've been around, and I know I can try to explain the best I can. How would you explain their situation and how that works with the conference and with TV rights?
CRAIG THOMPSON: Well, quite simply, we negotiate Boise State's home football games separately, and we did for this contract. This will be arguably the last contract we will negotiate Boise State separately, but their membership agreement when we named them the Mountain West Conference years ago was predicated on us negotiating their home games separately.
And again, if that wasn’t explicit enough,
Q. Craig, I want to follow up on one thing quickly. You had mentioned before that this might be the last time you negotiate Boise State's deal separately. I was wondering if you had any more insight into that.
CRAIG THOMPSON: That is the whole membership agreement was discussed in December with the board of directors, and as we move forward, that is the anticipation, that everybody's membership agreements would get more germane and equal, if you will. But this will be the last Boise State separate negotiation for television rights.
So there you have it. When the next TV is negotiated in six years, if Thompson’s sentiment here holds, Boise will get treated like everybody else.
If Boise has commented on this dynamic, I haven’t seen it yet. Per The Athletic ($):
Athletic director Curt Apsey said “I’d rather not comment” when asked about it on KTIK-FM in Boise on Thursday, saying Thompson would be best to ask. A request for clarity from the conference was not returned on Thursday night.
I understand why Thompson, and other league leaders, would push to end Boise’s arrangement. The league already has one school with a different TV arrangement, (Hawaii), Boise’s extra distributions take money away from schools that probably badly need it, and just about every other league shares TV distributions equally.
But to me, the dynamics that led to Boise’s ability to secure such a deal remain in place. The Broncos have won at least ten games in eight of the last ten years. They’ve finished in the AP Poll six times in the last decade. They won a Fiesta Bowl in the Playoff era. And not only are they easily the most successful team in the league, they’re the most telegenic. Thanks to the previous decade, they’ve created a Cinderella State brand that resonates outside of the MWC footprint. Nobody else, except maybe Air Force (for completely different reasons), can claim anything like that.
It’s also interesting that this comes on the heels of Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin expressing some frustration at the league office for not promoting the Broncos enough, or at least, at the scale that the AAC promotes their teams.
"You need to take a program like Boise State and promote it," he said. "I see other conferences do that and I don't necessarily think we do a great job of that and I like to see it and do a better job of it. Certainly, I think those things need to be addressed and I don't think that we just stay and keep doing the same thing we've done every single year. That's not what we're about here and we talk about attacking, and that's the mindset."
Now, coaches aren’t the ones who make decisions about conference realignment, so if Harsin is the only one at the university who feels that way, it doesn’t mean too much. But if Harsin’s frustrations are shared by the university at large, coupled with the MWC’s apparent desire to curb Boise’s power…you could potentially have a situation.
It’s worth noting that the Mountain West already drove a powerful brand out of the league, in part, over disagreements over television policy. Frustrations over exposure and rebroadcasts weren’t the only reason BYU decided to go independent, but they were certainly a highly significant one. You can debate the wisdom of BYU’s decision all you want, but one thing seems pretty inarguable to me. The MWC’s media rights are not as financially attractive without the Cougars.
A lot can change in six years. Maybe Boise State football declines, or somebody else, like San Diego State or Colorado State, dramatically improves, so the Broncos don’t enter the next negotiation period with the same leverage. Maybe the conference has new leadership. Maybe Boise loves working with Fox (the network apparently wants to make Boise’s home game against Florida State a Big Noon Kickoff event…but at 10 AM local). But if we see more of the same dynamics over the next few years…why should Boise stay in the league?
Hypothetically, the Broncos could join the American, restore a working relationship with ESPN (which has unquestionably been beneficial for Boise State), and make more money. Or, depending on what happens with the College Football Playoff, what’s stopping them from deciding to play a more national schedule and go independent? If BYU can get potentially $10M+ annually from ESPN, couldn’t Boise State at least get close to what they’re making now, especially if they secure a few more P5 home games?
I’m not saying any breakup is liable to happen now, or even necessarily likely. But usually, school officials are quick to offer praise after a big new TV deal that gives everybody more money, like Wyoming does here. When they’re not, like UConn right after the new AAC deal, it can be awfully instructive. So I’d watch what happens out of Boise…or Hawaii or Air Force, for that matter. I’m also apparently not the only person to reach this conclusion.
Maybe any frustrations here are just superficial, and can be resolved quickly. Maybe I’m just reading too much into this. But if not, and there are bigger disagreements, the MWC better solve them quickly.
Where will the rest of the games go?
Unlike the AAC’s big deal with ESPN, which contains a healthy streaming component with ESPN+, the bulk of the new MWC deal appears to be on linear television. A few games will end up on Fox or CBS, with other games appearing on the CBS Sports Network, FS1, or FS2.
But not all of the games. Again, per the press conference transcript:
Q. You mentioned 23 games each on each network. How does that compare -- football games I should say. How does that compare to what was on linear TV prior?
CRAIG THOMPSON: It's very similar. You know, we do have an inventory -- on average we have about 75 football games to sell, so this would encompass 46 plus, and so that's why we keep mentioning the potential of a third tier. Take out the other 10 games that CBS has the rights to, so that's 56 encumbered games out of 75 on average annually.
Q. And was there an emphasis to stick with linear TV? I know other conferences have gone heavy into subscription and streaming services. Was linear TV something that you wanted to specifically stick with?
CRAIG THOMPSON: Well, it was. The world is certainly changing. Again, back to the emphasis of where this all might be five years from now, six years from now, I have no idea. Nobody does. We can speculate, but certainly there will be a streaming/digital component in all likelihood, but we have not negotiated any of those deals with the exception of the possibility of 10 CBS all-access games.
So those big games…the Boise State games, the Navy at Force Games, the Colorado State/San Diego State games…those will certainly be on linear TV, all on channels you probably already have.
But if you want to watch Idaho State at Nevada? Or maybe a late season UNLV at San Jose State game? Or Mountain West baseball? Those might be somewhere else. They might be on CBS All Access. They might be on a completely different platform. The league doesn’t know yet.
Maybe some of those games end up on a linear platform, like the NFL Network. Maybe they end up on Facebook. Maybe they end up on a streaming service like FloSports.
A lot of states in the MWC footprint are pretty rural, and places like Wyoming and New Mexico don’t have great statewide access to high speed internet, so those fans might be out of luck if a streaming component ends up eating into some of their TV packages. But that might also provide better revenue than other possible partners. And hey, if your game is only being streamed, you don’t have to kick off at 8 PM local to appease the cable Gods. So it isn’t all bad.
I’m not sure the tier three MWC rights have a ton of commercial value, but it’s not nothing. Will they seek to maximize exposure, or revenue? It’ll be interesting to see.
What does this mean for everybody else?
With the SEC going all-in with ESPN/ABC, and now the MWC leaving the Mouse, there could be some intense scrambles for media partners among other leagues over the next decade. TV deals for the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 will all hit the market by the mid 2020s.
Jon Wilner of the Mercury News envisions a world where the Pac-12 could be left without a major dancer partner:
Suddenly, the Pac-12’s strategy that independence would bring leverage unfolds in reverse: Independence would bring isolation.
Even in that scenario, you might argue, there would be options beyond Fox and ESPN.
The conference could partner with Warner or NBC or CBS, with Amazon or Apple, with Facebook or Netflix, even with DAZN — a barrage of options might exist.
Except the new media giants, especially Amazon, have been “professional tire kickers” with regards to sports rights, as one source explained.
Even if Apple showed real interest in the Pac-12 — something more than ‘preliminary talks‘ — the premium football games would have to be sub-licensed to a mainstream outlet like ESPN or Fox.
And that, of course, would require those networks to devote resources (money and broadcast windows) to the conference.
But on a broader scale, imagine a college football world in which the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and SEC are foundational pieces of the ESPN and Fox content plans (linear, streaming, morning, noon and evening).
And imagine the Pac-12 at its own table with Turner or Apple or Amazon.
Could Fox’s MWC rights purchase be a late-night window hedge in case they decide not to overspend on the Pac-12? Would ESPN have enough money and time slots to make a major commitment to the Pac-12? Will those other tech giants, like Apple or Amazon, mature in time to offer big money?
I’m not sure I’m totally on board with the apocalyptic viewpoint here for the Pac-12, and even Wilner points out he could be wrong about this as well, but if you’re already predisposed to panic about the economic future of major west coast football, I can understand how you could look at this MWC deal as even more bad news.
One group that I don’t think will see much change? Fans
An extra $2 million or so a year, assuming that increase isn’t eaten up by increased production costs, isn’t nothing. That may go a long way towards improving the experience for athletes on campus…it may mean better nutrition, more staff and more benefits. If that is where the money goes, that’s a very good thing, in my humble opinion.
But is that enough to change any competitive reality for any school? I doubt it. The MWC schools had more money than almost all Sun Belt, C-USA and MAC schools, and they’ll probably continue to do so. The most resourced AAC schools will remain more resourced than the bulk of the MWC schools. A $2 million increase probably doesn’t help any school really jump up a pay level in what they can offer prospective coaches, or pay for substantially different facilities. If schools cut ticket prices in response to this windfall, or pass that new revenue down to fans in some way…I’d be awfully surprised. That generally isn’t how this works.
From what I can tell, this looks like a preservation of the status quo, only games will be on Fox instead of ESPN, and maybe some tier 3 games will be somewhere else. If you have really strong opinions about broadcast crews or streaming apps, maybe that matters a great deal to you. But otherwise, for most fanbases, I’m not sure there are big changes.
So is this a good deal?
For most schools…I’d guess it’s probably a good deal. I think the MWC’s preference to only sign a shorter deal, rather than the 10 year agreement the AAC agreed to, was a smart business decision. This landscape could look very different in five years, and preserving some flexibility seems like prudent business. It appears that all of the biggest games will still appear on linear TV, and with the latest programming window shifting to 8 PM, instead of 8:30, those late night kickoffs will get a teensy bit less late-night.
And hey, most schools in this league could really use the money, so an extra $2 million goes a long way, even if fans might not necessarily see that.
But all of that changes if tensions over this deal lead to any departures, especially from the league’s flagship institution, Boise State.
Maybe it will be impossible to keep the band completely together over the next decade. But if any membership changes include the biggest and most important program in the conference, the commercial future of the league is going to look much less rosy.
The MWC already lost a bevy of their best programs. I’m not sure they can afford to lose any more.
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