What Will Actually Happen When Gonzaga Joins the Mountain West Conference?

Yes, that’s right, “when”.

The talks between the school and the conference are quite serious, there could be a decision any day now, and the move makes sense.

In terms of basketball success, the West Coast Conference is currently Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and BYU, then everyone else. The Zags just made their 20th consecutive tournament appearance and a fourth straight trip to the Sweet 16 a year after playing for the national championship. In that same span, BYU has been to the dance 11 times, Saint Mary’s has gone six times, and the entire rest of the conference has gone eight times.

In terms of finances, the conference is Gonzaga and BYU, then a big step, then everybody else. As recently as two years ago, Gonzaga’s men’s basketball team pulled a total of nearly $8 million in revenue. BYU brought down $5 million with their men’s basketball team, and nobody else in the conference was over $2.5 million.

The Bulldogs’ move to the Mountain West achieves a number of things. It moves Gonzaga to a deeper, more competitive conference (annual matchups with the likes of San Diego State, Nevada, New Mexico and UNLV are good for all of those teams). It also means a new home whose members are more competitive and whose annual revenue payouts are much bigger.

This was a move that has made sense for some time, but which was likely catalyzed by Wichita State’s move to the American Athletic Conference and the benefit that conference has seen from turning a top two into a top three, plus improvements from other programs. The Mountain West hopes to achieve that same fate in addition to all of the perks that come with leveling out membership at twelve teams.

That said, articles like “The Mountain West might be looking to turn into a 16-team megaconference” are putting the cart before the horse and doing nothing more than accelerating speculation and rumors.

There are really two discussions to be had; will Gonzaga move to the Mountain West conference, and what ripple effect could that have in other conferences?

The odds are quite high that Gonzaga makes the transition, and this gets the Mountain West to an even 12 teams for all sports, not just football.

The Bulldogs also give the conference a nationally relevant basketball power that fits within their conference footprint, with revenue potential to offset the shift to splitting money twelve ways instead of eleven.

The odds of the Mountain West making any additional moves at all, let alone becoming a 16-team conference, are significantly lower. Out of a list of all the programs out west that aren’t in the Pac-12, the programs that could provide the conference what Gonzaga would provide are essentially zero.

There’s also the small matter of rumor – in that the only evidence we have of this “superconference” is a rumor that New Mexico State’s chancellor says he overheard in a meeting with all of the Western Athletic Conference presidents and athletic directors. Evidence gets no flimsier than that.

So if we’re fairly sure that Gonzaga departs for the Mountain West Conference, but not really sure of anything else, let’s look at some more realistic trickle-down effects of this move, one conference at a time.

Mountain West Conference

Sorry, yeah, not quite done with them yet.

The lone additional scenario that could make sense would be for the Mountain West to expand to 14 teams, This move is likely less immediate than the Gonzaga move, but it’s centered on BYU. Specifically, whether the Cougars find life in the WCC without Gonzaga untenable enough to pursue a similar transition, and whether the MWC leadership has moved past the acrimony from BYU’s departure enough to allow them re-entry.

The transition by BYU makes just as much sense as Gonzaga would, as the Cougars “only” generate $5 million in revenue from their basketball program, but they also produce $13 million more with their football program. That sets them apart from every other WCC school, just in case an enrollment of 34,000 and an endowment of $1.47 billion in a conference where nobody else is above 10,000 and only two other programs are above $350 million wasn’t enough of an outlier.

That said, BYU pissed off the entire conference when they left, and a number of athletic directors are still around from that time. It would be interesting to see how that vote would go.

If the Cougars come, another team has to come with. If the Cougars come for everything but football, then the MWC could simply add Hawai’i for all sports and be finished (12 members for football and 14 for everything else).

This would actually benefit Hawaii since the Big West is adding UC San Diego and Cal Bakersfield in 2020, and I highly doubt that the BWC made this move so they could be an 11-team conference with 10 California schools and Hawaii. It’s also unlikely to happen before then due to Hawai’i’s current contract with Spectrum (who has nearly full media rights) ending in 2020.

The only other option to produce that alignment would be to add Saint Mary’s, which would work great for the Mountain West and leave Hawai’i on an island when the Big West reshapes in a couple of years.

If the Mountain West does decide that they are interested in 14 members, but can’t agree to let BYU join, then the next most logical step would be to make Hawai’i a full member as well as another full member, most likely New Mexico State.

Sure, the Aggies are an above average basketball and baseball program and football has only recently pulled themselves up out of the muck a bit, but there are only so many realistic options for the conference. If you are adding in all sports, then you either take the Aggies, or you take UTEP (a similar program with even less recent athletic success). Any other options involve pushing your conference footprint even further east with a program like Rice (or any other East Texas school).

Of course, just as important is the mindset of the other conferences we want to discuss.

Big West Conference

This crowd currently has nine members:

  • UC Davis
  • UC Irvine
  • UC Riverside
  • UC Santa Barbara
  • Cal State Long Beach
  • Cal State Fullerton
  • Cal State Northridge
  • Cal Poly San Luis Obispo
  • Hawai’i

Now take into consideration that they’re going to add two schools in a couple of years – another UC school (UC San Diego, coming up from Division II), and another Cal State school (Cal State Bakersfield) – and you can see Hawai’i and their continued existence as the literal odd man out, both numerically and geographically.

Maybe the Big West has had Hawai’i as that outlier for five years already because it doesn’t bother them, and this is a non-issue. Maybe they’ve had things as they were because they couldn’t get enough members to reach a 10-team conference without Hawai’i until this latest move.

Hawai’i is known to like their relative big fish status in the Big West, but a return to the MWC could make good financial sense for them especially if the increased revenue from the conference (moving from a one-bid league to a three-plus-bid league for basketball, bigger CFP payout, etc) is sufficient enough to address the increase in travel and other costs.

West Coast Conference

This conference presents a unique challenge because their membership has been so steady – and also because it is a conference of faith-based schools. The only change in membership they’ve had in the last 40 years has been adding BYU in 2011, then bringing Pacific back from the Big West to even out their membership in 2013.

A number of folks have tossed around pretty much every reasonably successful basketball team out west as a potential replacement option, and there aren’t a lot. The most logical option, by a wide margin, is replacing the departure of Gonzaga with the addition of Seattle University. They are a Jesuit school and a former member, and they’ve been gradually improving their profile in a way that would work within the West Coast Conference without changing their geography at all.

If they needed to add a second program or didn’t like the fit of Seattle U, the only other realistic options are Grand Canyon, Utah Valley, and New Mexico State. Adding the Aggies or Wolverines would mean adding a non-faith-based school, and adding the Lopes would mean adding a faith-based school that would need to assuage fears over its recently-departed for-profit status. But when you need members, you need members.

It would be fairly seamless transition for the WCC to replace Gonzaga with Seattle U; if they have to replace Gonzaga and BYU then we’d find out how badly the conference would want to get back to 10 members, and if they’d be willing to bend their faith-based history to do it.

Western Athletic Conference

Here is where you are likely to see the most turmoil and churn, possibly to the point that the conference dissolves entirely. The WAC has been struggling for years, and the current membership is an unsustainable hodgepodge. New Mexico State is the only school whose membership predates 2012, and one of three that’s been a Division I program for longer than nine years.

  • Cal State Bakersfield has had some success, but is leaving in two years for the far more logical Big West Conference.
  • Grand Canyon is a fast-rising university with money to burn. It has yet to be determined whether their meteoric rise is sustainable, or if there is a crash pending.
  • Chicago State and UMKC have both commissioned studies within the past couple of years to decide whether they should even remain in Division I, let alone stay in the WAC.
  • Seattle U, as we already mentioned, is a relatively upwardly-mobile school that makes a lot more sense in the West Coast Conference and should be at the top of the list to replace Gonzaga.
  • UTRGV is the bastard child of a financially motivated merger and rebrand, and has no recent history of any sort of success.
  • Utah Valley is… well, they’re a nice little school who has managed the largest enrollment and third-smallest endowment of any current member.

So that’s eight programs; one is leaving in two years (Bakersfield), one could be gone in a heartbeat once Gonzaga moves (Seattle), two that make more sense in other conferences (Utah Valley, New Mexico State), one with the money to do just about anything (Grand Canyon), and two that aren’t even sure they can afford to stay in Division I (Chicago State and UMKC).

This conference has been held together with chicken wire and duct tape for a while now, but the domino effect created by Gonzaga’s move and the financial struggles of Chicago State and UMKC could result in a dissolved conference, regardless of whatever “aggressive membership campaign” they intend to launch.

They’re adding California Baptist this summer (from the Division II National Christian College Athletic Association, a substantial jump in competition) perhaps to offset a potential departure by Seattle, but that doesn’t make the conference more attractive to NMSU, UVU or GCU.

Without additional membership, the WAC of 2020 will be a seven-team conference, and there are no realistic options to bridge that gap. There are no logical Division I additions unless some Texas teams from the Southland or some Illinois-area teams from the Horizon would consider the WAC an upgrade. Barring that, it means pulling even more Division II members, which would further water down the conference.

So What’s the End Result Here?

I think the ideal scenario is a twelve-team MWC, and Gonzaga is probably making the move. It’s a logical one for both parties that can happen on its own with no other action by the conference.

Realistically, I think they eventually move to 14 teams and that the additions are BYU and New Mexico State, if only because adding Saint Mary’s or Hawaii doesn’t benefit them as much and the latter is complicated by Hawai’i’s media rights deal.

This would produce an absolutely anemic WAC. The West Coast Conference would likely add Seattle U and either Grand Canyon or Utah Valley, with whichever team doesn’t join the WCC likely departing due to disinterest in being the best team in a destitute five-team conference (and that’s if Chicago State and UMKC are still around by then).

Gonzaga will change conferences, and it will be good for the Zags and the Mountain West Conference. The West Coast Conference will drop in profile but could still be alright. The Western Athletic Conference might finally be on its last legs though.

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