Spring Musings: What If Football Returned to the WAC?

In this dry college football off-season, I had plenty of time so I revisited the Idaho Football Consultant Report. Ever since it was published in the spring of 2016, I have looked at it numerous times. One of the most intriguing aspects of the report is Idaho’s consideration of the unlikely return of football to the Western Athletic Conference. Their main basis for this possibility is on page 62, where they mention NCAA Bylaw 20.4.2.1.1, which states:

“Eligibility for Reclassification – Before a Football Championship Subdivision institution may apply for reclassification to the Football Bowl Subdivision, the institution must receive a bona fide invitation for membership from a Football Bowl Subdivision conference or a conference that previously met the definition of a Football Bowl Subdivision conference.”

The WAC previously met the definition of an FBS conference, and with at least eight schools, could come back to life as a football conference. While this idea seems far off, it does not hurt to wonder “What If?”

The Teams

 

New Mexico State

Image Credit: (Rick Scuteri/AP Photo)

Of course, the first team that comes to mind in this discussion is New Mexico State. Right now, any conference would be an upgrade over the current situation of independence. The Aggies provide some advantages to a hypothetical WAC, like the sizable 30,000-seat Aggie Stadium and experience as an FBS program. The Aggies are also on the rise after appearing in a bowl for the first time in 57 years. They already house their Olympic sports in the WAC, so placing football under that umbrella would provide more organization and structure.

 

Idaho

Image Credit (Abbie Parr/CSU Athletics)

New Mexico State and Idaho are often mentioned together in conference realignment talks, and for good reason, as they were deserted by first the WAC in 2012, and later the Sun Belt this past year.

Idaho brings much of the same characteristics as New Mexico State with experience as an FBS member, and while the Kibbie Dome is small at 16,000 seats, the Vandals found a way to make it work for 20+ seasons of FBS play. However, their geography is problematic for the rest of the league.

Another obstacle that Idaho faces is with their Olympic sports. The Big Sky likely would not take kindly to Idaho leaving a second time, and if they would leave for the WAC, they would be the only non-football member in the conference, though they were a non-football member in the Big Sky for the past four seasons.

 

UMass

Image Credit: (Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox)

If you hadn’t read the title and thought I was insane, surely now you will, as you ask yourself, “How can the Western Athletic Conference have a team in New England?”

Necessity, that’s how.

Playing as an independent is becoming tougher, even for a school with a national brand like Army. Joining a conference, any conference, provides stability for UMass. While travel would be a challenge for UMass, they have made trips to Utah (BYU) and Hawaii and have trips scheduled with proposed conference mates Liberty and New Mexico State already scheduled.

Along with New Mexico State and Idaho, their FBS experience could provide stability for this reborn league. The Minutemen have been competitive lately, playing tough against Tennessee and Mississippi State and beating Sun Belt co-champ Appalachian State. In addition, their East Coast location could bring more exposure to the league.

 

Liberty

Image Credit: (Liberty Athletics)

Despite being distant from most of the league, Liberty provides advantages that outweigh its geography. The Flames already field a competitive team, as they shocked the college football world by upsetting Baylor in week one last season, and have won two outright Big South titles and shares of six more. In addition, Liberty is invested in FBS football as seen by them paying Old Dominion a $1.32 million guarantee to open the 2018 season, and Virginia and Virginia Tech $250,000 apiece to visit Lynchburg in the future. Liberty plays in Williams Stadium, a sizable venue that will undergo renovations in 2019, which will increase seating capacity to 25,000.

Just like UMass, Liberty could bring Eastern exposure to the WAC, and would provide regional rivalries for the Minutemen and my next proposed member.

 

Eastern Kentucky

Image Credit: (Mike Weaver/Courier Journal)

Eastern Kentucky is another member that might surprise some, but they were one of the schools the Sun Belt pursued before taking in Coastal Carolina. Eastern Kentucky is eager to join the FBS ranks, as they pitched a $10 million stadium renovation for Sun Belt membership that would have added 6,500 new seats to Roy Kidd Stadium.

Eastern Kentucky would provide a travel partner for Liberty and even UMass, and the Colonels have been competitive in the Ohio Valley Conference, but have not advanced past the first round of the FCS Playoffs since 1994. EKU has an FBS-ready stadium which seats about 20,000 and is currently undergoing renovations.

Travel to Idaho and New Mexico State could pose problems, but given how dedicated Eastern Kentucky has been in pursuing FBS membership, that might be a price they’re willing to pay. They would likely be able to keep their Olympic sports in the Ohio Valley Conference as the league has three non-football members in Belmont, Southern Illinois, and Morehead State.

 

University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley

Image Credit: (University of Texas Rio Grande Valley)

UTRGV does not currently field a football team, but the school’s brass has toyed with the idea.

The Vaqueros already house their Olympic sports in the WAC, like New Mexico State. They initiated a football feasibility study led by former Texas coach Mack Brown in 2016, which will be released in the coming weeks, that planned to look at considerations for playing at the FBS level.

The school has identified a possible venue for the Vaqueros to play at in H-E-B Park, which seats 9,700 at the moment, but can be expanded to 24,000.

While they definitely lack in playing experience, they provide the new conference with a door into Texan TV markets and recruiting, and is a highly manageable trip for most members especially New Mexico State, Idaho, and Eastern Kentucky.

 

Florida A&M

Image Credit: (Florida A&M Sports Information)

While placing a start-up program in a revived FBS conference seems shocking enough, this next potential member may be more shocking. Many forget that the Rattlers tried an FBS jump in 2004. Not only was the jump mistimed, but it was hastily done, as FAMU played as an independent and could only schedule 6 FBS teams, facing only one of them at home. They were outscored by FBS competition 269-70.

A jump to FBS would be different this time, as they would have a conference to join and more scheduled home games vs FBS competition. Also, FAMU sports information director Alvin Hollins stated that FAMU would consider a jump if the opportunity presents itself.  The Rattlers are more attractive than meets the eye, as they would give the WAC a door into Florida recruiting and TV markets, bring a brand and tradition with the Marching 100 and the success of legendary coaches Jake Gaither and Billy Joe and have a dedicated fanbase.

Their stadium, Bragg Memorial Stadium has an FBS-ready capacity of 25,000. Their geography provides good regional rivalries with Eastern Kentucky and Liberty, but like UMass travel to New Mexico State and Idaho could bring problems.

Only seven teams are listed here, but if resurrecting the WAC were to gain momentum, another FCS school would surely join the movement. Even if an eight school does not emerge, the WAC played with seven schools in 2012, and the Sun Belt played with seven schools from 2001-2005, so the league would still function.

Television and Bowls

A conference of course needs money to survive and much of it comes from their media rights. Hypothetically, a few outlets emerge as candidates. The first that comes to mind is NBC Sports Network.  The network used to broadcast Big 12, Pac-12, and the Mountain West from 2007-2012.

Most recently, the network broadcast Ivy League football on Friday nights, until ESPN took the Ivy League rights package.  The network could take a WAC broadcasting package at a low price, and replace the gaps left from losing the Ivy League deal. NBC could also spread WAC games to their nine regional networks across the United States.

Another option is BeIN Sports, which currently carries C-USA sports. BeIN only carries ten games a year, and C-USA/WAC Saturday double headers could be an attractive option for the network to pursue. In addition, their contract expires after the 2018-19 season. If the two were to part ways after that, BeIN could be looking for a conference to replace C-USA.

Eleven Sports is yet another option as they already broadcast UMass home games, one Big Sky football game per week, and formerly Ivy League football. After losing the Ivy League deal, the network could possibly be looking to replace that content, and increase their FBS presence past just UMass football.

In addition, to these networks, Liberty and New Mexico State both have syndication networks in place in the the Liberty Flames Sports Network, and AggieVision, which both place content on cable networks across the country.

Aside from the linear TV options listed above, the WAC could explore some streaming options like YouTube TV, Facebook, and Twitter as Nicolas Lewis wrote about in a recent article.

When it comes to bowls, even though there is a moratorium on new bowls until 2019, there are plenty of cities waiting in line to host them. Among the cities that have pursued bowls are Austin, Charleston, Myrtle Beach, and Little Rock. Little Rock eventually pulled out from the chase for certification, but could be interested once the moratorium is lifted.

Austin actually received certification, but decided to wait a year until hosting the bowl, and the moratorium eventually ended the bowl before it was ever played. Both bowls would have paired the American and the Sun Belt.

Charleston also pursued a bowl, and even though they never officially announced tie-ins, they did consider an ACC vs Sun Belt matchup. Myrtle Beach was in the beginning stages of organizing a bowl, and could very well pursue a game in 2020. Although they did not pursue certification at the time of the moratorium, the Los Angeles Christmas Bowl has pursued certification for a while, and proposed a MWC/Pac-12 matchup.

Long story short, there would be plenty of feasible bowl options for the WAC to consider if they were to return. The bowls in the south would be within the league’s footprint, while a Los Angeles Bowl would provide exposure to large TV markets and a chance for these schools to play in a prestigious venue. Lastly, some of these tie-ins provide a chance to showcase against the best of the Group of Five, but also Power Five schools as well.

Complications

Despite the potential of this league, many obstacles face a resurrected WAC. The main problem would be regarding playoff money distribution. The consultant’s report notes that the College Football Playoff does not have to give the WAC a share of their revenue, which questions if the risk is worth it.

If the CFP does withhold money from the WAC, all schools would be better off in their current state. Another concern is the lack of rivalries to gauge interest. While a minor setback, this is a valid point as the lack of rivalries has been a source of reduced interest of Group of Five conferences like Conference USA.

Of course when, a conference has an imbalance in football and non-football members, there are bound to be conflicts of interest between members, much like the fall of the Big East. However, other conferences such as the Ohio Valley Conference and Big South have found a way to work with uneven football and non-football membership.

While this idea is far-fetched, it could be a realistic possibility if the next round of realignment does not come around as soon as everyone expects.  A new WAC provides a breath of life for schools like NMSU and Idaho, and new opportunity for plenty of schools. Because of this, does it hurt to ask “What If?”

One thought on “Spring Musings: What If Football Returned to the WAC?

  1. So there are a few things I dislike about this

    1) You’re ignoring the existing membership of the WAC. They currently have eight members, and your new setup would create a 13-team conference with six members who don’t have football. That would create all sorts of goofy issues with revenue distribution and scheduling, and most schools won’t go for that.

    2) The members in this conference gain nothing. Programs like NMSU, UMass and Liberty that are currently independent aren’t going to join a conference unless it will increase their revenue or exposure. This will increase their travel costs and decrease their ability to schedule money games, neither of which is good for that end. Also they’d be joining a conference that would exist as a collection of schools, and immediately persist as a one-bid basketball league (with more teams to split revenue) and a low level football league that would struggle for more than a bottom-bin bowl game.

    I don’t know if this makes this an experiment not worth doing especially given the flux the conference could be in during the coming years) but this idea feels unfinished.

    Like

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