Pushing for a Modern Day Airplane Conference

Ever heard of the Airplane Conference? In the early 60s, before conferences pushed their geographical bounds, it was a revolutionary idea that sought to link some of the nation’s top programs across the country. College Football writer Matt Brown dedicates a chapter in his book What If?: A Closer Look at College Football’s Great Questions.

He outlines a conference whose membership would have included five Pacific Coast Conference (a Pac-12 predecessor) schools – USC, UCLA, Washington, Cal, and Stanford – plus six eastern schools in Army, Navy, Notre Dame, Pitt, Syracuse and Penn State, along with Air Force.

With the idea taking root after a “pay-for-play” scandal that dissolved the PCC, the idea had its roots in academics and competition itself, rather than media money.

So why bring this up? With the fallout of Craig Thompson’s remarks that Boise State would not negotiate their own rights in the Mountain West’s next TV deal, tension has increased in Boise State’s relationship with the conference. Boise State has even gone as far as to file a lawsuit against the conference. While the conflict has since been “resolved”, the Mountain West’s structure will only make this issue reappear again.

If the relationship sours in the future, one of the options the Broncos face is independence, which would bring the total in FBS to eight. The American remains an option, but travel creates a problem. With this in mind, a modern-day Airplane Conference could become a feasible option.

Conference Membership

  • Army
  • Boise State
  • BYU
  • Liberty
  • New Mexico State
  • UConn
  • UMass
  • X-Factor

The makeup here is all of the current FBS independents plus a dissatisfied Boise State. From a scheduling standpoint, every school benefits. Such an affiliation eases much of the stress of scheduling an independent schedule.

The problems are obvious with UConn, UMass, and New Mexico State, as they lack the appeal to fill slots on non-conference schedules. Yet, Army and Liberty stand to benefit from this arrangement as well.

Army has two FCS schools on their schedule for the sixth time in the past seven seasons this fall, and Liberty will do the same for the third time in their three FBS seasons during the 2020 schedule. The Airplane Conference would make the paths to bowl-eligibility easier for both schools, giving them an additional winnable game that also counts towards that goal.

BYU and Boise State would have six games to schedule how they desire. For Boise State, it gives them more space to schedule Power Five and elite Group of Five programs than a four-game non-conference slate could.

As it stands, one of their yearly non-conference games is already BYU, so the Broncos have seven games of freedom. While the competition drops in some aspects, through yearly match-ups with UMass and New Mexico State, Boise State hardly avoided those games in the Mountain West, having to play conference doormats UNLV and San Jose State plus occasional division cellar-dweller New Mexico yearly.

While the American is an ideal competitive match for a dissatisfied Boise State, the travel could be a nightmare. In this arrangement, Boise State is forced to make those trips at most only twice a year.

What about the X-Factor

With these candidates above, that brings us to seven schools. Ideally, to eliminate travel and gain extra revenue, the league would have to find another western school, which is why one of those schools listed is “X-Factor”.

One challenge is that the conference really needs the eighth school to be western in order to balance out the geography, but there’s not a clear candidate for that role.

One potential fit might be Tulsa. They’ve struggled to compete in revenue sports since the AAC was formed, with the football program winning only 30 games in the last seven years despite a 10-win campaign in 2016. The basketball program moved to Frank Haith at coach as they joined the AAC, with similar modest success but even less consistency.

Tulsa is the smallest school in the conference by a comfortable margin, they’ve not put money towards “keeping up”-level facilities like Memphis, Cincinnati or UCF has and that will produce a competitive gap at some point. A more logical western team would be Idaho, which has experienced the FBS level and would provide a travel partner for Boise State, though such a move might light the entire city of Boise ablaze.

Another scenario would be the Airplane Conference getting NC A&T, who has expressed interest in playing at the FBS level before. While NC A&T would be hungry to make the jump, would this price be too much?

While NC A&T has allure as an HBCU, a tight athletic budget would make this experiment perilous. This would not solve the disequilibrium of Western and Eastern schools, and one team would have to become a “pseudo-Western team” like Navy’s current situation in the AAC.

One possible solution would be to put Liberty in this role. They’d likely have the deepest pockets in the conference, and their desire to spread their message ala BYU would make national travel more appealing to them than any other conference member.

Media Rights

Here is where the modern-day Airplane Conference sets itself apart. In this arrangement, all schools have the option to retain their TV rights.

As of now, the only school without a known deal is UConn, who is only just beginning its independent life.

  • Boise State gets to keep their separate TV deal with Fox Sports
  • BYU keeps its deal with ESPN
  • Army keeps its longstanding partnership with CBS Sports Network.

Even FLO Sports could keep its contracts with UMass and New Mexico State, though I’m not sure that choosing FLO over CBS Sports Network would be the wisest choice for the Aggies or the Minutemen.

In this arrangement, Boise continues to have their home games on Fox, and BYU continues their deal of at least four home games airing on ESPN linear networks, with the rest (every game for X-Factor, Army, Liberty, NMSU, and UMass plus every Boise or BYU road game not already committed to a major network) being broadcast on CBS Sports Network.

This would of course allow for sublicensing onto CBS proper, which would be even more meaningful now that their relationship with the SEC is coming to an abrupt end.

With this arrangement, no member loses revenue for the games they control, and schools like Liberty and UMass benefit from the exposure of road games with the bigger brands in the Airplane Conference.

Bowl Tie-Ins

The situation for bowl tie-ins is similar to the media rights in that the prior bowl agreements will meld into the new conference. An ideal bowl line-up could look something like this:

1.) Independence Bowl

2.) New Mexico Bowl

3.) ESPN-Operated Bowl

4.) ESPN-Operated Bowl

Secondary Tie-Ins

1.) Fenway Bowl

2.) Arizona Bowl

3.) Belk Bowl

There really is nothing out of the ordinary here. The Independence Bowl already has BYU and Army tied to it for the next six years. The New Mexico Bowl has a deal in place to send New Mexico State to the bowl should it become eligible.

As for the other bowls, ESPN Events already has deals in place with Army, BYU, and Liberty, while the Arizona Bowl has had New Mexico State as a backup tie-in for the past two years. Army also has a backup tie-in with the Belk Bowl they could bring to the table.

While UMass and UConn have no bowl tie-ins to bring to the conference, a secondary tie-in to the Fenway Bowl makes a lot of sense geographically.

One might wonder how Boise State might feel about these bowl arrangements. However, their non-New Year’s Six bowls over the past five years have not been that great. Just take a look:

  • 2015: Poinsettia Bowl vs 8-5 MAC East Champ NIU (W, 55-7)
  • 2016: Cactus Bowl vs 6-6 Baylor (L, 12-31)
  • 2017: Las Vegas Bowl vs 7-5 Oregon (W, 38-28)
  • 2018: First Responder Bowl vs 7-5 Boston College (Cancelled)
  • 2019: Las Vegas Bowl vs 7-5 Washington (L, 38-7)

Boise State would not lose much with these current conference tie-ins. The Las Vegas Bowl has cut ties with the Mountain West, and playing in Shreveport against the Pac-12 or American is on the same level as playing in an empty San Diego County Credit Union or Cotton Bowl Stadium against middling MAC and ACC teams.

A concern might be the flexibility of these tie-ins, but conferences are becoming more flexible with their tie-ins. Take the American’s bowl lineup for the next six years. They will have three consistent bowls, and the other four tie-ins will come from a pool of eight bowls. The MAC has a similar arrangement, choosing two bowls out of a pool of eight selections after their four consistent bowls are filled.

CFP Money

Another big question comes with CFP payouts. The only school that would likely hurt from this would be Boise State, as their payout would drop in all likelihood. In 2018, they received around $1.7 million from the CFP’s payout to the Mountain West. It seems that this payout is not too important to Boise State though since the root of their dispute with the Mountain West lays in TV revenue.

On the opposite side of that coin, the independents received only $310,396 from the last CFP payout. BYU is the big winner here, not just in terms of money, but in having a path to the New Year’s Six. Even Army would have a realistic shot at the New Year’s Six, simply by being in a conference. The conference is also a New Year’s Six run by any of their top programs away from a big payout from the CFP.

Such an alliance is clearly predicated on a lot of things happening that are far from certain, but it’s at least a logical idea. That’s more than you can say for a lot of other things we college football fans and writers have discussed.

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