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Let’s take a closer look at those Gonzaga/Mountain West Conference rumors

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If BYU could hop on this train too, it would be good for everybody. But the devil is in the details.

NCAA Basketball: Gonzaga at Brigham Young Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

You probably heard a few days ago that the Mountain West is kicking the tires on expanding in basketball, and one of the teams they’re talking to is Gonzaga. And according to the San Diego Union-Tribune, multiple sources indicated BYU would “consider” a return to the MWC, at least in olympic sports, if Gonzaga bolts.

There’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s examine this in some more detail.

Okay, first, lets talk about television. That rules all of this, right?

Yeah, but not exactly the way you might think. The basic assumptions about TV and conference expansion over the last decade aren’t exactly in play in this particular scenario, for a couple of reasons.

For one, we’re not talking about tons of money. College basketball is a way more niche sport than college football, even if die-hard hoopsheads are loath to admit it. The bulk of conference TV agreements are for football, and that’s even more true for non-power conferences. And it’s not like Mountain West schools were getting rich on that deal to begin with. The non-Boise State/Hawaii schools get only a little more than a million bucks a year from it. That’s a big reason why some schools have made noise about maybe ditching TV entirely for their next deal, since the current arrangement forces conference schools into awkward TV times. Even with a Gonzaga, or even a BYU, hypothetically in the bag, I think it’s a safe assumption that a basketball TV contract wouldn’t be THAT lucrative.

But that doesn’t mean TV isn’t a factor here. TV, after all, is a huge reason why BYU left the MWC in the first place. The MWC’s TV deal with ESPN/CBS expires after the 2019-2020 season. BYU’s ESPN deal ends after the 2019 football season. ESPN caries a ton of WCC inventory. Finding a way to combine the top WCC inventory with MWC basketball may end up making business sense for ESPN, and could be a positive thing for everybody else.

But yeah, we need to be careful to not apply the same assumptions to CFB realignment circa say, 2015, to college basketball decisions. This isn’t about TV markets. Wichita State didn’t change leagues because they wanted that sweet, sweet American Athletic money (even though it is more). They did it because it would improve their flagship program.

There’s another financial consideration here too: NCAA Tournament units

When it comes to basketball, TV isn’t the only money thrown about. There’s also NCAA Tournament “units”, or shares from the gazillion dollar TV contract. Every school that participates in a tournament game gets a “unit”, or about $272,620, for six years, for their conference. So last year alone, Gonzaga earned $8.55 million, which gets split up among the WCC membership.

The problem is, Gonzaga is the only school to ever earn big money in units (BYU and Saint Mary’s add shares as well, albeit smaller ones), so they essentially subsidize the rest of the league. Mark Few has basically complained that the rest of the league sucks, and he’s right. But with tiny enrollments and mostly small budgets, they probably can’t get much better. Nobody in the WCC outside of the Big Three has made an NCAA Tournament in a decade, after all.

Moving to a conference with superior RPIs and depth potentially means greater NCAA payouts for everybody. If the MWC becomes a 3-4 bid league (which is possible, if New Mexico, San Diego State and UNLV come closer to their historical averages, or if Nevada can sustain what it’s built), not only will schools see improved chances at making the NCAAs and more compelling regular season games, they’ll make more money too, from those sweet, sweet units.

Depending on what schools ended up joining the MWC, the league could go from “improved” to “excellent”

It’s been a tough few seasons for MWC basketball. Premier programs like San Diego State, New Mexico and UNLV have taken steps back, and other programs in the league’s middle class have also faltered a bit, as the league dealt with coaching search misfires, injuries, and just plain ol’ bad luck. But there’s a decent foundation under there. After all, the MWC was the #1 conference in RPI a few years ago, and Boise, Wyoming and Colorado State have been at least decent recently, to say nothing of Nevada’s excellence right now. Even now, with those programs struggling, the MWC’s average RPI is 140, much better than the WCC’s 170 mark (per the most recent official NCAA numbers).

With a powerhouse program like Gonzaga, that average RPI jumps up nine points to 131, and the MWC becomes a two-bid league. Throw in BYU, it jumps to 127, and depending on how these hypothetical schedules are written, that might be enough juice to bump Boise State into the dance as well. That’s three teams in what’s a bit of a down year for the league. In a few years, it could be a four-bid league. Maybe more.

What are the odds of this happening?

It’s pretty weird that Craig Thompson would basically just say this, isn’t it? BYU apparently agreed. It’s hard to get a good read on whether Thompson is trying to play three-dimensional chess here or just doesn’t know when to shut up (or maybe both), but given the timing of the MWC TV deal ending, and the stark RPI math, I think the odds are decent SOMETHING happens in the next two years.

But there are a lot of things to consider here. For example:

  • Would the MWC take BYU back? After all, Thompson said the MWC had talked to five schools and BYU wasn’t among them (a good educated guess on those programs? Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s, New Mexico State, UTEP and Rice). There has been well-documented bad blood between BYU and some MWC program administrators that would need to be patched up here, as well as major logistical questions. Would BYU be allowed to rebroadcast games on BYUtv? Would the MWC force BYU to come back in football?
  • If Gonzaga leaves and BYU doesn’t get an invite, do they have a backup plan? That would be a catastrophe for most of BYU’s olympics sports, not just men’s basketball. After all, Gonzaga is a strong program for women’s hoops and baseball as well. Without the Zags, the WCC is not a good league. Full stop.
  • Is Gonzaga just angling to try and get a better financial deal from the WCC, like Boise had with the MWC? That’s possible, but could they get *that* much more money? And after all, any revenue, even if completely deserved, they take from the Pacifics of the world certainly makes it harder for the bottom part of the league to stink less.

All of this is worth keeping an eye on. I’m very much on team “the current WCC system doesn’t work for Gonzaga, or BYU”, and pitched something a bit more radical a week or so ago. If the math can be worked out and the egos assuaged, I think BYU and Gonzaga to the MWC in olympic sports would be good for both programs and the MWC. But we’ll see what happens.