With millions of dollars in media rights and the massive impact on status at play, the histories of conference realignment certainly do read like a political thriller.
But the thing about political thrillers is that, without the right context, it’s easy to misunderstand what has really happened or why it matters.
That’s how one line in a 3,000-word article by The Athletic’s Chris Vannini about former Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson’s career as a college administrator went from being a whodunit reveal to just a casual, innocuous reference:
Journalists say you bury the lede when an important piece of information ends up stuffed deep in an article. And to be fair, this retrospective is a friendly walk down memory lane for a recently retired industry veteran. But still, to discover that it was in fact the University of Utah’s sitting president who informed Craig Thompson about “The Project” is something that deserves a little more attention than a single line in paragraph 42, in an article behind a paywall.
When asked about his article and interviews with Thompson, Chris Vannini said, “I think Young tipped off Thompson because the two had a good and long relationship.”
He also generously provided the full quote from his notes. Thompson told him, “I can tell this story now because it’s been a long time. I get a call from the president at Utah, Mike Young, and he says, ‘I want you to be aware, BYU and others are orchestrating a move to take Mountain West schools into the WAC.’”
When contacted Mike Young said he does not recall specifics from something that happened so long ago. “I certainly wouldn’t dispute Craig. I suppose that’s possible,” he said.
He added, “I was largely left out of those conversations, but (Utah State President) Stan (Albrecht) and I and (BYU President) Cecil (Samuelson) were good friends and they probably did say something to me. I just don’t remember many details because I was working non-stop to move us to the Pac-10 and most of my attention was focused there.”
The Athletic article was originally published on September 29, 2022 and the line was missed by almost everyone except for a few keen-eyed BYU fans.
Here’s the context that matters.
In 1998, BYU and Utah partnered to form the Mountain West as a start-up league, breaking away from the bloated WAC. ESPN gave them a short-term broadcast deal. BYU and Colorado State opened league play in 1999 on a Thursday night.
By 2004, it was time for renewal negotiations and the league needed more money to be competitive. They were only offered midweek night games from ESPN and the university presidents, particularly BYU’s and Utah’s asked Thompson to find a better deal. They turned down ESPN’s offer and negotiated a deal with a new cable channel called CSTV.
That deal came with the understanding that BYUTV, which had only launched four years earlier, could broadcast any games that weren’t picked up as part of their coverage and that they would be able to show replays, like they had done previously with ESPN.
BYU only got a handshake agreement with CSTV and a few years later, the channel had been sold; at first to CBS and then again when a 50% stake went to Comcast. The initial negotiator of the CSTV deal Dave Checketts explained in 2010 that in the absence of an iron-clad contract, “the Comcast guy just didn’t live up to one thing that he said he’d do” for BYU.
In the summer of 2010, undercut by the conference they helped organize, BYU was looking for a way out. As a 2020 retrospective of the history put it, “even before BYU’s biggest rival, Utah, bolted the Mountain West for the Pac-12.”
It was Colorado who joined the Pac-10 first and was also the first member of the Big 12 to leave, after initially declining the Pac-10’s 1994 invitation. Nebraska announced they would leave for the Big Ten and Boise State revealed they were joining the Mountain West the next day. After a week of negotiating, Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State decided to stay in the Big 12 for the time being.
Utah was invited to join the Pac-10 on June 16, 2010, a week after the official realignment had begun. At the time then commissioner Larry Scott said the “primary factor in the decision will be finding schools that fit into the (Pac-10) conference culturally and academically.”
The invitation meant that Utah’s media revenues would increase dramatically, along with many financial, academic and many other benefits. With Utah secure, other emails later showed that Utah State, the WAC and BYU continued to negotiate with each other and ESPN over the next two months to also improve their positions. The prospects for the WAC were positive. A memo obtained by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser showed a potential for a three-fold increase of the smaller rights fees ESPN was paying the WAC if the plan went through.
On August 17, Utah State thought the deal had been completed. Utah State University President Stan Albrecht wrote in an email, “All signatures are in place.” He thought he had a $5 million buyout secured from Fresno State and Nevada that would keep them in the WAC. The WAC presidents speculated about luring teams like SDSU, UNLV and Gonzaga with the prospects of well-distributed games on ESPN and better revenue.
But early in the morning of August 18, Craig Thompson and the President of the Air Force Academy took an early flight to Comcast headquarters. At the time, WAC insiders believed “that officials at Conference USA tipped off MWC commissioner Craig Thompson that The Project was unfolding,” but exactly why Conference USA officials would work to protect the Mountain West from being raided was unclear.
A voice vote was taken at 2:00 pm from Philadelphia and invitations to join the Mountain West were handed out. Entry fees were waived. It turned out Nevada had never signed the buyout, and Fresno State didn’t care that they had.
The Athletic’s 2022 article reports, “Thompson said at the time the additions had nothing to do with the WAC. He freely admits now that they did.” Indeed, in the press conference immediately after he said, “We’re simply looking at getting better and we got better tonight with Fresno State and Nevada joining our league.”
It’s interesting that while Thompson seems to have come to terms with the role the WAC played in his motivation at the time, BYU is barely mentioned in his entire interview with the Athletic. It’s Utah whose president is named and credited for forming the Mountain West. The conspirators of The Project are listed as the WAC first and BYU second.
When the Mountain West Wire wrote about that 2010 press conference, even they said they were surprised Thompson could say with a straight face that the additions had “nothing to do with BYU.”
Former WAC commissioner Karl Benson said at the time, “It was very clear to me and to the WAC membership that the Fresno State and Nevada invitation (from the Mountain West) was a direct result of BYU’s interest in going independent and joining the WAC.”
But the Mountain West did what they needed to do to survive. Their actions of self-preservation make sense once they knew about the details of The Project, all thanks, apparently, to one phone call from Utah President Mike Young.
As Brian Windhorst and any courtroom prosecutor will tell you, it’s much easier to prove that someone did something than to be able to prove why they did it. Still, why did Young decide to give Thompson that monumental tip?
Was it out of personal loyalty to Craig Thompson? Or a sense of devotion to the Mountain West? A league Utah announced they were leaving two months earlier?
After his extensive interview, The Athletic’s Chris Vannini finds that possibility the most credible. He explained, “It wasn’t solely about stopping BYU from doing something. It was about keeping the MWC together because the WAC was trying to add several schools, not just BYU. So, I think Young wanted Craig to know for the sake of the conference.”
Love for the Mountain West and a desire to save Craig Thompson’s job are possible motivations. Perhaps there was also a latent desire to crush the WAC? It seems unlikely that Michael Young would make a call intending to force the Idaho Vandals into an FCS conference because they wouldn’t be able to find a new home.
Maybe he really wanted to stop the WAC’s right fees from also increasing? Is Utah State that much of a threat to Utah?
But if it’s possible that Utah was just trying to help their old friend, it’s also possible they just didn’t want to deal with BYU’s position also improving. It’s possible Utah’s University President made a phone call designed to destroy the conference that was allowing BYU to improve their revenue and exposure situation.
Or maybe as Jeremy Mauss summarized in 2010, “Craig Thompson made the move to invite Fresno and Nevada to spite BYU and not allow them to have a place to play.”
It seems Utah must have known exactly how desperate BYU was to get out of the Mountain West because they had spent the last four years playing on the same poorly distributed channels and sitting in conference meetings with the same lawyers from Comcast.
BYU’s move to independence would have been much more comfortable if the WAC plan had succeeded. Problems like November scheduling, access to bowl games, and a strong basketball league were potentially all less of a headache than they ended up being. Playing Senior Night games against Southern Utah wasn’t the initial plan.
Even if the motivation for the call was to help Utah’s former conference or its president’s personal friend, the result was damaging to BYU and Utah State. BYU was able to land on their feet thanks to ESPN’s continued contract offer and a partnership quickly negotiated with the WCC. The WAC wasn’t so lucky.
Why does this matter almost thirteen years later? Water under the bridge, perhaps? We’ll see.
The Pac-12 has learned recently, even more than ever before, that negotiating a new media rights deal isn’t something you throw together in a few weeks. National coverage has raised many questions about when the league will be able to secure a new TV deal and if they will stay together or if the Big Ten, ACC or Big 12 will end up inviting new members.
Like in the summer of 2010, the intrigue is deep, and the stakes are high. The Pac-12 may sign a new deal with ESPN and Amazon and stay at 10 teams or expand back to 12. But recent reporting said it’s also possible the Big 12 targets as many as six Pac-12 schools for membership in the Big 12.
However likely or unlikely that scenario may be, if it comes to that point and votes are being taken in the near future, the leadership at BYU may want to remember all the history of this moment.