Just when you thought conference realignment was over, rumors started flying again. Last week, Dennis Dodd of CBS reported that the Mountain West was going to discuss potentially adding UTEP and Rice to the league during their conference meetings. As the meetings concluded yesterday, the league released a statement saying that they are not pursuing expansion at this time. Of course, not being interested in expanding now is different from not being interested in expanding, period, and now that the cat is out of the proverbial bag, MWC expansion rumors could easily continue for the next few offseasons.
It isn't too hard to see why the MWC might be interested in both programs, as UTEP has a long history with many current MWC programs, and is closer geographically to the MWC than many CUSA teams. Rice would dramatically improve the academic standing of the conference, and both teams would give the MWC a foothold in Texas, a place where many of their programs recruit.
But you can't talk about MWC expansion without somebody bringing up BYU. This almost feels like beating a dead horse, but since it keeps getting brought up, it's probably worth repeating that BYU isn't going back to the Mountain West Conference. Not now, and almost certainly not ever.
Not everybody in the MWC would be happy about bringing BYU back
I've gotten some pushback on social media for pointing out that not every program in the Mountain West would be thrilled with the idea of bringing BYU back, but that doesn't make it less true. You don't have to take my word for it though. In his story on UTEP and Rice, here's how Dodd describes support for BYU among current MWC institutions:
BYU has long been speculated to be a Mountain West expansion candidate since it chose independence in 2011. One source termed current Mountain West support for BYU as "fractioned."
And from another Dodd article from last year, here's MWC Commissioner Craig Thompson discussing BYU as a possible MWC candidate:
"First of all, we have not had any formal conversations with BYU," Thompson said. "Secondly, if they were to do that [admit the Cougars] then ... that's a whole bunch more losses for somebody potentially."
That, right there, is the key issue here. While there may still be some lingering bad feelings among a few MWC institutions regarding BYU's exit from the conference, a key issue (and one that I can also confirm) is that BYU to the MWC doesn't really serve the interests of a few programs.
Most MWC football schools aren't worried about the perception of their strength of schedule. They know they're not competing for playoff bids, and in the medium term future, not even for the G5 New Year's bid. They're looking to make bowl games, be competitive, be financially viable, and eventually compete for division and conference titles. Adding a program that out recruits everybody except occasionally Boise State, has more resources, a bigger brand, and will beat them most of the time doesn't help them at all. What does say, Wyoming, get out of BYU? The MWC's TV deal is already set until 2019-2020, and it's not like it would create much of a short-term financial benefit.
The programs that would get the most out of BYU membership, Boise State and Utah State, are already scheduled to play BYU multiple years in the future, and can get those games whenever they want. This isn't to say that the MWC would vote BYU down if they were a real candidate (which they aren't), only that support for BYU among member institutions is not unanimous. That's not a slight towards BYU, by the way, but an acknowledgement of where their football programs are relative to BYU's.
The benefits of MWC membership to BYU do not come close to outweighing the costs
This should be pretty clear, but we can go through it again for the unfamiliar, real quick.
The biggest reason, in the short term, is financial. BYU's TV deal with ESPN (Somewhere between $6-8 million a year) already pays more than the MWC (which would be around $3.5 million), plus gives BYU improved TV spots and exposure. An Independent schedule also gives the program more flexibility to schedule games in different time zones, and against multiple high profile programs. The schedules for the 2016-2019 seasons are full of P5 and otherwise high profile programs, with several of them making trips to Provo.
Theoretically, it's possible that math could change after 2019, should ESPN elect not to renew BYU's TV deal (possible, given ESPN's financial situation), and if BYU is still an independent headed into 2020 (possible) and if no other major players make compelling bids for BYU's rights (less likely) and if the Mountain West's new TV deal is restructured to give BYU more money (very unlikely). It's hard to imagine industry trends shifting in a way that would remove a market for BYU as an independent, but prop up the MWC's TV deal at the same time. Even if the money was close to equal, it's likely BYU would still want to be an independent to preserve their relationship with ESPN, which owns multiple bowl games and has helped BYU schedule higher profile regular season contests.
The only advantage (because membership is what is probably a better basketball conference, year over year) would be to give BYU an opening into a prestigious New Year's Six bowl, something that is mostly closed to BYU. But practically speaking, over a five-year stretch, how many could BYU hope to make as a member of the MWC? Two, at the most? Even if BYU won a MWC title every single season, they wouldn't get the G5 bid every time, thanks to the strength of The American, and potentially a hot MAC team.
It's also worth noting that BYU could be on the hook to buy out many of their scheduled games after 2019 should they join the MWC, which could make a conference downgrade even more expensive. Many of the contracts contain clauses that give BYU a free opt out if they join a P5 conference, but not a conference in general.
Plus, if BYU really wanted to join a G5 conference, they could just join The American, who would love to have them.
So yeah, keep asking if you must, but this isn't going to happen...certainly not before 2019, and unless the sport and television industry make dramatic and substantial changes, almost certainly not after that. That's not just good for BYU, it's good for the Mountain West as well.