MWC weighs money vs. con­trol

Moun­tain West mulls whether money is worth late start times

Santa Fe New Mexican - - SPORTS - By Ralph D. Russo

At the Univer­sity of Wy­oming, the trade­off the Moun­tain West is mak­ing for tele­vi­sion is ap­par­ent.

The Cow­boys drew more fans to Me­mo­rial Sta­dium for each af­ter­noon game in Septem­ber against non­con­fer­ence foes Gard­ner-Webb and Texas State than they did for the con­fer­ence opener against Hawaii, which kicked off at 8:15 p.m. Moun­tain time.

The Hawaii game was broad­cast on ESPN2 as part of a deal that pays the Moun­tain West more than $100 mil­lion over seven years. The Texas State game was streamed ex­clu­sively on Face­book, which pays the con­fer­ence noth­ing for the con­tent.

The Moun­tain West has three years left on the TV con­tract that puts most of its mem­bers’ home foot­ball games on an ESPN chan­nel or CBS Sports Net­work. As

con­fer­ence of­fi­cials pon­der their next move, the Moun­tain West is ex­per­i­ment­ing with al­ter­na­tives to tra­di­tional broad­cast­ing and weigh­ing whether fill­ing all those late TV win­dows is worth the money its mem­bers are mak­ing.

“The is­sue is for us, the money

is not so great that, at least in my opinion, that we are will­ing to just play game times when­ever TV calls,” Wy­oming ath­letic di­rec­tor Tom Bur­man said ear­lier this sea­son. “That’s the chal­lenges. If you want money from ESPN or CBS, we’re go­ing to have to play in that late win­dow. That’s kind of what we bring them. In­ven­tory late at night or some­times off Satur­day.”

A sched­ule loaded with late kick­offs and some week­night games has been an an­nual source of com­plaints in the Pac-12 among fans, coaches and ad­min­is­tra­tors. Washington coach Chris Petersen caused a bit of stir when he voiced dis­plea­sure with his play­off-con­tend­ing Huskies con­sis­tently play­ing Pa­cific time night games.

Moun­tain West schools are fac­ing a sim­i­lar is­sue but with a ma­jor dif­fer­ence: The Pac-12’s tele­vi­sion con­tract with ESPN and Fox is the ma­jor source of con­fer­ence rev­enue that paid its mem­bers about $28 mil­lion apiece for fis­cal year 2016, ac­cord­ing to tax doc­u­ments.

The Moun­tain West schools are mak­ing about $1.1 mil­lion from their deals with ESPN, CBS and AT&T Sports Net. Boise State’s mem­ber­ship agree­ment gives the school an ad­di­tional $1.8 mil­lion, ap­prox­i­mately, per year.

“It’s great to be aligned with a lin­ear broad­caster, but what we’ve seen, too, is that im­pacts with our lo­cal­ized fan­base,” Colorado State ath­letic di­rec­tor Joe Parker said.

Colorado State just made a huge com­mit­ment to ap­peal­ing to its lo­cal fan­base, open­ing a $220 mil­lion, on-cam­pus sta­dium this year.

“We’ve seen all the en­gage­ment met­ric launch­ing in a re­mark­able up­ward trend,” Parker said. “The thing that I’m con­cerned about is if we start mov­ing our games off Satur­day or if we start end­ing up in the 8 [p.m. lo­cal] or later time slot, that’s go­ing to have im­pacts on fans want­ing to at­tend in venue.”

Moun­tain West Com­mis­sioner Craig Thomp­son said the con­fer­ence is crunch­ing num­bers to get a bet­ter han­dle of how sched­ul­ing for TV im­pacts other rev­enue sources. It is not as sim­ple as count­ing game-day re­ceipts.

The old say­ing is the ath­letic de­part­ment is the front porch of a univer­sity, pro­vid­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for far-reach­ing ex­po­sure along with a way to en­gage fu­ture, cur­rent and for­mer stu­dents.

Those measurements are not so pre­cise.

“It’s not price­less, but what is the value of a na­tional tele­vi­sion game for re­cruit­ing pur­poses?” Thomp­son said. “The na­tional ex­po­sure that those games gen­er­ate is worth some­thing. They’re in roughly a quar­ter of a mil­lion homes. What does that mean? Is that one re­place­ment run­ning back that you des­per­ately need that lives in Ge­or­gia watch­ing that game and go­ing, ‘Oh yeah, I’m go­ing to one of those Moun­tain West schools. I love their style of play.’ I don’t know. What are we miss­ing? What are we gain­ing?”

The other chal­lenge for Thomp­son comes from within. While Colorado State, Wy­oming and the four other schools in the Moun­tain time zone tend to cringe at those late kick­offs, the schools in the Pa­cific time zone don’t mind them as much, Thomp­son said.

Then there is Boise State. Back in 2012, when the Bron­cos were still new to the Moun­tain West and not far re­moved from their BCS-bust­ing days, they were wooed by the then-Big East dur­ing con­fer­ence re­align­ment. To keep Boise State, the Moun­tain West agreed to a deal that guar­an­teed the school more ap­pear­ances on ESPN and more TV rev­enue than the other schools.

Go­ing for­ward, the agree­ment calls for the rights to Boise State’s home games to be ne­go­ti­ated sep­a­rately from the rest of the con­fer­ence.

Boise State is still a peren­nial con­tender in the Moun­tain West, lead­ing the Moun­tain Di­vi­sion this sea­son, but the Bron­cos have only won the di­vi­sion once in the last four sea­sons. Whether Boise State still de­serves spe­cial treat­ment is some­thing the rest of the con­fer­ence wants to con­sider be­fore an­other tele­vi­sion deal is struck.

“I don’t want to say Boise’s brand is dif­fer­ent, but when they came off Fi­esta Bowl runs they were a na­tional story. They’re not there to­day. They’re still ex­cel­lent,” Bur­man said. “Boise still has a brand that’s dif­fer­ent than the rest of us. But that dis­cus­sion needs to hap­pen be­tween pres­i­dents and the com­mis­sioner about what does Boise merit three years from now and how does this get re­solved.”

Boise State AD Curt Apsey said the school is open to hav­ing that dis­cus­sion. He also added that while the Bron­cos and their fans would wel­come more day games, they can’t come at the ex­pense of TV rev­enue.

“It would be very dif­fi­cult for us to give up the TV money and make it up in ticket sales,” he said.

All of big-time col­lege sports — pro­fes­sional sports, too — is star­ing into an un­cer­tain fu­ture me­dia land­scape. Less peo­ple are watch­ing TV on their TVs. With an eye to­ward a chang­ing mar­ket, and a de­sire to cre­ate ex­po­sure for games that didn’t have a tele­vi­sion plat­form, the Moun­tain West, through its part­ner­ship with dig­i­tal sports dis­trib­u­tor Sta­dium, struck a deal with Face­book this year to ex­clu­sively stream six foot­ball games on the so­cial net­work. Ac­cord­ing to the Moun­tain West, those games drew 4.5 mil­lion views, led by New Mex­ico State at New Mex­ico on Sept. 9, with 1.3 mil­lion views. Views, though, are not the anal­o­gous to TV view­ers. A view is reg­is­tered by a click and a min­i­mum of a few sec­onds of stream­ing. TV view­er­ship is mea­sured by the av­er­age num­ber of view­ers for an event from be­gin­ning to end.

Texas State-Wy­oming on Sept. 30 drew about 610,000 stream­ing views. Hawaii-Wy­oming on Sept. 23 drew 445,000 view­ers, ac­cord­ing to fig­ures com­piled by Sports Me­dia Watch. ESPN said through Week 10 of the reg­u­lar sea­son, 14 Moun­tain West games on ESPN net­works, mostly on ESPN2 and ESPNU, av­er­aged 407,000 view­ers.

The Moun­tain West had games stream­ing on Twit­ter last year. But as of now the con­fer­ence has not found a way to mon­e­tize so­cial me­dia stream­ing and non­tra­di­tional con­tent providers such as Net­Flix and Google have not en­tered the mar­ket to pro­vide competition for TV net­works.

Thomp­son is cau­tious about play­ing his ne­go­ti­at­ing hand with ESPN and CBS pub­licly, but the real­ity is this: If Moun­tain West teams want to play less night and week­day games, it will drive down their value to tra­di­tional TV part­ners. But maybe it’s worth it.

“Yes, you’d hate to have to re­place [the rev­enue]. But does it put us out of busi­ness? No,” Thomp­son said. “How­ever, I’m not an AD and they may say, ‘You’re an id­iot for mak­ing that kind of state­ment.’ ”


UNM run­ning back Richard McQuar­ley, front right, is slowed by Colorado State de­fen­sive line­man El­li­son Hub­bard dur­ing an Oct. 20 game in Al­bu­querque. Moun­tain West schools are mak­ing about $1.1 mil­lion from their deal with ESPN and CBS.


Fans walk by an in­flated MWC logo be­fore the 2014 Moun­tain West Con­fer­ence cham­pi­onship be­tween Fresno State and Boise State in Boise, Idaho. Boise State’s mem­ber­ship agree­ment gives the school an ad­di­tional $1.8 mil­lion, ap­prox­i­mately, per year.

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