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Scott D. Pierce: TV rules expansion decisions

Published: Friday, Sept. 21 2007 12:31 a.m. MDT

THE SUBJECT OF Boise State joining the Mountain West Conference resurfaced in the past few days — and most of the discussion missed the mark (and the point) entirely.

Let's put aside for a moment how odd it is for the president of any university to be making public statements about joining a league to which he has not been invited. (That's just not done — sniff, sniff — in those circles, you know.)

But it's even more remarkable that BSU president Bob Kustra would tell the Idaho Statesman that he sent a letter to the presidents of all the MWC schools "telling them about the stadium expansion, how our teams were doing, about our academic progress." And the jabber on the local sports talk-radio stations was all about whether the Broncos would help the league competitively.

As if any of that has anything to do with conference expansion.

Conference expansion is driven by television. It's not fair — and I would argue that it's not right — but it's a fact.

The SEC expanded to 12 teams and signed a separate TV contract with CBS. The Big Eight became the Big 12 so that it could add all those TV sets in Texas and demand a whole lot more money from various TV networks — which it did.

The ACC expanded to 12 teams to move into huge TV markets in Massachusetts and Florida.

The only time there was any even semi-serious talk of the Pac-10 becoming the Pac-12 came at the same time the Big 12 was formed in the mid-'90s. The Pac-10 expressed interest in adding Colorado and Texas — and a whole lot of TV viewers.

The 11-member Big Ten is looking at adding a 12th team for one big reason — TV. Big Ten Commissioner Bob Delany told the Des Moines Register a few weeks ago that the league's new Big Ten Network "changes, to some extent, how you think about (expansion). The broader (the network) is distributed, the more value (expansion) has."

And, by the way, The mtn. is already available on cable in Boise.

In terms of television, Boise has very little to bring to the table. It's the No. 119 TV market (measured by number of homes). It's only 29 percent the size of the Salt Lake TV market. Of the current nine teams in the MWC, only Wyoming has fewer TV households.

I'm going to get e-mails from Boise State fans who think I'm dissing the Broncos. I'm not. Certainly, as things now stand, it's easy to argue that the Mountain West would be competitively stronger with BSU as the 10th team.

But, again, this is not an issue of how competitive a team is, it's an issue of finances.

Here are the inescapable facts:

• TV networks would not pay more to telecast the MWC if Boise State were added — not enough TV homes to matter.

• The MWC is in the midst of a long-term television deal that runs until 2013. If the league adds another team, it will simply be dividing the same money 10 ways instead of nine. By voting to add another team, MWC presidents would be hurting their own bottom line.

(TCU had been granted admission to the MWC when the deal with CSTV was negotiated. No teams have been added since.)

• You could argue that splitting into two divisions and adding a championship game would bring additional revenue to the MWC, but you'd have to add three more teams and split the same amount of money 12 ways instead of nine. The chances of making enough money on a title game to simply break even are virtually nonexistent.

Facilities, academics and athletic prowess are all nice, but it's TV that drives conference expansions.

At least Boise State and the rest of the WAC are on ESPN (though the WAC makes less on its TV deal than the MWC does with CSTV).

I've been assured numerous times over the years by various people at ESPN that they have great respect for Utah, BYU and whatever league they belong to. And yet on both TV and radio last weekend, ESPN told viewers/listeners that Utah had beaten UCLA ... in Provo.

Really.


E-mail: pierce@desnews.com

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