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BYU adds recognition, but still competitive for West Coast Conference

Published: Friday, July 8 2011 9:22 p.m. MDT

Editor's note: This is the eighth story in an occasional series examining the BYU football program's move to independence and jump to the West Coast Conference in other sports.

PROVO — From a national standpoint, BYU's move to the West Coast Conference should raise the league's profile, change some perceptions about the WCC, and shine a brighter spotlight on the conference.

Will people around the country look at the WCC differently with BYU as a member?

"I think so. We always thought of ourselves as a national conference, certainly with the success of our men's basketball, in particular Gonzaga," said WCC commissioner Jamie Zaninovich, a job he's held since 2008. "When you have one school that does that and commands that kind of national respect, that's one thing. When you have multiple schools in that position, with Saint Mary's, and now BYU, it changes the perception. We feel like we're a multiple-bid basketball league, which puts us in a different category. That gives us some additional national, and international, reach. I think we'll be perceived in a different category and I think that's been earned."

The Cougars will strengthen the WCC, but it will not be dominant, according to Zaninovich, a Stanford graduate who had spent the previous five years as Senior Associate Athletic Director for External Relations at Princeton University.

As a member of the Mountain West Conference for 12 years, BYU was dominant in all sports, claiming a whopping 140 regular-season and tournament championships — Utah was second with 49.

Several titles came in sports in which the WCC does not sponsor, such as and track and field.

The WCC, meanwhile, is especially strong in basketball, baseball, and women's soccer.

So how exactly will BYU's addition to the WCC impact the league?

"Competitively, BYU will come in, in all of our sports as a top-half program, but not a dominant program in any of our sports, which is important," Zaninovich said. "You don't always get what you want, I think, but an ideal candidate for new membership is one that makes you better, but you're still competitive."

Added Zaninovich: "I've said since I got here that our competitive level outpaces our recognition. There are very few conferences like ours where you have national caliber programs in almost every one of our sports."

BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe sampled the competitive nature of the WCC in March, when he attended sessions of the league's basketball tournament, held at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.

"I like (the WCC)," Holmoe said. "I went to the basketball tournament this year and there was great competition. We're going to add a lot to that. As we come to the table and get better and add more competitiveness to that conference, I think you'll see other teams that will rise. We experienced that with the Mountain West Conference. When the competition got good, teams had to either fall or get better. You saw teams get better."

Every year, the WCC presents the Commissioner's Cup, emblematic of the league's top overall athletic department.

"It's our all-sports award," Zaninovich explained. "Schools are awarded points for where they finish in the standings or where they finish in our conference championship. We aggregate those and we have a men's trophy, a women's trophy and the ultimate is the combined trophy. It's a measure of who has the most successful, broad-based program on an annual basis. Recently, the University of San Diego has done very well, having won three in a row. Before that, Pepperdine and Santa Clara won it."

BYU's impact has already been, and will continue to be, felt in other ways.

"From a branding standpoint, BYU is not just a national brand, but an international brand," Zaninovich said. "They have such a great following and they'll certainly help with the exposure for the league both on our national television platform as well as what they bring with BYUtv."

Portions of the WCC basketball tournament were televised by BYUtv.

"We knew BYU would be interested in that starting in 2012," Zaninovich said. "But they came to us and said, 'We'd like to do some games in 2011. We said, 'Great, let's talk about it.' Everybody was great to work with. I enjoyed interacting with them at our tournament in Las Vegas. That was all positive. It was professional and an impressive production. That was not lost on anyone in the conference, so we're excited about that. For all of those reasons, BYU is a great fit. They'll add an immediate value."

THE WCC'S DEAL WITH ESPN

For decades, the WCC competed in relative obscurity — until 1999. That's when Gonzaga reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament and became a national darling. The Bulldogs have advanced to the Sweet 16 five times since '99, as they burned their name into the consciousness of the country's college basketball fans.

Since that time, Saint Mary's and San Diego have both had impressive runs in the NCAA Tournament.

Zaninovich calls 2006 "a big moment for the West Coast Conference" when the league signed a long-term deal with ESPN. "We're about to launch a new era with ESPN with another agreement," Zaninovich said. "Our ESPN relationship can't be overstated in terms of our strategic goals. It's our primary exposure platform. It is important to be aligned with ESPN for so many reasons. It's been a key element in our success in men's basketball and it will be a key element in the future. Adding BYU and their basketball program certainly can't hurt in strengthening and broadening that relationship going forward."

On June 8, the WCC and ESPN announced an eight-year contract extension that was described as the "best deal signed by any non-BCS league" by Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News.

The contract will give the WCC at least 48 mens basketball appearances on the ESPN family of networks — 10 more than the conference has averaged the previous three years.

HOW LONG WILL BYU STAY IN THE WCC?

Many have speculated that the WCC is simply a stepping stone for BYU until it can get into a BCS conference.

But Zaninovich is planning on the Cougars calling the WCC home for an extended period of time.

"It's hard to predict what the national landscape will look like next week, next month, 10 years from now," he said. "I feel very comfortable with the assurances we've had from BYU since the first meeting with them in terms of their commitment to independence in football and their place in our conference. I anticipate them being with us for a long, long time, just like the rest of our members have, fitting in very nicely with our culture, athletically and philosophically."

TRAVEL COSTS

With the eight members of the WCC based on the West Coast, the league could incur higher travel costs with the addition of BYU.

"Certainly that will be addressed. I think that depends on the sport," Zaninovich said. "It depends what non-conference games are you replacing with BYU games you're now playing. In some respects, you could save money. Replacing a non-conference game you might have to buy, you could save money."

While the league was studying the possibility of adding BYU, travel costs were one of the factors examined.

"One of the things that was not lost to our presidents was the logistics and accessibility of Salt Lake City and BYU to the conference," Zaninovich said. "If you look at our geography, there are something like 6-8 direct flights a day from each of our markets to Salt Lake. If you look at flight times, the shortest flight is an hour and 20 minutes and the longest flight is an hour and 40 minutes between our major airports and Salt Lake. That was something from an expense standpoint but a student-athlete standpoint, how much time away from class, that was important."

Jamie Zaninovich file

BACKGROUND: Zaninovich was named the West Coast Conference commissioner on March 9, 2008, becoming just the second full-time commissioner of the league. Zaninovich had spent the previous five years as senior associate athletic director for external relations at Princeton University. Prior to that, he served as senior assistant athletic director for stragetic planning and men's basketball operations at Stanford. He earned a Master's degree in Business Administration at Stanford in 2001. A Eugene, Ore., native, Zaninovich also earned an undergraduate degree from Stanford (in political science and communications) in 1993 and worked as the men's basketball marketing and operations director at Stanford from 1996-99. He worked for two years as a producer for Sports Byline USA, a nationally syndicated sports radio network. He also spent one year as a financial analyst. He worked in marketing and business development for Quokkasports/NBCOlympics.com, helping produce the official website of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, and formulating online and offline marketing initiatives for the event.

OTHER POSITIONS: In February, the NCAA announced that Zaninovich has been appointed to the Division I Men's Basketball Committee, beginning this year. He is the current chair of the Division I Collegiate Commissioners Association and helped create a partnership with the Pac-10 and Big West conferences to assist with the training and evaluation of men's and women's basketball officials.

HONORS: Zaninovich was named one of the prestigious "40 Under 40" honorees by the Sports Business Journal in 2010 as one of the top young professionals in the sports industry.

PERSONAL: Zaninovich, his wife Karen, and sons Max (4) and Lucas (2), reside in Millbrae, Calif.

email: jeffc@desnews.com

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