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Brad Rock: Size does matter in a conference

Published: Wednesday, July 29 2015 10:51 a.m. MDT

With plans for a 16-team Pac-10 "superconference" dead, or at least on hold, here's a little historical perspective to consider: Megaconferences don't work.

At least they didn't the first time around.

The original attempt at a superconference occurred in 1996. True, it wasn't all that super to begin, but it was big. Really big. Positioning for the future was a top priority for the Western Athletic Conference, so it expanded in a Manifest Destiny sort of way, nearly doubling.

One day it was a lean, semi-mean little regional football conference, next day it was a giant amoeba. The league went from the nine-team WAC to a 16-team league, having added girth but not true weight. The idea was to grab as many TV markets as possible. Fresno State, San Jose State, UNLV, Tulsa, Rice, SMU and TCU were all admitted in short order. Combined with the existing nine teams, it wasn't a conference anymore — it was a solar system. It included nine states, four time zones and covered 4,000 miles, which — no lie — is the same distance as going from Salt Lake City to Iceland.

If Reykjavík University had a football team, the WAC would have included it, too.

I bring this up because a lot of conference expansion talk has been about TV markets. What sometimes gets left out is the part about winning.

In early expansion stories, Missouri was considered a prize acquisition for the Big Ten, because it would bring the St. Louis market. Likewise, the Pac-10's invitation to Colorado was largely based on potential Denver viewers.

Too bad Colorado's main revenue sports, football and basketball, stink.

Earlier this year, there was talk of the Big Ten going after Rutgers, hoping to nail down the mother of all markets, New York. Please. Being in a large TV market and having viewers are different things.

Admittedly, Pac-10 and Big 12 teams are higher-profile than itty-bitty WAC teams. Still, the old WAC system did illustrate a point. The conference went so far as to produce preseason information packets, claiming more than 50 million people lived in WAC television markets. The news release counted the entire San Francisco Bay area as San Jose State territory, despite the fact the Spartans were one of the worst-attended and least compelling teams in America.

Yet the WAC had no compunction about claiming the Bay Area's 6 million residents.

Similarly, the news release included San Antonio as a WAC market, even though the closest WAC team was in Houston (Rice), 225 miles away. It also included Dallas-Ft.Worth as a WAC market, though hardly anyone in the Metroplex went to or watched either TCU or SMU games.

The league even made a play at Oklahoma City as a WAC market, because the conference included Tulsa. (As if there wasn't another team to watch in Oklahoma.)

But the biggest whopper of all involved metro Los Angeles (15.3 million), which the WAC claimed as a TV market tied to San Diego State.

Hardly anyone living in San Diego liked the Aztecs, much less Los Angeles.

Soon it was discovered the size of the conference was too unwieldy, and eight teams bolted to form the Mountain West.

The first superconference was back to its own size.

Most jarring about all this realignment talk is the possibility of who might have been left out. Schools such as Kansas, Kansas State, Baylor and Iowa State were in danger of being set adrift.

Could you picture Kansas — Wilt Chamberlain, Jo Jo White, Danny Manning, Roy Williams, Larry Brown, etc. — playing basketball at Air Force's 6,000-seat Clune Arena?

Small regional conferences don't make much money anymore. At the same time, adding markets based on population doesn't always fly. A conference needs good teams, too, if anyone's going to watch.

Otherwise, San Diego State would own the planet.

e-mail: rock@desnews.com

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