Jon M. Huntsman School of Business

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Saturday, February 18, 2012

Utah State Should Bolt the Western Athletic Conference

The Western Athletic Conference is about to have a major makeover.   With Boise State, Fresno State, Nevada and Hawaii all leaving, the conference is about to look a whole lot different.

Last week, long-time WAC Commissioner Karl Benson jumped ship to become the Commissioner of the Sun Belt Conference.  Seems like a lateral move on its surface, but it’s actually an upgrade when you look at what is coming into the WAC as replacements for the “Fleeing Four”.  Maybe with Benson leaving, we should now say the “Fleeing Five”, including the captain who just jumped off this sinking vessel.

Next year, the WAC will have Utah State, Texas-San Antonio, Texas State, Louisiana Tech, Idaho, New Mexico State, San Jose State, and Denver (non-basketball).    Other school being considered for inclusion in the near future include Louisiana-Lafayette, Sam Houston State, California-Davis, Portland State, Cal-Poly, and as non-football members, Seattle University, Cal-State Bakersfield, and Utah Valley University.

That my friends, is a pretty lousy lineup of conference friends.   No rivals for USU.  No driving-distance opponents.  For all intents, it’s a Division 2 conference.  There isn’t a single opponent in that list that makes me want to jump up and go buy tickets – for football or basketball.   

College teams are in many cases defined by who they are aligned with.  If USU stays in the WAC as it will soon be constructed, its reputation as a Division 1 program will go down the drain.

USU needs to get creative and try to develop a new conference with schools that all are within driving distance of one another.

To qualify as a D-1 Football Subdivision Conference, eight teams are required.  Utah State needs to get on the phone and try to get a new conference constructed of the following schools:

Utah State
Idaho State
Boise State
Colorado State
Air Force Academy

Here are the advantages.  All would be within driving distance of one another.  There are natural rivalries in place.  They would have enough members to be included in the Football Bowl Subdivision.  Travel expenses would be much lower, for both the teams and fans.  And most importantly, attendance at games would increase significantly.

Looking at Utah State football attendance over the past eleven years, home games against these proposed conference opponents have averaged 19,893.  Home games against the “New WAC” conference opponents have averaged 12,701.  Even BYU saw about 7,000 fewer fans at their home games last season against the distant “WAC” opponents of Idaho and New Mexico State.  Do we really want to keep having less than 50% of seats filled at Romney Stadium?  That’s not a “college football” experience in a half-empty stadium every Saturday afternoon!

Yes, there would be some challenges.  BYU would need to keep their TV contract with ESPN for sure, making a conference TV contract difficult to put together…but not impossible.  It certainly would be worth more than the “new WAC”, where there won’t be a TV contact at all.

If Utah State can’t get a new conference assembled, I suggest their next best option would be to follow BYU into football independence and align in other sports with the WCC.  At least we’d have a decent basketball conference with Gonzaga, St. Mary’s, and BYU, and we could try to schedule football games against more local opponents to drive fan interest and attendance.  Even football home games against Weber State and Southern Utah University have averaged 19,987 fans, a far cry from the 12,701 against WAC opponents.  Anybody with me on this?  What do you think?

Eric D.  Schulz is a Sr. Lecturer and Co-Director of Marketing and Brand Management at the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University.  He has worked as Vice President of Marketing for the XFL Football League as well as the Utah Jazz, and has over 20 years of professional sports management experience.


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  2. An interesting take. Why in the world would any of the MWC schools want to leave the CUSA-MWC merger and join this new conference? Why would BYU want to rejoin a weaker conference than they left? This is a good idea, but how feasible is it?

  3. You have to understand that it's about prestige, market-size, and money, and nobody is going to form a conference just because it looks geographically nice. ESPN and the other money-making networks call the shots.

    You also have to understand USU is doing everything it can to bolt the conference already. The only option is really just joining the MWC/CUSA conference.