How Boise State ended up staying in the Mountain West

bmurphy@idahostatesman.comJanuary 6, 2013 

On Dec. 30 at 10:45 p.m., Craig Thompson turned off his cell phone, confident that he had kept his league intact by finalizing a deal to keep Boise State — his No. 1 target.

Less than 12 hours later, at 10 a.m. on New Year’s Eve, the Mountain West presidents completed the commissioner’s task, voting to accept the agreement. The league announced the decision early in the afternoon.

Thompson cracked a beer that evening.

The next night, Boise State President Bob Kustra, who has been negotiating conference deals since 2010, switched his television from a college football bowl game to the Vienna Philharmonic New Year’s concert.

“Just as a protest for how many hours I’ve spent doing this,” Kustra said last week.

The many hours resulted in a unique arrangement between Boise State and the Mountain West — one that rewards teams for football success and national television appearances and puts the Broncos’ home football rights in a different category than any other conference member.

“The new agreement recognizes the value of Boise State by providing a path to enhanced exposure and revenues for Boise State football while keeping us true conference partners in every sense,” Kustra said.

Said Thompson: “The absolute bottom-line walk away is: The Mountain West is a better conference with Boise State as a member.”

Just 12 months earlier, Kustra decided the best place for Boise State was the Big East as a football-only member. He was intrigued by the national exposure the league, headquartered in Providence, R.I., offered and the potential for exponential revenue growth. The Big East was taking its media rights package to market at precisely the right time for Boise State, which was slated to join on July 1, 2013.

Last June 30, the Broncos reaffirmed that commitment to the Big East and submitted their official withdrawal from the Mountain West. But not before extensive negotiations with the league, which wanted to hold onto Boise State, and assurances from the Big West that the Broncos’ other sports programs would have a conference home.

Despite the seemingly final decision, Thompson never gave up on retaining Boise State. He spoke with Boise State Athletic Director Mark Coyle twice a month or so.

“Throughout the fall, Boise State played four road games and four home games in the Mountain West. They saw a lot of coaches, a lot of athletic directors. Presidents spoke. There was always conversations about, ‘Is this the final answer? Is this the final decision?’ Thompson said.

Two things were working for the Mountain West in the fall.

One was very public: The Big East was going through another overhaul.

On Sept. 12, football independent Notre Dame announced it was taking its other sports programs to the ACC. On Nov. 20, Rutgers announced it was leaving for the Big Ten. On Nov. 28, Louisville announced it was leaving for the ACC.

On Nov. 27, the Big East reacted by adding Tulane and East Carolina (in football only). Rather than provide more stability, the additions led to more movement.

The Big East began as a basketball conference in 1979. It did not sponsor football until 1991. On Dec. 15, the league’s seven Catholic non-FBS playing schools announced they were setting off on their own, hoping to control their destiny rather than have it dictated by football decisions.

The constant moves left new Big East Commissioner Mike Aresco unable to put together a media package — and, importantly for Kustra, gave the league little leverage to secure more western partners.

“The Big East had a plan, when we joined, to add a number of western schools and develop a true division that would limit travel for both the football team and for our fans,” Kustra said. “Unfortunately, the conference has not been able to date to build out that western division.”

The second thing working in the Mountain West’s favor was taking place in private.

The league was working furiously with CBS Sports to renegotiate its television deal and give it access to the red-hot market.

Under the Mountain West’s existing contract with CBS Sports Network, which runs through 2016 and gives CBS an option to extend it to 2020, the networked owns all rights (including digital) to all games.

For all of that, it paid the Mountain West a pittance — $800,000 (per school) in 2012 down from $1.2 million with the demise of the Mtn. network.

This season, CBS Sports Network sold some of its excess inventory to NBC Sports Network and ESPN, allowing the league better exposure than CBS Sports Network’s 54 million homes.

Still, the Mountain West needed more — if it was going to hold onto Boise State, if it was going to keep its current members happy.

“This was an opportunity on both sides to say, if there is some inventory you can live without ... ,” Thompson said. “... You get what you want. Would you be willing to let us take those games you aren’t using. That’s really where we fell out.”

After months of negotiations, the Mountain West and CBS reached a deal Dec. 20.

“We’d been having these conversations for many, many, many months,” Mountain West Deputy Commissioner Bret Gilliland said. “It just so happened that we got it to the finish line at that point.”

It may have been more than just good timing for the league. The new deal contains several key provisions that aided the league in its pursuit of Boise State.

First, the deal — CBS will remain the primary rights holder and have first priority on a certain number of games, but not Boise State home games, while paying the league less annually — only covered the 10 teams in the league at the time. That provision would allow Boise State’s home games to be packaged separately.

Second, the deal gave the Mountain West permission to sell the inventory it was getting back to up to two additional networks.

Suddenly, the Big East wasn’t the only league hitting the television market.

“It allowed us to change the perspective in a lot of ways for all members of the Mountain West. That was the first tipping point.”

The league knows it won’t command the type of gigantic money that has fueled conference realignment. But it should be able to increase the amount of money available for each program and increase exposure. This year’s games on ESPN were the Mountain West’s first on ubiquitous “worldwide leader in sports” since 2005.

“I’ve been very frank with our membership. We’re not talking a $250 million Pac-12 deal. We’re not talking anything in that stratosphere,” Thompson said.

The goal is to increase revenue and exposure.

Which sounds very much like Boise State’s goal.

When Thompson informed Boise State officials of the potential new deal, it grabbed their attention. The Broncos had already been considering their options, given the problems with the Big East.

“We all thought, ‘This is for real, these guys are serious,” Kustra said. “On the other hand the Big East was still struggling to figure out how to get to the media deal. Without that, it’s pretty difficult to weigh things. You just look and you see not much on the one side and a very attractive offer on the other.”

Armed with newfound options, Thompson met with Kustra at the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas on Dec. 22. The two spoke in a suite at Sam Boyd Stadium.

“We had a very candid conversation. ... We both shot straight with each other,” Thompson said. “Because the CBS thing had been done, we had been talking about a little different model.”

Kustra was thinking differently, too.

If the Big East was unable to put together a complete television package, its negotiations did provide Boise State with one key bit of information — the Broncos are a popular and valuable television property.

“We started hearing that there was interest in Boise State as a media property separate and apart from the other conferences, whether you’re talking about the Big East or the Mountain West,” Kustra said. “That’s probably when we realized there was an opportunity here. When the networks speak so clearly about the importance of Boise State University’s football program and what it means to them that had a large role to play in moving these conversations forward.”

Kustra has long been annoyed that the Broncos’ remarkable football success has been rewarded adequately by its conferences. The Broncos are 84-8 with two Fiesta Bowl titles in seven seasons under head coach Chris Petersen.

The Broncos travel significant numbers of fans to away games. They draw strong television ratings. And yet, Kustra said, they receive the exact same payout as every other team in the league.

“Historically in mid-major conferences, rewards have been distributed equally across the board because generally speaking you really don’t find many Boise States around the conferences. But when one school like Boise State over the last 10 years rises up like we have, it does put you in a position where you have to lay the cards on the table and acknowledge the fact that you have a property here that can be valuable not only for the individual school but for the entire conference,” he said.

Kustra was determined to change that in these negotiations with the Big East and the Mountain West.

During June negotiations with Boise State, the Mountain West offered to subject half of the conference’s BCS distribution to a performance-based formula.

“That’s an influx of revenue to the membership that you wouldn’t otherwise get,” Gilliland said.

Now the Broncos wanted more, including special treatment for its home football games.

It led to resentment around the country.

“Boise reminds me of the teenage recruit who is starting to believe he’s the biggest star in town. It might be a pretty big letdown when all is said and done. Actually the sentiment of, ‘who do they think they are’ is starting to seep into conversations with folks across college football. Let’s remember this isn’t Alabama, or even Texas Tech, we’re talking about,” a source told ESPN.com in a story published Dec. 22.

Said Navy Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk to the Capital Gazette: “What Boise State wanted was outrageous and unprecedented. It was not palatable to any of the other Big East institutions. In the final analysis, Boise wasn’t worth it. There is zero television interest in Boise along the Eastern seaboard. What it tells me is the Mountain West was desperate. Clearly, the Mountain West was willing to make whatever concessions necessary to keep Boise in the fold.”

The Mountain West saw it differently. Nothing it ultimately agreed to, Thompson said, was unprecedented. Not the performance-based BCS distribution, not a 50-50 split of bowl profits nor national television exposure bonuses. All schools are eligible for each of the rewards.

And while Boise State’s home television football rights will be separate from “any current or future MWC conference-wide television rights contract,” the league — not Boise State — gets the revenue from the sale of the Broncos’ games.

“The misperception is that Boise State owns its home media rights. We are a team. Our negotiators will work in concert to determine who carries those six games and at what price,” Thompson said.

Said Boise State Vice President and General Counsel Kevin Satterlee: “We intend to be an active partner. We agreed to partner with the conference on the marketing and sale of those rights. Who the rights holder is requires our consent. We will be a big part of that.”

Where Boise State stands to make its money — and likely more than any other current Mountain West member in the near future — is through the national television exposure bonus. The Mountain West will pay any team $300,000 per regular-season game on ESPN, ESPN2, ABC, CBS, NBC or Fox and an additional $200,000 for Saturday games on those networks. Games on CBS Sports Network are not eligible for the bonus. The bonuses are paid out before the remaining television money is distributed to members.

Boise State said last week the bonus covers all games (home and road, conference and nonconference). The Mountain West said it covers only games for which the conference owns the television rights, meaning Boise State nonconference games at Washington and at BYU in 2013 would not be eligible for the bonus.

“We have agreed to what that is,” Thompson said, while declining to disclose what the agreement is. He said the entire membership would discuss it at meetings in March and June. “We are in no rush to say definitively. We are in agreement and in sync.”

Since 2006, the Broncos would have earned $10.6 million in bonuses under their interpretation or $8.4 million in bonuses under the Mountain West’s view.

If ESPN (or one of the other qualifying networks) broadcasts all six home games next year, the Broncos would earn at least $1.8 million and up to $3 million.

Thompson expects the conference’s football television contracts to cover all bonuses and not have to dip into other conference revenues — bowl or NCAA basketball tournament monies. The league, which is developing as a basketball powerhouse, will also be able to sell more basketball rights under the new deal with CBS.

“We can’t go into other reserves to pay TV money,” Thompson said.

After the Dec. 22 meeting in Las Vegas, Thompson and members of his staff spoke daily with Kustra, Satterlee and Coyle. Thompson flew to Hawaii for the Hawaii Bowl on Dec. 24 and attended a San Diego State basketball game in Hawaii on Christmas Day where he sat conspicuously behind the bench. Negotiations continued throughout before finally wrapping up late Dec. 30 when the Mountain West, Boise State and CBS participated in a conference call. CBS was attempting to set its NFL playoff schedule on the same evening.

Kustra planned to spend the week between Christmas and New Year’s in McCall. He drove there Christmas night, planning to stay until New Year’s Day.

On Dec. 26, Kustra figured it was useless being in McCall. He drove back to Boise to complete the negotiations.

He was also talking with the Big East, which was not willing to make the same deal as the Mountain West.

“We explored a lot of different ways to keep them. No question. Ultimately, we were unwilling to do the things they wanted,” Aresco said. “Our membership was unwilling to make the deal the Mountain West made with them.”

Kustra said he did not want a bidding war. His school has been negotiating with conferences — the WAC, the Mountain West, the Big East, the Big West — for much of the last three years.

He was determined to find a long-term solution this time, one reason the Broncos quickly dismissed an independent football option or playing in the Big East in 2013 when it will be an BCS AQ conference with the intention of joining the Mountain West in 2014.

The Mountain West also agreed to help pay Boise State’s exit fees to the Big East and the Big West — which could be more than $6.5 million — and dropped its restrictions on the Broncos’ home uniforms.

In addition, San Diego State, which was set to join the Big East with Boise State and aided the Broncos tremendously in its quest to join the Big West, must get the first option to rejoin the Mountain West.

“When we got into the latter stages with Commissioner Thompson, I said, ‘Look, I don’t want to turn this into a battle back and forth between who has the best package. I think we ought to try to move into this thing because it’s the right thing to do,’ ” Kustra said.

“If we decided to stay in the Big East for another year we might not have the same opportunity that we have right now. So I think really there was only one choice for us to make and that was to act now on this Mountain West approach.

“If we had passed this up — presidents change their minds, presidents come and go — there’s no way to know whether the same body of opinion would have been there for us a year from now that was there when they took the vote on Wednesday.”

So when the vote was done — and the announcement made — Thompson and Kustra, the chief decision-makers, retreated to celebrate in their own way.

Brian Murphy: 377-6444

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