Boise State and the Mountain West soon will have the opportunity to rework their relationship with TV.
And it’s quite possible they’ll end up with different solutions.
That’s OK, given that Boise State’s slate of six football home games will be marketed separately from the rest of the Mountain West’s TV package. But another round of separate arrangements also could create more tension in a unique situation that already has at least one rival athletic director publicly wondering whether the Broncos deserve the special treatment they negotiated in late 2012.
“I don’t want to say Boise’s brand is different, but when they came off Fiesta Bowl runs they were a national story. They’re not there today. They’re still excellent,” Wyoming Athletic Director Tom Burman told The Associated Press. “Boise still has a brand that’s different than the rest of us. But that discussion needs to happen between presidents and the commissioner about what does Boise merit three years from now and how does this get resolved.”
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The Mountain West’s TV deals with ESPN and CBS Sports Network run through 2019-20, or two more football seasons. What comes next already is a hot topic in the league amid frustration with the late-night kickoffs TV partners expect and the paltry revenue received compared to the Power Five conferences.
The Pac-12 receives about $250 million per year for its TV rights, according to media reports. The Mountain West’s deals are worth $13.9 million this year.
Boise State is guaranteed $1.8 million in TV money in a deal with the Mountain West that has no expiration date. The Mountain West splits the rest of its TV money 11 ways — with equal shares to all members except Hawaii, which doesn’t receive conference TV revenue. The 11-way split this year is $1.1 million.
So while Boise State has $2.9 million per year at stake in the next TV deal, the rest of the conference has only $1.1 million each.
If a school such as Wyoming or New Mexico hypothetically can take 50 percent less money but gain more control over kickoff times, that’s probably tempting. They have more empty seats they potentially could fill than Boise State, and they’d need to generate only $550,000 in additional fan-based revenue.
For Boise State — which leads the conference with an 88.57 percent rate of seats filled for its home games — that scenario would be another financial hit on top of declining football ticket revenue, declining royalties and the expensive addition of baseball. Even if the school sold 2,000 more tickets per home game — and keep in mind that Boise State’s best crowd of the season this year was for a rainy, 8:15 p.m. kickoff against Wyoming — it wouldn’t come close to covering a $1.45 million reduction in TV revenue.
“It’s difficult to make that up,” Boise State Athletic Director Curt Apsey said. “... I think it would probably depend on what the revenue number is. We’ve got to weigh that. I know that’s difficult for our fans to hear, but the expectation at Boise State is very high and unfortunately that comes at a cost. And that’s something that as the athletic director here at Boise State I need to be cognizant of.”
The Mountain West’s options are broader than ever. The conference could go to a streaming-based provider, such as Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. The conference has experimented with Facebook this season. Those games would be available to anyone with an internet connection, but how many people who aren’t fans of those schools would watch? And would there be any money in it?
It could try a less-watched cable-TV provider. Maybe someone would pay decent money to pull content from ESPN, but nobody can match the exposure of the “Worldwide Leader.”
Or it could stick with ESPN, but that network almost certainly would insist on keeping the Mountain West in those late-night time slots alongside the Pac-12.
Exposure might be the trickiest part of the deal because that’s impossible to gauge. But there’s no question that Boise State’s frequent appearances on ESPN networks during the WAC era (2001-10) paid major dividends in recruiting and the growth of the university. And again, that probably has more value to Boise State — which sees itself as a Top 25 football program and must recruit in places like California and Texas — than elsewhere in the conference.
“ESPN, over the years, has just played a huge role in all this for us,” Apsey said. “It’s certainly something that we can’t take for granted. It’s very difficult to measure.”
In fact, Boise State lost its ESPN tie when it joined the Mountain West in 2011. Getting that back was a key part of the negotiation to stay in the conference. ESPN has held the rights to all Boise State home games since the 2013 season.
Perhaps the Broncos could make a deal that would trade a couple of late kickoffs for weeknight games, like what happened this year. Weekday games are an even bigger ticket-selling challenge than late nights, but they result in much larger TV audiences.
The Broncos played one non-Saturday conference game this season (vs. New Mexico) and drew 1,053,000 viewers, according to sportsmediawatch.com. They played two late-night Mountain West games on ESPN2 (vs. Air Force and Wyoming), and neither drew even 500,000 viewers. Boise State also topped 1 million viewers for ESPN games vs. nonconference opponents Washington State (a late-night, Saturday road game), Virginia (a Friday home game) and BYU (a late-night, Friday road game).
The only other Mountain West games with 1 million viewers (or even close to it) were road trips to Alabama (Colorado State and Fresno State) and Wisconsin (Utah State).
So it’s easy to see why most of the Mountain West might choose kickoff times over a small amount of money and already-limited exposure.
And it’s also easy to see why Boise State likely will cling to its contractual advantages if necessary to stay on ESPN.
And the winner is ...
This is the most difficult prediction since the BYU game, when nobody knew what the Cougars’ QB situation would look like. The problem this time is we just don’t know how good Fresno State is. I can’t get the 1-11 record from last year out of my head, even though I know it’s irrelevant. The 8-3 record this year includes an impressive beatdown of San Diego State and an unexplainable flop against UNLV. The Bulldogs got a West Division-clinching win last week at Wyoming, but they won 13-7 against a team without its quarterback.
This much is for sure: Fresno State isn’t going to win a shootout. So if QB Brett Rypien continues to execute at an elite level for Boise State (-7) — as he has the past four games — there’s little chance that Fresno State can win. But can Rypien get that done against the Bulldogs’ stingy defense? I think he can.
Boise State 34, Fresno State 17
College football spotlight
National game of the week — No. 1 Alabama (-4.5) at No. 6 Auburn, 1:30 p.m., CBS: Crimson Tide are beat up but they’ll gut this one out. Alabama 24, Auburn 16
Pac-12 game of the week — No. 14 Washington State at No. 15 Washington (-10.5), 6 p.m., FOX: The Cougars are playing for a Pac-12 championship game berth; the Huskies are fading. Washington State 27, Washington 24
On TV: Bills at Chiefs (11 a.m. Sunday, CBS), Seahawks at 49ers (2:05 p.m., FOX), Broncos at Raiders (2:25 p.m., CBS), Packers at Steelers (6:20 p.m., NBC), Texans at Ravens (6:15 p.m. Monday, ESPN).
Chadd Cripe is the Idaho Statesman sports editor. Contact him at ccripe@
idahostatesman.com, 208-377-6398 or @chaddcripe on Twitter.