Bronco Beat

Mountain West commish on competing with big-money conferences: 'We’re trying. We’re fighting'

Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson.
Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson. Shawn Raecke

Mountain West athletic directors, men’s and women’s basketball coaches and football coaches held their spring meetings earlier this week in Phoenix. Here’s a recap of a host of issues from Commissioner Craig Thompson:

— The conference presidents meet June 1. They need to formulate a response to NCAA restructuring plans by June 30. The NCAA plans to vote in August on the changes.

— On realignment: “I can speculate that most memberships are pretty set because of their long-term TV contracts. We’re not talking (to schools). This was the first year of 12 teams and two divisions and playing a conference championship game. We’re starting to settle in. Everything we have done in future scheduling is based on 12 teams and eight conference games.”

— On BYU: “We’ve moved on. There’s always interest because we play them three to five times a season. As far as them joining the Mountain West, there’s nothing in the works or that has really been discussed at any level.”

— Mountain West schools voted 10-2 in favor of offering cost-of-attendance scholarships two years ago. The two that voted against it, Thompson said, did so because the proposal was too vague. It’s still unclear which sports would be affected and how much additional scholarship money would be required. Thompson estimates each school would need $400,000-$600,000 to offer cost-of-attendance scholarships to every scholarship athlete. “We’re totally in favor of student-athlete welfare improvement, benefits. It’s just something that we would have to figure out how we afford and how we fund it — whether through various other cuts or challenges or dropping programs or fund raising to a new level and telling our constituents, ‘This is the cost of playing at this level.’ ”

— A big issue within the Mountain West is whether new benefits would be league-mandated or each school would be able to make its own decisions. “There’s really a mix,” Thompson said. “If we force an institution that you have to do this, you don’t have a choice that plays into the overall paranoia about some of the proposed legislation. Is it better to say, ‘You can do these things’? Our whole issue is that the five high-resourced conferences not be the only ones allowed to do these things. It’s got to be permissive. Then it comes back to the Mountain West making a choice.”

— Athletic directors are confused about the NCAA’s recent ruling that schools can provide unlimited meals to athletes. “Everybody’s holding their breath on the definition there,” Thompson said. “That came out very loose, very quick and totally undefined. We had one athletic director who had football players come up and say, ‘When does the smorgasbord start? Where’s the all-you-can-eat buffet?’ ”

— Thompson expects the Mountain West revenue to increase by about $10 million to $12 million in 2014-15 with the new College Football Playoff. The minimum payout for the five smaller conferences is $12 million. The maximum is about $18 million. And the conference that places its champion in one of the playoff bowls gets another $6 million. The windfall could help the Mountain West fund improved student-athlete benefits. “It can,” Thompson said. “I’m sure they’ve spent that (money) four times. You divide $12 million by 12 football institutions — everybody gets an extra million dollars and that’s gone overnight. But it helps.”

— On the movement for the big five conferences to have rulemaking autonomy: “I don’t think they’re going to leave us. That’s not a concern. I don’t lose sleep on that one. Our challenge is just giving us the same opportunity. We may not be able to afford to (do something), we may not want to, but — news flash — the Pac-12 budgets are larger than the Mountain West budgets. We just need the ability to make that determination we have finite dollars and here’s how we’re going to spend them. We have spent literally hundreds of millions of dollars in stadium and facility improvements since we started this league in 1999. We’re trying. We’re fighting. And that’s what we’re looking toward is just to have the ability to have the same right.” Thompson expects resistance from the top five conferences and within his own conference. “That’s going to be a good debate (inside the conference),” he said. “Is Utah State dictated by Nevada’s wishes? Right now, some institutions spend more on men’s basketball than others. Everybody has a different football budget. People have different tennis budgets. Are we going to make it, this is absolutely level in the Mountain West and no, you cannot bring parents in on a recruiting visit?”

— No changes on football scheduling. There was talk of building a long-term schedule but the conference has opted to stick with its year-to-year model for flexibility.

— On getting a team into the College Football Playoff semifinals: “Top four will be a stretch and it was a stretch before (to get to the top two). Here’s the way I frame that up: It’s not just a Mountain West issue. There are four semifinalists. That guarantees that one of the five high-resource conferences and possibly two are not getting in there. I don’t know that people have grasped that totally. We were there. TCU was 3. Utah was 5. It takes a really special season.”

— The conference basketball schedule remains at 18 games. “There were some proponents for 20 and (San Diego State’s) Steve Fisher for 16.”

— The Mountain West will place bowl teams in Hawaii, Boise, San Diego (Poinsettia), New Mexico, Las Vegas and New Orleans this year. Las Vegas still gets the first pick. The conference has a backup deal with the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl in Tempe, Ariz. That game would get the No. 2 selection if it’s open because the opponent would be from the Pac-12 or Big 12. The Mountain West might make an occasional appearance in the new Bahamas or Boca Raton bowls but athletic directors aren’t eager to send their teams that far from home.

— The TV bonus structure remains the same. There was some talk of flipping the amounts to give teams more for playing on weeknights.

— The Mountain West finished second to the Sun Belt in the football standings among the five smaller conferences. Those rankings determine payouts from the Bowl Championship Series and, going forward, the CFP. The Mountain West was fifth in 2012.

For background on the NCAA issues, here are some stories worth reading:

Cost of attendance

Big-conference demands

Mountain West, others trying to keep up

Playoff effect on Cinderellas

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