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MWC TV Deal Wasn't Meant To Be Fair

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Boise State leads the Mountain West with 10 scheduled national-TV games in 2013, including six on the ESPN family of networks. Photo by Otto Kitsinger III/Getty Images.
Boise State leads the Mountain West with 10 scheduled national-TV games in 2013, including six on the ESPN family of networks. Photo by Otto Kitsinger III/Getty Images.

Let's get this out of the way right off the top: There's nothing fair or equitable about the Mountain West Conference’s new television package.

That’s wholly by design, and it also happens to be the stark reality of major — and even mid-major — college sports here in the second decade of the 21st Century. That was made clear once again this week when the Mountain West released its final list of 15 regular-season football games to be nationally televised, parceled out among the ESPN family of networks.

Javan Hedlund, the conference’s associate commissioner in charge of communications, said in an e-mail that there could be one or two more CBS Sports Network games added to the league's national-TV calendar before the season kicks off on Aug. 29, but for now, the conference’s national-TV football schedule is what it is. In all, at least 43 of the 98 regular-season games involving the 12 MW schools will be shown on either the CBS College Sports Network or the aforementioned ESPN family which includes ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU and the web-based ESPN3.

Not bad, and it’s most definitely a step up from the conference’s recent TV packages, which included games airing on the not-so-widely available NBC Sports Network and the conference’s own The Mtn. network — the nation’s first conference-exclusive network — which never was able to establish a strong foothold in U.S. TV households in its five-plus years of existence. The plug was unceremoniously pulled on The Mtn. less than a year ago on June 1, 2012.

Now, though, the MWC has a TV deal with ESPN for the first time since 2005, signing a seven-year football/men’s basketball contract with the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader and CBSSN in March that’s, all told, estimated to be worth $18 million a year to the conference.

Again, not bad.

Still, by comparison, the MWC deal isn’t in the same zip code — or, for that matter, hemisphere — of the current deal in place for its Western neighbor, the Pac-12, which is in the midst of a 12-year agreement with ESPN and Fox that nets the conference a cool $20.8 million per school, per season, through 2024.

But in the ever-shifting, do-the-best-you-can-with-what-you-currently-have FBS solar system in which the MWC orbits, the soon-to-be 12-team league has done all right for itself.

To get there, though, the MWC had to lure its most prominent program, Boise State, back from the clutches of the flailing Big East/American Athletic Conference — and this is where our initial fairness discussion creeps back in.

As a key enticement, the MWC gave Boise State controlling TV rights to all of its home games, and in turn, the school struck its own side deal with ESPN, stipulating that the network will carry at least three BSU home games every season.

In accordance with the MWC’s newly-instituted National Exposure Bonus System, which pays its programs $300,000 (Sunday-Friday games) or $500,000 (Saturday contests) for each conference-controlled, national-TV appearance on ESPN, ESPN2, ABC, NBC, CBS or Fox, Boise is guaranteed at least $900,000 in TV money a season.

There are no such guarantees for any other MWC school, but then again, none of them carry the national prestige, exposure or clout of BSU, which is only the winningest program (129 victories) in the BCS during the last decade.

And one has to believe that if had Boise State followed through with its planned jump to the Big East, ESPN's TV money would've likely remained back East as well.

Expectedly, then, the Broncos lead the MWC with 10 scheduled national-TV appearances in 2013, including a conference-high six ESPN games.

Air Force, which has played in a bowl game in each of the last six seasons, also will have 10 of its 12 games nationally televised, but two of them — a Friday game at New Mexico and a Thursday-night home date with UNLV — will be carried on ESPNU (whose limited reach doesn’t qualify for an exposure bonus) and four others will be on CBSSN.

On the other end of the MWC national-TV spectrum are Wyoming (two national games) and Hawaii (three, with none on the ESPN family), two programs that combined to finish 7-17 a year ago and are dealing with built-in disadvantages of a low population base (UW) and playing in a far-flung time zone (UH), where home games kick off at a not-exactly-made-for-TV midnight Eastern Time.

Following is a quick breakdown of the slated national-TV appearances for each MWC school. The specific ESPN channel assignments for the latest announced round of 15 Saturday games have yet to be determined, and most likely won’t be until six-to-12 days before each kickoff.

  • Air Force: 10 (1 ESPN, 2 ESPNU, 3 ESPN TBD, 4 CBSSN)
  • Boise State: 10 games (2 ESPN, 2 ESPN TBD, 4 CBSSN)
  • Nevada: 8 (1 ESPN, 4 ESPN TBD, 3 CBSSN)
  • San Diego State: 8 (1 ESPN , 2 ESPN TBD, 5 CBSSN)
  • Colorado State: 7 (2 ESPN TBD, 5 CBSSN)
  • Utah State: 7 (1 ESPN, 1 ESPN TBD, 5 CBSSN)
  • San Jose State: 6 (1 ESPN, 1 ESPN2, 1 ESPN TBD, 3 CBSSN)
  • Fresno State: 5 (1 ESPN, 3 ESPN TBD, 1 CBSSN)
  • UNLV: 5 (1 ESPNU, 3 ESPN TBD, 1 CBSSN)
  • New Mexico: 3 (1 ESPNU, 2 ESPN TBD)
  • Hawaii: 3 (3 CBSSN)
  • Wyoming: 2 (2 ESPN TBD)

In summary, the seven 2013 MWC programs which played in bowl games a season ago are scheduled for a combined 54 national-TV appearances, including 25 that will — or could potentially — net exposure bonuses. Meanwhile, the five non-2012 bowl teams have 20 scheduled national-TV appearances, including only nine that could potentially garner bonus money.

As the time-tested formula goes, wins translate into prestige and notoriety which in turn lead to more exposure and money and facilitate more wins.

It's a simple cycle, really — and not all that equitable or fair.

But in this ever-spinning, big-bucks national-TV world of FBS football, it wasn't meant to be.