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The Division IV Split And The Mountain West Breakup

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The tectonic plates of the college football landscape still seem unsettled. Could the biggest power conferences create their own exclusive division? Photo by Otto Kitsinger III/Getty Images.
The tectonic plates of the college football landscape still seem unsettled. Could the biggest power conferences create their own exclusive division? Photo by Otto Kitsinger III/Getty Images.

Breakups typically are nasty business. It’s pretty rare when both sides of a relationship realize things never are going to work out at the same time and end things with a hearty handshake.

Most of the time one person loses interest while the other half makes wild attempts to save everything that was good. Good or bad, we all get to watch in some amalgamation of horror and embarrassment as things get ugly and meet their inevitable conclusion.

After a run of media days throughout college football, one thing is apparent: all is not well with the FBS relationship. Commissioners from “the big five” (SEC, Big 10, Big 12, ACC, Pac 12) all spoke about changes that need to be made within the NCAA structure (a.k.a the formation of a fourth division) while “the group of five” (Mountain West, Mid-American Conference, Sun Belt, Conference USA, American Athletic Conference) pushed the idea that all is well. 

Ten guys split evenly into two camps and each side is saying something completely different. Yes, I’d say we’re heading for a breakup that only fans of “Days of Our Lives” would love.

If the power conferences want to break away from the FBS, they can. They could do it right now if they wanted to and the NCAA will let them because they’re the cash cow of the entire organization.

The NCAA knows full well it needs the five major football conferences more than the five major football conferences need the NCAA. If you need further proof, remember that the BCS became a financial success without any real help or endorsement of the NCAA. That’s why every other college sport hoists up that awkward wooden block that looks like it could compete in the Cub Scouts Pinewood Derby when they win a national championship and SEC teams FBS teams win a crystal football. 

So what will happen to the Mountain West when the breakup happens? 

There isn’t really a simple answer.

The Climbers

There’s no question Boise State will campaign to make the jump to the NFL Lite “Division IV.” History tells us the Broncos go where the money is. BSU has played 13 seasons at the FBS level and they’ve jumped from The Big West to the Western Athletic Conference to the MWC to the Big East and back to the MWC in the name of the almighty dollar. There's no reason to believe they won't do it again.

The Broncos also have proven they can compete with the upper echelon of college football. They’re consistently ranked in the Top 25 and they have two BCS bowl victories on their resume. 

The biggest indicator, however, may come down to raw finances. The Broncos brought in $15,345,308 in total revenue versus $8,537,612 in expenses in 2011 according to the Office of Postsecondary Education. The profit margin of $6.8 million would expand if BSU were to move into a power conference, but it’s safe to assume they could foot the bill for the “cost of attendance stipend” that will supposedly come into play with “Division IV.”

The only other MWC schools that managed to squeeze money from their football programs are Fresno State ($1.34 million profit) and San Diego State ($449,610 profit). One would imagine that both programs would make a push to find a home at the big-kids table as well. 

The Squatters

The universe needs balance. So for every BSU, there is a University of Hawaii. If there’s one thing at which the Rainbow Warriors excel, it’s being a not-for-profit. The football program lost $3,435,340 in 2011, according to OPE data. That will tend to happen when your closest “road trip” requires a 2,500-mile flight.

Since there aren’t enough bake sales in the world to make up that loss, and it’s doubtful any conference will want to add a team that’s almost half a world away, we can pretty safely assume that Hawaii will have to find a new home in “the group of five.” You can go ahead and pencil in Nevada for staying put as well. They lost $327,224 in 2011.

Air Force doesn’t have to disclose financial information regarding athletics. Since cadets don’t attend service academies on scholarship, there really shouldn’t be a need —or a desire — for the Falcons to step up in competition. Chances are they’ll stick around in what’s left of the FBS.

The Gray Area

Six other schools in the MWC (Colorado State, New Mexico, UNLV, Wyoming, San Jose State, Utah State) make for an interesting case.  According to the OPE, all of these schools neither profited nor lost money from their football programs. 

Is it sheer coincidence that 50 percent of the MWC has schools that generate exactly enough money to run their programs? Probably not. It’s more likely that money is reallocated from other funds like mandatory student activity fees in order to keep the ship from taking on water. 

Even still, the idea of making more money at the next level will prove to be too attractive for a few of these schools. 

UNLV probably is the primary candidate here. Sure, the Rebels haven’t been too good on the gridiron the last few seasons, but they do have a few things working in their favor. First off, UNLV currently is in negotiations with many of the local hotel-casinos to build a new 60,000-seat stadium on campus, which means they could have some of the nicest digs in the country if it goes through.

More importantly, Las Vegas is the No. 40 television market in the country, according to Nielson. Since TV revenues are king in college football, what conference with a cable network wouldn’t want to add 737,000 TV-viewing homes into the fold?

As for the remaining five schools? It’s a coin flip. Some will try to move up in class, but at some point “the big five” will take a look at the roster of schools they have and decide that further expansion really isn’t necessary. 

Rest assured, when the breakup happens, the MWC will look drastically different than it does to kick off the 2013 season.