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Boise State, the biggest brand and best football school in the Mountain West, was recently in a public mini-beef with the conference for a few weeks. That then became BIG BEEF, SERVED WITH A HEAPING SIDE OF FRESHLY BAKED IDAHO POTATOES.
Since we’ve first published this newsletter, the school and conference seem to have made amends — at least for now. But their saga is still notable, because it brought some long-running tension points between Boise and the MWC to the surface. These issues could still result, some day, in the two parties going separate ways.
I’ll keep this section brief, but if you’d rather go right to REALIGNMENT FANFIC, just scroll down a bit.
On January 9, the MWC announced a new TV agreement that runs from the 2020 through 2025 football seasons. The gist for fans is that MWC games will now be on Fox and CBS channels, as opposed to on ESPN and CBS channels. Not a big thing. But it’s potentially a way bigger long-term thing for Boise because of the way the conference structures its deals.
Ever since Boise briefly joined the Big East during 2011-2013’s realignment hurricane (right before the Big East fell apart, leading to Boise never playing there), the Broncos have enjoyed special TV privileges in the Mountain West. The league has sold Boise home games as a separate package, leading to Boise making $1.8 million a year plus a regular MWC TV share. In total, Boise’s been making about $2.9 million a year, while its peers have been making $1.1 million.
Boise will keep getting that $1.8 million under this new deal through 2025. But MWC commissioner Craig Thompson has strongly suggested that when that deal expires, the league will force Boise to take the same deal everyone else gets.
Thompson’s proposition has not sat well at Boise State. Boise is also upset, we’ve now learned, that its special $1.8 million check is not increasing along with this new, bigger TV deal – which is expected to roughly triple the base share each school gets every year.
Something else that really pissed Boise off: the school’s top admins say Thompson, the commissioner, told them he’d work with them to get their $1.8 million home-games payout increased in the MWC’s new, larger TV deal. But according to Boise, when the conference presented options to the rest of its members on a new deal, none of them addressed an increase in Boise’s payout. The school feels hoodwinked, bamboozled, and led astray.
So, on January 17, Boise filed a legal complaint against its own league, alleging breach of contract and a failure to negotiate in good faith. You can read the complaint here. The school and league said they were trying to settle things out of court.
By February 6, they’d settled. The Mountain West agreed to continue giving Boise State its own extra cut of TV money on the next deal, per the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Conferences primarily exist to make TV money for their members. It says something that Boise State was furious enough with the Mountain West’s TV dealings to take legal action.
If you’ve just scrolled to here, welcome back. The main point is that Boise State and the rest of the Mountain West seem to see their business dealings a lot differently. That brings up some realignment possibilities.
That’s true even if one party isn’t currently suing the other.
Door 1: Leave the Mountain West for the AAC in football, and park your non-football teams in whatever conference will take them.
This would require the AAC to want Boise State. Boise is far away from other AAC schools. But this is called the American Conference for a reason. Its schools are already spread out, to the point that USF, Tulsa, and UConn have all shared it. It’s already an inconvenient league for travel, but as long as the TV money is good, schools have been OK with that. The biggest reason UConn’s leaving is because a new TV arrangement made them mad.
In football, with four or five road conference games a year, the travel situation isn’t such a big deal for anyone. Boise could take UConn’s spot and give the best Group of 5 league another heavy hitter to contend with Houston, Memphis, UCF, Cincinnati, and USF. According to at least one analysis, this would make the current AAC as good as the current ACC. It would bolster the value of the AAC’s TV package and give Boise football a fine place to land. The AAC’s TV deal pays around $7 million per school right now.
What of other sports? Well, they might be annoyed. In a more just world, football wouldn’t drive 99.5% of realignment decisions. But we don’t live in that world. All of Boise’s non-revenue teams would benefit from football bringing in as much money as possible. Maybe the answer is to take everything to the AAC, or maybe it’s the Summit League, WAC, Big Sky, or Big West.
Boise would probably want to wait until after the current MWC deal expires to do any of this, but maybe this lawsuit provides leverage.
Door 2: Go independent in football, and otherwise do the same thing as above.
Boise State’s football games are worth a lot. Just for the home games, that number’s been $1.8 million a year for the last half-decade and change. In their lawsuit, Boise says the Mountain West commissioner acknowledged Boise’s football team was “the driving force” behind the entire Mountain West getting a more profitable TV agreement.
So it’s not that hard to imagine Boise doing what BYU did a few years ago and selling its own football games to ESPN or whoever. That would provide a lot of scheduling flexibility, like BYU has, and Boise could park other sports wherever it thinks best. In some respects, Boise would have an easier time fitting its other sports into a new conference than BYU has had.
Door 3: Use this lawsuit to get more favorable terms from the Mountain West, and live happily ever after. (Update: This is what seems to be happening, for now.)
In this version of events, the Mountain West agrees to bump Boise State’s $1.8 million to something higher during the life of the new TV deal. This would have Boise making more than $5 million a year in TV money. Also, the conference agrees to keep selling Boise home games separately on the next deal.
Door 4: Shut up and take what the Mountain West gives you.
If Boise takes this path (or loses its suit), the Broncos will keep making their $1.8 million in special money every year through the 2025 season. It’s kind of hard to imagine Boise would continue that arrangement after 2025, given that they’ve now threatened their conference with a lawsuit over it. And if the MWC wins that lawsuit or otherwise gets Boise to back down, the league might feel emboldened not to budge.
Door 5, by far the most fun door: Let REALIGNMENT CHAOS sweep you away.
Here are two possibilities. Both of them will tickle your spine if you’re the kind of dork (like me) who spent much of the 2010s scouring message boards for wild realignment theories.
Door 5, subdoor 1: The Big 12 explodes, and Boise State takes advantage.
June 30, 2025 is the date when every team in the Big 12 no longer has to give control of its media rights to the Big 12. If any members of the Big 12 decide they want to go elsewhere – especially if Texas or Oklahoma does – it’s possible the Big 12 dissolves or becomes unrecognizable. On the other hand, it’s possible that chaos prompts current Big 12 members to go fishing for new friends. Could Boise be a candidate for a new-look Big 12? The Broncos wanted a crack when the Big 12 was considering expansion in 2015 and ‘16.
Door 5, subdoor 2: The Big 12 doesn’t erupt but expands anyway.
Whatever the path, getting power conference membership would make Boise tons of money.
The Broncos are slated to make about $5 million per year going forward in the Mountain West. The TV money share for a Big 12 school was about $39 million in 2019.
Door 5, subdoor 3: Western college football realigns entirely.
I was talking about this concept with my colleague Matt Brown, whose newsletter is worth checking out.
There are already only a tiny handful of Division II football schools west of Colorado. One school in Utah and another in Texas (not west of Colorado, but bear with me) are planning FCS jumps. Meanwhile, FCS only has one Western conference, the Big Sky, and that league’s already pretty full. There are signs the WAC is interested in getting back into the football business. And if Boise were to leave the Mountain West, that conference would have serious chaos potential.
It’s worth considering the possibility that a bunch of Western FCS schools try to make the jump to FBS, and perhaps they’d join forces with some current Mountain West members, maybe including Boise State. That wouldn’t happen until the middle of the 2020s, which means we’ll have a few years to theorize about it, and that’s most of the fun anyway.
At any rate, this could be pretty good for Boise State.
The Broncos had a great football team before they joined Mountain West, and they’ll probably have a great football team after they leave. Most of the ideas on this list are feasible in the near future as long as Boise keeps being good at football, which they’ve done for 20 years. That they’ve apparently shaken hands for now doesn’t change any of that.
It could be a lot less good for the Mountain West. Not wanting to give one school Most Favored Nation status is understandable, because a conference has to keep a lot of schools happy. But if Boise left and took the conference’s TV marketability with it, that wouldn’t make those schools happy either. For that reason, it’s probably smart for the other schools to have mended fences.