When word trickled out last week that the Mountain West is exploring the possibility of expansion — and that its top target is reigning national runner-up Gonzaga — it caused a tempest of intrigue and speculation, with fans and media types in every MWC market wondering what such a move would mean for the conference.
So, what do we make of the rumor? Some key questions:
Why is the Mountain West considering it?
This should be fairly obvious. Gonzaga is one of the premier basketball programs in the nation, mid-major and power conferences included. The Bulldogs have made the NCAA Tournament 19 straight years and won at least one tourney game in each of the last nine seasons, so this is a legitimate powerhouse program that would instantly elevate the status of the Mountain West (and add a little NCAA Tournament money to the pool). That's why the MWC wants Gonzaga.
Why is Gonzaga considering it?
Playing in the tiny West Coast Conference hasn't restricted Gonzaga from reaching the upper echelon of college basketball, but it hasn't helped, either. There are no challenges in the WCC, as the Zags only have to dispatch St. Mary's and BYU in order to secure the conference's lone NCAA bid. There is no television money to speak of for the WCC, and since Gonzaga is the only team making the NCAA Tournament consistently, it's the only school contributing NCAA money.
What is "NCAA money"?
The NCAA Tournament generates a ton of revenue, and the NCAA distributes a good amount of the profit back to the teams that participate in March Madness. The payouts are a bit complicated: Each of the 68 teams that make the tourney receive a monetary share (last year it amounted to more than $260,000), and that's paid out per game and repeats for the next six years. The conferences take that payout and split it evenly among its members.
So by playing in five NCAA Tournament games last year, Gonzaga earned about $1.3 million for the WCC for each of the next six years. And the payouts multiply as the six-year periods overlap — this year, the WCC is still also receiving money from Gonzaga's tournament runs in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016. That's a lot of cash for one school to be producing for the rest of its small conference. Maybe Gonzaga is tired of shouldering that burden with no other WCC teams pulling their weight.
When would an expansion move happen?
The Mountain West has a TV deal with ESPN and CBS to televise football and basketball, and that contract runs out after the 2019-20 season. So the time to add Gonzaga would be this offseason or next, in order to make the league as attractive as possible before negotiating the next TV rights contract. If it happens, it's going to happen relatively soon.
How big does the Mountain West want to get?
Adding Gonzaga would give the league 12 basketball schools and improve the quality of play tremendously. But if the Mountain West wants to think big, adding four more teams to get to 16 could potentially turn the MWC into a super mid-major conference capable of sending four, five or six teams to the NCAA Tournament on a regular basis.
A 16-team league comprising two eight-team divisions — if done correctly — could position the Mountain West closer to the power conferences than to the rest of the mid-majors. And that's an exciting idea, although it would take an extraordinary amount of vision from the MWC leadership to pull off.
What to do about BYU?
If the Mountain West does want to pursue a multiple-team expansion, the next obvious candidate to join is BYU.
Now, there's a lot of complicated history there. BYU left the Mountain West on bad terms in 2011, going independent in football (in pursuit of more TV revenue than the MWC was capable of providing) and joining the WCC for basketball and Olympic sports. The move left a lot of MWC leaders angry and spiteful, and a lot of fans feel the same way. So a reunion would be tricky.
But leaving emotion aside, it makes a lot of sense for BYU to join the expansion party. Without Gonzaga, the WCC would be crippled and BYU would be left playing Santa Clara, Pacific and Loyola Marymount on an endless loop. That should motivate the Cougars to get in front of this and send the Mountain West a "U up?" text.
And the Mountain West should seriously consider it. A lot of the league's school presidents and athletic directors have changed since 2011, so there would not be as much animosity as existed immediately after BYU's desertion. And BYU could even stay independent in football — the Cougars still wouldn't want to give up their TV deal — because the MWC is mainly interested in a basketball expansion, and BYU makes too much sense on that end with its geographic proximity and existing rivalries within the league.
In a "big expansion" scenario, who are the other candidates?
In the original San Diego Union-Tribune story, MWC commissioner Craig Thompson said he has had preliminary discussions with six schools. Gonzaga is one. BYU is probably another.
Other schools that make sense, in terms of geography and basketball value:
St. Mary's: The WCC's second-best basketball program over the last decade.
Grand Canyon University: A for-profit school that is winning a ton of games and pumping a ton of money into its basketball program.
New Mexico State: Five NCAA appearances in the last six years (and a feeder for Mountain West basketball coaches).
UTEP: Some hoops history from the WAC glory days but no NCAA appearances in this decade.
What would it mean financially?
Conferences make most of their money off their television contracts, and those TV deals are driven almost entirely by football — when it comes to Power 5 schools. For mid-majors, football is a big factor but not the only determinant.
Under a big or small expansion scenario, the Mountain West's football picture would largely remain unchanged: It's a Group of 5 league and will be compensated as such. But throwing in a prestigious 16-team basketball conference with handfuls of NCAA contenders playing each other on a nightly basis would be a real sweetener for the league's next TV deal.
The potential for multiple NCAA Tournament shares would provide another not-insignificant infusion of cash. As covered above, Gonzaga is single-handedly bringing in millions for the WCC just by making the tournament and winning games in March. A league with multiple NCAA teams like the proposed new Mountain West could triple or quadruple those shares (although the money would be split among more teams than in the 10-team WCC).
What would it mean for the league?
Whether the league is interested in making cosmetic changes by adding one team or completely renovating the league with multiple additions, the expanded Mountain West would be a basketball conference first and foremost.
Moving away from the football model is rare in today's college sports landscape, but it's not impossible. The new Big East is sustaining itself without football, thanks to a 12-year, $500 million TV contract with Fox Sports, and the reimagined Mountain West could pull off something similar (on a much, much smaller scale) as the country's super mid-major conference.
What are the odds of expansion happening?
According to sources and published reports, the Mountain West and Gonzaga both seem to want this. The fact that Thompson would go public with his musings could mean that this isn't just idle conversation, but that gears are already turning behind the scenes to try and make it happen.