The Grass isn’t always Bluer: Boise State’s Conference Alignment Changes come with Tradeoffs

Boise State University has learned that jumping at a new chance to join another conference isn’t always the best idea. Photo credit Danica Rhodes.
By Danica Rhoades

Utah State University fans have been longing for entrance into the Mountain West Conference, a superior conference to the WAC. However, Danica Rhodes, a Boise State and college football journalist from Boise, describes why it isn’t always beneficial to switch leagues.

 

In a span of five years, Boise State will have made its home in three different conferences: the Western Athletic Conference, the Mountain West Conference and the Big East Conference. While most people believe that moving up the conference chain brings nothing but advantages, the fact is there are plenty of tradeoffs involved in making these moves.

During the near-decade that Boise State was part of the WAC, the school enjoyed a number of benefits that helped promote their football program to national prominence.  The Broncos rarely faced more than a couple truly tough conference games each season, which allowed the team to win the conference title (outright or shared) eight times and become the winningest FBS team of the BCS era. The team also appeared in two BCS games during their time in the WAC.

Bronco Nation, as the team’s fan base is known, enjoyed several aspects of the WAC conference as well. Many of the schools in the WAC are within easy travel distance of Boise, which made is easy for fans to support the team at away games. Fans also enjoyed a number of conference rivalry games such as Fresno State, Nevada, and (of course) the University of Idaho.

Television coverage was one of the biggest benefits for the fans during Boise State’s WAC era. Several games were shown nationally on ESPN each season. In addition, all games (home and away) were played, and often replayed, on local stations. This made it really easy for all fans to invest in the team—not just those with the money for season tickets or away game trips.

Of course, the WAC is not all sunshine and roses. The flip side of all those free game-viewing opportunities is that the WAC’s television revenue is fairly insignificant compared to other conferences. In 2011, the WAC brought in only $4 million to distribute among its members, a number that is taking a huge hit in 2012.  Along with the cash-flow limitations of the WAC, Boise State also continually faced the task of justifying their schedule and wins. While WAC play may have made it easier for BSU to obtain an at-large BCS bowl bid, it also meant they would never get enough respect to play in a national championship or make it to the BCS party with anything less than a perfect record. These disadvantages ultimately prompted the school to move their athletics into the MWC.

The benefit of moving to the MWC was a hot topic among Boise State fans for a number of years. Primarily, fans felt that if BSU joined TCU, Utah, and BYU then the Mountain West would have a legitimate shot at an automatic BCS bid in 2012. Bronco Nation dreamed of the day the MWC would finally let BSU into their club. Unfortunately, when that time came, BYU, Utah, and TCU had all already decided to take their programs elsewhere.

While the departure of the MWC powerhouse teams made the move less tempting, there are still some draws to the MWC. First—and likely the biggest reason for the move—is that the Mountain West rakes in four times the television revenue of the WAC, which was $12 million in 2011.

Along with the increased funding, the MWC also offers the Broncos opponents in the same region of the country so fans can still take in away games, and that garners more respect from critics. This means that BSU has to spend a little less time justifying their schedule and has a slightly higher chance of making it into a BCS game with a less-than-perfect record.

Then again, that television revenue comes at a cost—literally—to fans. Bronco Nation has grown accustomed to easy access to game footage and did not take kindly to having to purchase expensive cable packages. They neither were pleased to relegate themselves many times to sports bars in order to view the majority of away and sold-out home games in 2011.

The other major flaw of the MWC moving forward is that it seems to have lost its identity. Teams are bailing on the league or and joining the conference left and right. Then there is the whole Conference USA alignment plan. Nothing currently on the slate for the MWC looks too promising for any conference member.

With increased revenue and a slightly better reputation being the only real draw of the MWC, it was only a matter of time before Boise State looked for a better situation. And so they find themselves preparing to jump conferences a third time to make the Big East their home in 2014.

The obvious major benefits of Boise State’s move to the Big East are finally playing in an automatic-qualifying BCS conference and the significant increase in television revenue. The Big East currently brings in $40 million in television revenue annually. To put that into perspective, in 2012 each school will be paid three times as much as the entire Western Athletic Conference will receive this year.

The Big East also brings with it better competition, but not so much better that Boise State won’t be be competitive immediately upon entrance in the conference. In addition, Bronco Nation may finally be able to dream of a trip to a national championship game. Among the BCS conferences, the Big East is considered the weakling but it is certainly a step up from the WAC and the MWC.

The only major negative for fans is that nearly all the Big East opponents (as the name suggests) are located a significant distance from Boise. However, as the conference realignment dust settles, the Big East is likely to wind up with more West Coast teams, which will make some away game trips a more reasonable option for fans.

Danica is a business owner, group fitness teacher and journalist for the National Football Authority and Stadium Journey. She lives in Boise, Idaho.

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