Out of alignment
Welcome to the world of conference re-alignment, where for schools like the University of Idaho, the only certainty is that there will be none. UI still faces an uncertain future heading into the 2013-14 athletic calendar, with the most likely solution being football independence. But more on that later.
First, the basics.
The Western Athletic Conference has 10 teams for the 2012-13 season, seven in football. Six of those schools will be leaving next season for new conferences.
Remaining will be Seattle, Denver, New Mexico State and Idaho. Boise State will join as a non-football member if they aren’t invited into the Big West, as its football program will join the Big East and has officially withdrawn from the Mountain West Conference.
Now, for the Idaho Vandals and their orphan WAC partner New Mexico State, they will be left with two options going in to 2013 should the WAC have to dissolve. And realistically, we should know what that course of action is within the next month.
The first option is moving down to the Big Sky. Idaho has staunchly decided against this decision. Why? Money. The athletic department could potentially be in line to receive substantial hand-me-downs in television revenue from the new playoff format that will first take place in 2014. In order to receive that revenue the football program needs to maintain its FBS status.
This is where independence comes into play.
Idaho has made its desire to gain entrance in the Mountain West very clear, and will continue to try to gain entrance to that conference, even if it has to float around as an independent for a year.
The MWC does not want Idaho right now because it is holding a spot for Boise State in case they renege on the Big East, and because that conference will continue to look for the best possible television markets it can get.
Right now, independence is the only plausible option for the Vandals going into 2013. And it’s a realistic one. The Idaho athletic department operates with one of the lowest expense numbers in major college athletics at just over $15 million.
Revenue generated, which includes small numbers in student fees and university subsidies, is roughly the same. Money lost from not being a member of a conference would have to be made up in guarantee road games. For instance, Idaho is making just about $2 million from road games at Brigham Young, Louisiana State and North Carolina.
Idaho would feasibly need to schedule one or two more such games to make independence work. So obviously such a move wouldn’t be about wins or losses.
The struggle would be getting teams to come play at Idaho’s Kibbie Dome. The NCAA mandates that FBS schools have a minimum of five home games. It’s never a problem for teams that are in a conference; Idaho would simply play each team in alternating home and away fashion. As an independent, who is willingly going to send their football program to a 17,000-seat venue in the Palouse? Athletic director Rob Spear will need to be creative in using relationships formed with certain Mountain West and Mid-American Conference teams in creating home and away agreements to get teams to come to Moscow. Scheduling more than one Big Sky type programs to come to Moscow wouldn’t be out of the question either.
No matter the solution that Idaho comes up with to make its FBS future work, the one certainty is that there will be rough times ahead.
Sean Kramer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org