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Could The Mountain West Become A Power 5 Conference?

  • The collapse of the Pac-12 leaves a vacuum in big-time college sports.
  • Could the Mountain West replace the Pac-12 — or become it?
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Mountain West commissioner Gloria Nevarez isn’t happy about the collapse of the Pac-12.

A former conference employee, Cal law school graduate, and Bay Area native, Nevarez told Front Office Sports she was “crushed” when she watched the news unfold from her home office last Friday.

For her current conference, though, the Pac-12’s demise provides a massive opportunity. Stanford, Cal, Oregon State, and Washington State are looking for new homes. The Mountain West could gain big football brands, solidifying its stability and boosting potential value for its next round of media rights negotiations.

And there’s potential for more than expansion. Though fraught with logistical, legal, and financial difficulties, there is a possibility that the Mountain West could become the fifth Power 5 conference.

“There’s a lot of due diligence that needs to happen,” Nevarez said. “But certainly, we’re open to the conversation.”

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The first determining factor: how the four schools proceed. Nevarez noted the Mountain West won’t “get serious” about discussions until the ACC, currently weighing whether to add Stanford and Cal, makes its decision.

If the two Bay Area schools can find a home in the ACC, then Oregon State and Washington State would be left to fend for themselves.

There are two scenarios Mountain West members have discussed most often in the past few weeks, a source told FOS: adding Oregon State, Washington State, and the Pac-12 branding — or dissolving the conference and joining the existing Pac-12 entity.

The Mountain West is interested in the two schools, that source confirmed. If they join, they might be allowed to bring the intellectual property of the Pac-12 with them. In this scenario, Nevarez would become the first female Power 5 commissioner.

“That’d be a weird way to back into [the role],” Nevarez said, though she currently has more experience in college sports than half of the existing Power commissioners.

San Diego State has been advocating for a version of the second scenario, which would also include replacing some existing Mountain West members with schools from the American Athletic Conference, according to CBS — though it doesn’t seem to have convinced schools to carry out this idea. (SDSU athletic director J.D. Wicker disputed the report in a Twitter thread.)

“San Diego State has been transparent that they are exploring,” Nevarez said of the rumor. “I’ve always said I would never mount a campaign to keep any of our schools from doing what’s best for them. I don’t know fact or fiction of what private conversations [took place] or not. But … we had a board meeting Monday night, and I believe we were unanimous in trying to work this out together.”

A newly formed Mountain West-Pac-12 combo could bring Nevarez with them, as it’s hard to imagine any top conference would want to be led by George Kliavkoff, who’s overseen the Pac-12’s fall from grace. But the conference would have to start from scratch and build an entirely new infrastructure, like the Big East did a decade ago — a scenario sources have described as risky.

Even if it gets some current Power 5 members, and the name of a Power 5 conference, it would still lack the riches of the ACC, SEC, Big Ten, and Big 12. 

The Mountain West’s current media contract with Fox and CBS, which runs until 2026, pays out only $4 million per school per year. The rest of the Power 5 TV contracts dole out a minimum of $30 million.

In the fall of 2022, ESPN reportedly offered $30 million per school annually to the Pac-12.

Pac-12 Reportedly Rejected ESPN’s $30 Million Per School Annual Offer

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Adding new schools would obviously increase the Mountain West’s value, and the conference won’t settle for anything less. “The starting point, typically, is pro rata,” Nevarez said — meaning expansion in this current contract would require networks to pay an additional share equal to the shares current schools receive. But the Mountain West’s media revenue will never come close to those of the Power 4. An industry source told FOS that renaming the conference the Pac-12 wouldn’t get it there.

The Mountain West’s forgettable contracts would be a major problem, given TV money drives realignment decisions. The conference has expansion competitors even beyond the ACC — the AAC could also be bidding for new schools. Commissioner Mike Aresco has been vocal for years about wanting his conference to be considered a power conference. 

Ultimately, the Mountain West will have to submit its resume to the College Football Playoff’s board. 

“Really, it’s the voting authority and the revenue distribution that [a conference has] with the CFP,” Nevarez said. “That’s the piece that makes it, air quotes, ‘Power 5.’” The board, which just last summer agreed to a 12-team format based on five Power 5 conferences and five Group of 5 conferences, will have to reevaluate its entire structure in the wake of conference realignment.

“At worst, in two weeks, three weeks, we’re the same league we were a month ago,” Nevarez said. “At best, we have an opportunity to be creative.”

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