What the Big Ten can learn from failed 16-team WAC experiment
WAC voted to expand to 16 teams in 1994, but league crumbled in 1998
Main issues: geography, membership disparity, failure to sell to networks
Superconference needs structure agreeable to all, sound finances to thrive
Major college athletics' first superconference made a bold boast with its first logo. Unveiled in June 1995, more than a year after Western Athletic Conference presidents had voted to enlarge the league to 16 schools, the logo of the new WAC proudly bore the slogan "Poised for the Future."
WAC leaders may have been correct. Massive conferences may indeed be the future of college sports. Though Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has tried to tap the brakes on runaway speculation, his conference is examining expansion models that could grow his league from 11 to 16 teams. If that happens, other power conferences might follow suit.
Unfortunately for the WAC, the world wasn't ready for a 16-team league in the '90s. Because of financial, geographic and structural issues, the arrangement crumbled in 1998 after only two years in practice. The presidents of BYU, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado State and Air Force met secretly in the Denver International Airport and decided to break away. Over a period of weeks, they added New Mexico, San Diego State and UNLV. It was decided that after the 1998-99 school year, the league would split in half. The defectors called their new conference the Mountain West.
So why, if the 16-team concept failed once, would one of the nation's most successful conferences consider trying it again? And if the Big Ten -- or any other conference -- decides to supersize, what can be done to eliminate the issues that doomed the expanded WAC?
"It was a different era. It was a different time," WAC commissioner Karl Benson said of the massive conference he was hired in 1994 to run. "I've been asked before, is 16 manageable? I've said it before. If the geography is right and if the characteristics of your membership are correct."
Delany wasn't addressing any expansion in particular, but his assessment of previous expansions during this week's Big Ten meetings perfectly described the WAC's expansion to 16. "A lot of them have, in my view, been improperly studied," Delany told reporters. "Didn't understand the logistics. Didn't understand the culture. Didn't understand the academic fit. Didn't understand how people did their business. Didn't really understand whether they were doing a merger or whether they were doing an expansion."
So it was for the 16-member WAC, which spanned nine states and five time zones. The 16 schools weren't exactly peer institutions, either. "We had six privates and 10 publics," Benson said. "We ranged from 2,500-enrollment Rice with average SAT of whatever to California state system schools with 25,000, 30,000 or 40,000."
With the exception of Northwestern, the Big Ten schools are large state institutions. The eight-state footprint is geographically contiguous, and unless the Big Ten pulls a shocker and lands Texas, all the expansion candidates mentioned -- all large state institutions aside from Syracuse -- would allow the league to maintain a contiguous footprint. And even if that footprint stretched 1,065 miles from Syracuse, N.Y., to Lincoln, Neb., travel between the two farthest-flung schools would seem like a Sunday drive compared to the 3,826-mile journey from Tulsa to Hawaii in the 16-member WAC.
As important as geography and membership are, they're not as important as television revenue. WAC presidents voted to expand before the breakup of the College Football Association, the consortium (or cartel, depending on your perspective) that negotiated TV deals for major programs at the time. Even after the CFA dissolved, WAC presidents were optimistic their league, with several huge television markets, could command a lucrative TV deal.
The league would lose money on the front end, because before expansion was finalized, presidents approved a contract with ESPN/ABC that would pay the league $3.5 million a year for five years starting in 1996. That deal was designed for a 10-team league. The WAC signed another deal that would pay $1 million for the rights to the football championship game, but presidents had to accept the fact that they would lose money on the front end with the hope of a big payday when the negotiating window opened again in 2000. With the huge TV markets the league had added, WAC presidents believed they had a product they could sell easily to television networks.
That wasn't the case.
As the ratings came in during the first year of the 16-team league, it became obvious that just because TCU was in the conference didn't mean people in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex would tune in en masse. Ditto for Rice and the Houston market and San Jose State and the Bay Area market.
"Just because you have Houston in your market doesn't mean you can deliver Houston," Benson said. "One of the other keys to a large number of schools is how much they can deliver your population. ... We advertised that we had the Houston market, the Dallas market and the San Francisco market, and yet there was such minimum penetration."
This question of market penetration has arisen as the Big Ten ponders expansion. Rutgers and Syracuse are believed to be candidates. The reason? The massive New York City television market, which boasts nearly 7.5 million households. The Big Ten's cable network already is available in the market on cable carriers' premium tiers, but the hope is that the inclusion of local schools might convince cable carriers to place the Big Ten Network on their expanded basic tiers. In the eight-state footprint, where most carriers already have the BTN as an expanded basic channel, the Big Ten collects about 70 cents a month per cable subscriber.
But whether those schools would deliver the New York market remains the key question -- and the likely focus of the Big Ten's research. Thanks to the BTN, a contract with ESPN/ABC, bowl revenue, licensing and NCAA tournament payouts, the Big Ten will distribute an estimated $22 million to each member school this year. Unlike the WAC presidents who took a big loss on the hope of future earnings, Big Ten presidents aren't likely to approve any expansion plan that takes money off the table for each member.
The WAC's Benson said the Big Ten has historically made its TV partners very happy. "What's been unique about the Big Ten in general is that they deliver," Benson said. "The population that's within the Big Ten footprint, they deliver."
So how would a 16-team conference look? Probably not like the WAC, which employed a confusing quadrant system that separated teams into blocks of four. Quadrant one, for example, was called the "Y'all Corner" because it contained Tulsa and former Southwest Conference members Rice, Southern Methodist and TCU. In 1996 and 1997, the Y'all Corner combined with Quadrant Three (BYU, New Mexico, UTEP, Utah) to form the Mountain Division. Teams played eight conference games, three against their quadrant, four against the other quadrant in their division and one crossover game. So in 1996, BYU played everyone in quadrants one and three and also played Hawaii.
|WAC Superconference Members and Configuration|
After two years, the quadrants would rotate, forming different divisions. Confused yet? So were fans. The biggest rivalries (BYU-Utah, for example) were preserved. Other long-standing series were ignored. That caused issues. "You've got to have some geography. You've got to have some history," said Craig Thompson, the former Sun Belt commissioner hired by the WAC defectors to run the Mountain West. "Some fans saying, 'I just hate that color.' That's the part of this that sometimes gets lost."
In the Big Ten, breaking into two divisions or four quadrants could be especially contentious. Many of the conference's football rivalries date back to the 1800s. And what of all the trophy games? Would Floyd of Rosedale have to cool his ham hocks for two years if Iowa and Minnesota wound up in different quadrants? While that particular scenario seems unlikely given the geography, any format will create friction.
In the 16-team WAC, the league's basketball coaches blasted the format. It didn't bother the football coaches much, though. "There were some issues that happened about that time that made it so it wasn't in the best interests to expand that much," former BYU coach LaVell Edwards said. "As far as the playing part of it, I didn't have any problem with that."
The problem came after BYU won the inaugural WAC title game and finished the 1996 season 13-1 and ranked No. 5 in the nation. One of the motives behind expansion was to gain more sway with bowls and possibly to gain an automatic berth in the Bowl Alliance, a precursor to the BCS. BYU seemed in line to go to the Fiesta Bowl, which was part of the Alliance. The Fiesta chose No. 7 Penn State instead, forcing BYU to accept a bid to the Cotton Bowl.
A BYU marketing professor and several students set bags of Tostitos ablaze in protest, but burning the tortilla chips made by the bowl's title sponsor did nothing to improve the WAC's standing. Even though it had 16 teams, it still lacked real power. To make matters worse, the league had lost out on a fat payday. WAC members were relying on the $8.5 million Fiesta Bowl payday -- which would have been distributed throughout the conference and would have helped offset some financial losses. Also, the Holiday Bowl used the WAC's expansion to escape its deal with the league. "That was the biggest thing I remember," Edwards said. "It gave the Holiday Bowl an out."
Eventually, the financial, scheduling and geographic issues became too much to bear. The schools that would eventually become the Mountain West broke away, leading to a contentious WAC meeting in 1998. "I remember some of us went into one room and some of us went into another," said Richard Peck, the former New Mexico president and author. "After that, a lot of old friends didn't want to talk."
For the WAC, 16 proved too big. The superconference failed from the inside. But Benson is quick to point out it was successful on the field and on the court. "From an outside standpoint, we were looked at as being pretty valuable," Benson said. "In the first two years of the 16-team WAC, there was BYU that very easily could have been playing in the 1997 Alliance Championship game, and Utah played for the freakin' national championship [in men's basketball] in the spring of '98. We had some momentum going."
The 16-team WAC's on-field success suggests that if a league could get its financial ducks in a row and determine a structure agreeable to all, a superconference could survive and thrive. The Big Ten has proceeded more prudently with its expansion plans than the WAC did. Delany and company may not reveal for a while how many schools they hope to add, but an expansion to 16 remains a distinct possibility.
So maybe the Super WAC didn't fail after all. Maybe it was just ahead of its time.