LARAMIE, Wyo. — At the University of Wyoming, the trade-off the Mountain West is making for television is apparent.
The Cowboys drew more fans to Memorial Stadium for each afternoon game in September against nonconference foes Gardner-Webb and Texas State than they did for the conference opener against Hawaii, which kicked off at 8:15 p.m. Mountain time.
The Hawaii game was broadcast on ESPN2 as part of a deal that pays the Mountain West more than $100 million over seven years. The Texas State game was streamed exclusively on Facebook, which pays the conference nothing for the content.
The Mountain West has three years left on the TV contract that puts most of its members’ home football games on an ESPN channel or CBS Sports Network. As conference officials ponder their next move, the Mountain West is experimenting with alternatives to traditional broadcasting and weighing whether filling all those late TV windows is worth the money its members are making.
“The issue is for us, the money is not so great that, at least in my opinion, that we are willing to just play game times whenever TV calls,” Wyoming athletic director Tom Burman said earlier this season. “That’s the challenges. If you want money from ESPN or CBS we’re going to have to play in that late window. That’s kind of what we bring them. Inventory late at night or sometimes off Saturday.”
A schedule loaded with late kickoffs and some weeknight games has been an annual source of complaints in the Pac-12 among fans, coaches and administrators. Washington coach Chris Petersen caused a bit of stir when he voiced displeasure with his playoff-contending Huskies consistently playing Pacific time night games.
Mountain West schools are facing a similar issue but with a major difference: The Pac-12’s television contract with ESPN and Fox is the major source of conference revenue that paid its members about $28 million apiece for fiscal year 2016, according to tax documents.
The Mountain West schools are making about $1.1 million from their deals with ESPN, CBS and AT&T Sports Net. Boise State’s membership agreement gives the school an additional $1.8 million, approximately, per year.
“It’s great to be aligned with a linear broadcaster, but what we’ve seen, too, is that impacts with our localized fanbase,” Colorado State athletic director Joe Parker said.
Colorado State just made a huge commitment to appealing to its local fanbase, opening a $220 million, on-campus stadium this year.
“We’ve seen all the engagement metric launching in a remarkable upward trend,” Parker said. “The thing that I’m concerned about is if we start moving our games off Saturday or if we start ending up in the 8 (p.m. local) or later time slot, that’s going to have impacts on fans wanting to attend in venue.”
Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson said the conference is crunching numbers to get a better handle of how scheduling for TV impacts other revenue sources. It is not as simple as counting game-day receipts.
The old saying is the athletic department if the front porch of a university, providing opportunities for far-reaching exposure along with a way to engage future, current and former students.
Those measurements are not so precise.
“It’s not priceless, but what is the value of a national television game for recruiting purposes?” Thompson said. “The national exposure that those games generate is worth something. They’re in roughly a quarter of a million homes. What does that mean? Is that one replacement running back that you desperately need that lives in Georgia watching that game and going, ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to one of those Mountain West schools. I love their style of play. I don’t know. What are we missing? What are we gaining?”
The other challenge for Thompson comes from within. While Colorado State, Wyoming and the four other schools in the Mountain time zone tend to cringe at those late kickoffs, the schools in the Pacific Time Zone don’t mind them as much, Thompson said.
Then there is Boise State. Back in 2012, when the Broncos were still new to the Mountain West and not far removed from their BCS-busting days, they were wooed by the then-Big East during conference realignment. To keep Boise State, the Mountain West agreed to a deal that guaranteed the school more appearances on ESPN and more TV revenue than the other schools.
Going forward the agreement calls for the rights to Boise State’s home games to be negotiated separately from the rest of the conference.
Boise State is still a perennial contender in the Mountain West, leading the Mountain Division this season, but the Broncos have only won the division once in the last four seasons. Whether Boise State still deserves special treatment is something the rest of the conference wants to consider before another television deal is struck.
“I don’t want to say Boise’s brand is different, but when they came off Fiesta Bowl runs they were a national story. They’re not there today. They’re still excellent,” Burman said. “Boise still has a brand that’s different than the rest of us. But that discussion needs to happen between presidents and the commissioner about what does Boise merit three years from now and how does this get resolved.”
Boise State AD Curt Apsey said the school is open to having that discussion. He also added that while the Broncos and their fans would welcome more day games, they can’t come at the expense of TV revenue.
“It would be very difficult for us to give up the TV money and make it up in ticket sales,” he said.
All of big-time college sports — professional sports, too — is staring into an uncertain future media landscape. Less people are watching TV on their TVs. With an eye toward a changing market, and a desire to create exposure for games that didn’t have a television platform, the Mountain West, through its partnership with digital sports distributor Stadium, struck a deal with Facebook this year to exclusively stream six football games on the social network. According to the Mountain West, those games drew 4.5 million views, led by New Mexico State at New Mexico on Sept. 9, with 1.3 million views. Views, though, are not the analogous to TV viewers. A view is registered by a click and a minimum of a few seconds of streaming. TV viewership is measured by the average number of viewers for an event from beginning to end.
Texas State-Wyoming on Sept. 30 drew about 610,000 streaming views. Hawaii-Wyoming on Sept. 23 drew 445,000 viewers, according to figures compiled by Sports Media Watch . ESPN said though week 10 of the regular season, 14 Mountain West games on ESPN networks, mostly on ESPN2 and ESPNU, averaged 407,000 viewers.
The Mountain West had games streaming on Twitter last year. But as of now the conference has not found a way to monetize social media streaming and nontraditional content providers such as NetFlix and Google have not entered the market to provide competition for TV networks.
Thompson is cautious about playing his negotiating hand with ESPN and CBS publicly, but the reality is this: If Mountain West teams want to play less night and weekday games it will drive down their value to traditional TV partners. But maybe it’s worth it.
“Yes, you’d hate to have to replace (the revenue). But does it put us out of business? No,” Thompson said. “However, I’m not an AD and they may say, ‘You’re an idiot for making that kind of statement.'”
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP