Fresno State finds itself in an enviable position when conference realignment enters a courtroom phase, with the Pac-12 haggling over its ability and who among the rubble of that league has a claim on them.
The Bulldogs, who have been left behind in a conference that’s been shaking up for decades, may actually be in a perfect spot if a realignment plays out again, and that may not be the case for all of their peers in the Mountain West Conference.
If Oregon State and Washington State, the only schools not leaving the Pac-12 next year, gain control of the conference’s assets, they could try to rebuild the league by bumping schools with the brightest brands and biggest markets, increasing the value of a potential media rights contract.
That could be a boon for Fresno State and its underfunded athletic department, with potentially more media rights revenue available than the Bulldogs get in the Mountain West, as well as a higher conference profile.
If the Pac-12 schools that are leaving for other conferences in 2024 can dissolve the league and split assets that include about $50 million in NCAA tournament revenue and an emergency reserve fund, then Oregon State and Washington State could fit seamlessly into ‘ e Mountain West slide.
In either scenario, Fresno State going backwards would be a long shot.
What happens next? Follow the money
Oregon State and Washington State won the first foray into court. They were granted a temporary restraining order Monday, preventing the Pac-12 from convening a board meeting where the 10 departing members likely could have called for a vote to disband the conference and split its assets in a brazen cash grab.
They all have new homes — UCLA, USC, Oregon and Washington in the Big Ten; Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah in the Big 12 and Cal and Stanford across the country in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
But the UC regents in clearing the way for UCLA to bolt to the Big Ten will require the Bruins to contribute between $2 million and $10 million a year to Cal. Under their deal with the Big Ten, Oregon and Washington will receive reduced shares of media rights revenue compared to existing conference schools.
Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah, will receive full shares in their deals, but a full share of media rights revenue in the Big 12 is significantly less than it is in the Big Ten.
All of them could use a share of Pac-12 assets, no matter how bad the optics are.
Oregon State and Washington State are also in dire need of revenue as their longtime conference home implodes.
These two remaining Pac-12 schools have received about 40% of their athletics revenue from media rights and conference distributions and both will take drastic cuts whether they can rebuild the conference or fall to the Mountain West.
They also have significant long-term financial obligations.
Oregon State plays in a newly renovated stadium, which was financed largely by donors but also $45 million in bonds to be repaid over a 35-year period, an annual bill the university projected to be about to be $2.6 million.
It signed football coach Jonathan Smith last December to a six-year contract through 2029 that is worth $4.85 million this year and includes $100,000 in annual raises, bringing the total value to $30.6 million. It also increased the salary pool for its 10 on-field assistant coaches to $4.85 million and for support staff to $2.5 million annually with annual raises of $100,000 per year for both pools.
Those contracts alone will cost Oregon State $12.2 million this season.
Fresno State by comparison invested $14.8 million in football last year while winning a Mountain West championship and the LA Bowl, including $4.3 million in salaries for coach Jeff Tedford and his assistant coaches.
Washington State is not as deep as Oregon State with its contractual obligations, but is by no means in an enviable position. Cougars’ coach Jake Dickert is signed through 2027 and last season was paid $2.7 million and the salary pool for his assistant coaches was a little more than $4 million.
Those contracts were sustainable while receiving between $36 million and $38 million in media rights revenue and conference distributions, which they did in 2021-22.
It provided $36.2 million of $83.5 million in athletics revenue in 2021-2022 for Oregon State and $37.3 million of $85 million for Washington State, according to Sportico.
The Mountain West spends just a fraction of that each year — Fresno State in 2021-2022 received about $5 million in media rights revenue and conference distributions.
Will Mountain West Conference split?
The outcome of Pac-12 litigation and control of its assets could become dicey for some schools in the Mountain West.
If Oregon State and Washington State control the assets of the Pac-12, they would then go after six big market schools from the Mountain West, American Athletic Conference or Conference USA in an effort to maximize the value of media rights in the new league ?
That would bring exit costs into play — in the Mountain West, a school leaving the conference with less than one year’s notice would have to pay about $34 million. But they would at least have assets that could be directed toward rebuilding the conference.
It would take votes from nine of the 12 football-playing members of the Mountain West to dissolve the conference, but would Oregon State and Washington State try to break up the league? They could invite only the nine most desirable Mountain West schools to join and eliminate their exit fees, and revenue from a media rights deal for the restructured conference would then be split 11 ways instead of 14.
Or would Oregon State and Washington State simply welcome all the Mountain West schools under what would be a Pac-14 banner?
But Fresno State, which was left behind in the Western Athletic Conference in 1998 when eight schools broke away to form the Mountain West, is in a solid position if Oregon State and Washington State invite six, nine or all schools to join. to do them.
When Sacramento-Stockton-Modesto, Fresno-Visalia and Bakersfield are combined, a San Joaquin Valley media market ranks among the Top 20 largest in the country. The Bulldogs’ brand is also growing, with a five-year increase in football attendance driving success on the field, which includes 10 or more wins four times in the past five non-COVID seasons, two Mountain West championships and four bowl victories.
This story was originally published September 16, 2023, 5:30 am.
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