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Television deals, league expansion among topics for Mountain West commish

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AP

Mountain West Conference Commissioner Craig Thompson testifyies before the House Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection Subcommittee hearing on the football Bowl Championship Series on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 1, 2009.

The Mountain West Conference appears to be on the verge of big changes to its television contracts, football bowl affiliations and even its membership structure, and league commissioner Craig Thompson was questioned on those topics during his annual press conference at the MWC Media Days event Tuesday at the Cosmopolitan.

Thompson met with the media and said the Mountain West’s TV deals with CBS and ESPN have been an ongoing topic of internal conversation among the league office and university presidents and athletic directors, with revenue and start times among the priorities for the league.

The current contracts run through the 2019-20 season, and while the deals can open for renegotiation in the spring, Thompson said the networks are taking a wait-and-see approach.

“Right now they’re hesitant to do that because they’re kind of in the same boat with all the mergers, all the changes in the industry,” Thompson said. “So they’re not real prone to jump in to do something now. They want to see how things play out too.”

When talks do open up, Thompson said the league wants to secure as much revenue as possible while maintaining some control of game times.

“It still gets down to exposure and relevancy, to recruitment and revenue, and certainly the control of kick and tip times,” he said.

Thompson said he understands why the networks prefer to schedule some Mountain West games to start after 8 p.m., as that gives the league an opportunity to gain more viewers in East Coast time zones. That brings in additional TV revenue but makes it more difficult for local fans to attend games.

“We have been told directly by the television partners, the later you play the more value you bring to us,” he said. “So we have to balance that out. Do we want fans to attend, or do we want that exposure so somebody in the Eastern or Central time zone at 10, 11, midnight can watch our games?”

With news that the Las Vegas Bowl could be ending its relationship with the Mountain West when the game moves into the new Raiders stadium in 2020, Thompson was pressed on the possibility of new bowl allegiances. Besides the Las Vegas Bowl, the Mountain West currently has affiliations with four other bowl games: The Arizona Bowl, the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, the New Mexico Bowl and the Hawaii Bowl.

The Mountain West can sign up to as many as six bowl affiliation deals.

“We’ve got a very high probability we will renew in Boise, Albuquerque and Honolulu. We have an agreement with the Arizona Bowl in place. For our other two bowls, we’re allowed to sign up to six bowl partnerships. The big one is here in Las Vegas. The people involved — the Raiders, the stadium, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, ESPN — are still looking at all their various options.”

Under the current agreement, the Mountain West sends its league champion to the Las Vegas Bowl to take on an opponent from the Pac-12. If the Las Vegas Bowl does decide to move on from the MWC, the league will have to figure out another destination for its top team each year.

One possibility could be a second bowl game in Las Vegas, something that Thompson said is a possibility but far from a sure thing at this point in time.

“Probably cart ahead of the horse a little bit on a second bowl. The short answer is, obviously we’d love to stay in Las Vegas and if that means a second bowl, that is something we would strongly consider.”

“We know we bring thousands of fans to town, we have a passionate base across our 12 institutions that love to come to Las Vegas. We are marketable and we’re a known commodity. We’ll continue to talk with those people, but at the end of the day it’ll be determined by whoever is running the stadium, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and others, including ESPN, presumably, as to who they want to play in that game.”

On the topic of league expansion, Thompson was open about the Mountain West’s “hot and heavy” courtship of Gonzaga over the winter. The Mountain West currently has 11 basketball members and 12 football members (including football-only Hawaii as an associate member), so balancing the leagues by adding basketball-only Gonzaga — one of the top programs in the nation — would have been considered a coup.

Though Gonzaga ultimately decided to remain part of the West Coast Conference for now, Thompson said the door is open for expansion conversations to continue.

“The pursuit of Gonzaga probably got a little more public than I would have cared to have it taken,” Thompson said. “We have 11 basketball schools; there is an opening for basketball. We have 12 football-playing members, so a 13th football-playing member, while workable, is probably not the most desirable.”

Thompson said that though the league failed to add Gonzaga, he still believes the basketball outlook for the Mountain West is “on the upswing.”

“I like where the league is now,” he said.

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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