With the collapse of the Western Athletic Conference, New Mexico State may have to scrap its football program. Oliver Lee Bateman thinks that’s great news.
College football blogger nonpareil Paul Myerberg has done yeoman service with his thorough coverage of the impending demise of the Western Athletic Conference, which was once home to (reasonably) powerful programs like Arizona State, Brigham Young, and Utah:
The league never recovered from the formation of the Mountain West in 1999, which robbed the WAC of its heart and soul in Utah and B.Y.U., among others. The WAC tried to balance out those losses by adding Louisiana Tech, Nevada and Boise State, but with hindsight, it’s clear that the WAC was slapping a Band-Aid on a fatal wound.
The WAC has been on its last legs since 2000; all conference expansion has done is speed up the process, placing, the WAC in hospice care as its teams scattered to the Mountain West, Sun Belt and Conference USA. All that’s left for the conference is the final decision: Does it even try to salvage what’s left — the scraps — or does it throw in the towel as football league?
The league, of course, is doomed. The memories were good–BYU’s 1984 national championship (probably undeserved, given that they beat a 6-5 Michigan Wolverines team to win it) is the most notable highlight–but the WAC has failed to keep pace with the changing revenue structure of college football.
The collapse of the WAC leaves two programs in the lurch:
You can’t help but feel for Idaho and New Mexico State. Begin with Idaho, which, if I had to wager a prediction today, will be forced to step back down to the F.C.S. as a result of the WAC’s demise. The Kibbie Dome, the Vandals’ home field, is by a large margin the smallest stadium in the F.B.S — 6,000 seats smaller than Bowling Green’s stadium. Idaho’s stadium is also only the sixth-largest in the 13-team Big Sky Conference, where the Vandals played from 1963-95. This looks like Idaho’s landing spot in 2013, unless the program can exist as an F.B.S. Independent while searching for a new conference affiliation. You commiserate with two out-of-luck programs, but don’t pretend that each couldn’t have avoided being in such a tight spot. New Mexico State could have invested more in its football program, could have developed better facilities, could have made better hires, could have won more games.
Myerberg, in two subsequent posts, first sketches a final dream season for New Mexico State and then offers a realistic assessment of the athletic department’s financial situation:
In its most recent statement, in 2011, the athletic department filed $26,997,597 in revenue and $25,782,307 in expenses. That’s a net gain of $1,215,290, up from a loss of $1,561,286 during the 2009-10 academic year. The department’s revenue stream included $1,771,334 in ticket sales, $2,952,320 in student fees, $754,000 in away game compensation, $883,239 in contributions and donations, $9,078,575 in university subsidies, $2,118,375 from the WAC and $2,414,076 from licensing and sponsorship.
Despite these dire numbers–the program never turns a profit, receives millions in support from the university’s general fund, and hasn’t appeared in a bowl since 1960 despite the best efforts of quality coaches like Hal Mumme and DeWayne Walker–NMSU administrators remain committed to fielding a football team:
The changes in conference alignments that began several years ago and continue today are unprecedented in college sports. This is truly a new day when the sports, primarily football, are ruled by the potential for TV coverage. We all understand that. Now we are beginning to better comprehend just how far-reaching this new reality can be. Of course, New Mexico State University has no major media market to bring to the table. Without that market our “value” as a conference member appears to be less than other schools with less successful programs but that are located in areas with a greater population…[but] make no mistake, we will be playing football next year and we will be competing in a revised WAC conference for the 2012-2013 school year. Our near-term goals are to compete successfully. We look forward to having you there with us as we show the rest of the world what makes NMSU an excellent athletic–and academic–institution.
The oft-repeated definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” A better definition, at least in this context, might be “continuing to waste students’ and taxpayers’ money out of a mistaken belief that big-time college football won’t slam the doors on mediocre programs like NMSU after creating a 64-team league comprised of the Pac-12, B1g 10, SEC, and Big 12 (provided, of course, that football survives at all).”
Professor Michael Oriard of Oregon State discussed the future of college football in a recent interview with the Good Men Project:
There’s an enormous disparity in revenues among the university football programs. You’ve got teams generating $100 million…and then there are ones that are making a fraction of that, running in the red just to stay competitive. College football as we know it is going to explode or implode in the next few years, and it’s going to look very different. It won’t entirely be a matter of choice: university presidents will have to do what’s possible for them. We’ll likely see a return for a majority of schools to the D-III model. The other end of it would consist of the few high-revenue programs, in a league that’s increasingly professionalized and facing all sorts of issues: workmen’s comp, disability insurance, and so forth.
For administrators at New Mexico State, the future is now. And it’s actually a rather bright future, since an enterprising university president could seize upon the dissolution of the WAC as an opportunity to drop this foundering football program. My future employer, the University of Texas at Arlington, made that decision in the 1980s, wisely choosing to ax its premier loss leader before embarking on a facilities construction binge that still probably managed to cost less than the construction of a single football-only stadium.
UTA’s student body, though sometimes supportive of relaunching a football team, has nevertheless been sufficiently entertained by a basketball team that used to play on a theatre stage and is now enjoying great success in the state-of-the-art College Park Center. According to Ross Lancaster’s excellent post on The Mid-Majority (which is worth reading in its entirety), even undergraduates in a football-mad state like Texas have adjusted to having their homecoming take place around the school’s basketball schedule. The same situation obtains at the College of Charleston, a wealthy liberal arts school that always manages to fill the Carolina First Center during homecoming.
New Mexico State, which lost a hard-fought 1970 Final Four game to UCLA and boasts noteworthy coaches like Lou Henson (originator of the Lou-Do) and Neil McCarthy, has a much richer basketball tradition than either Charleston or Texas-Arlington. NMSU has appeared in 19 NCAA tournaments and ranks 119th on the all-time Sagarin Ratings of D1 basketball programs (ahead of Miami (FL) and Baylor, among others). Surely that is enough for the good people of Las Cruces, who, like the people of nearly everywhere else, cannot hail to the victors or wake up the echoes. And perhaps that is all right, given that football–an expensive and dangerous proposition at best–is on the way out.
Photo of the New Mexico State campus by Pyrosim the Archivist