The Mountain West Conference comes crawling back to ESPN

Let me tell you a story of hubris, tribalism, monopoly, and karma.

In 2005, fed up with constantly getting shifted to timeslots that didn’t work for the time zones its teams played in, the Mountain West Conference decided to completely sever ties with ESPN. They signed a long-term contract with CBS to put its games on what was then CBS College Sports, and also agreed with Comcast to start the very first conference-specific network, the mtn., and put games on Versus.

And lo, it was good. Utah, BYU, and TCU were as good as any team from a BCS conference, and while games between them were never on Versus (the network more people got of any of them) in any years when they were the most important, their presence was quite fruitful for Versus, CBS CS, and the mtn. CBS CS and the mtn. got keystone programming, and Versus got some of its biggest ratings outside NHL games. And lo, when realignment hit college football in 2010, the Mountain West looked to solidify its place as a conference on par with any major conference, adding the other team as good as any from a BCS conference, Boise State, and looked to be one of the beneficiaries of the Pac-10’s proposed gutting of the Big 12, picking off incredibly valuable teams – Kansas, Kansas State – from the carcass.

But alas, that is when things turned for the Mountain West. The proposed Pac-16 deal fell through, but Colorado had already jumped ship. The conference was desiring of putting the conference’s size at a stable level, so they added Utah. And suddenly the Mountain West’s fortunes spiraled into a pit of despair. With its Holy War partner gone, BYU decided to become an independent. With Utah and BYU gone, TCU smelled greener pastures and left for the Big East, and later the Big 12. The Mountain West added Fresno State and Nevada, and later Hawaii for football, to compensate for these defections, but Boise was left with a conference not too different from the WAC they’d just left behind.

But that was just the beginning. For the realignment wheel was not done turning, as Boise State and San Diego State would leave for the paradoxically-named Big East. Suddenly the Mountain West was left with a football conference actually worse than what the WAC had, with Air Force and Nevada probably the class of the conference, and in fact were having trouble fielding enough teams to even be a viable conference. They were not alone: the Big East had also poached SMU, Houston, and UCF from Conference USA, and would eventually poach their star school, Memphis. So the Mountain West and Conference USA started talks for some sort of alliance that eventually grew into a proposed merger of the two conferences.

The TV rights for such a conference would prove to be a challenge: the Mountain West with their contract with CBS and what was now NBC, and Conference USA with its own CBS Sports Network presence and a fairly-recently-signed contract with Fox. One of the bigger complications was the mtn., as Conference USA had no similar network; would the mtn. expand to include all of Conference USA, stick to Mountain West territory, or go away entirely? By and large, the network had not been very successful, with much of its thunder stolen by far more successful networks launched by BCS conferences stealing the idea. The mtn. itself had been plagued by carriage disputes, resented by conference schools who saw all their games put there, and lost its best programming with realignment. The Mountain West and Conference USA would eventually realize that a merger would prevent them from collecting exit fees from departing conference members and would lose credits from past NCAA tournaments and softened it back to an “alliance”, but not before the Mountain West had already decided to pull the plug on the mtn.

Now, fast forward to today: the Mountain West has announced that CBS has sublicenced some of their games to ESPN. Oh, there may be only four of them, all but one of which is on a Thursday or Friday with the remaining game likely to be the biggest of the year between Boise State and Nevada, but the move is unmistakable.

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