The Mountain West will hold its annual football media days Tuesday and Wednesday in Henderson, Nev., with the West Division teams taking the stage on Tuesday and the Mountain Division teams on Friday. Here's a look at some key story lines to watch during the conference event.
1. The TV deal
The MW’s media rights deal is up after this season, so this will be a hot topic, although its unlikely the league talks about it openly as it currently negotiates with networks. The conference has been planning for this moment for multiple years, and a league’s media rights deal is a huge source of revenue. The MW’s current deal – the conference has partnerships with ESPN, CBS, AT&T Sports Networks and Stadium – pays the league $13 million to $14 million a year. Boise State gets about $2.8 million of that. The other 10 full members of the league earn $1 million-$1.1 million each. That’s nowhere near Power 5 money, but those numbers could be improved upon.
The American Athletic Conference recently signed a 12-year, $1 billion contract that is somewhat inflated because the conference will have to produce some of its own content. But that breaks down to nearly $7 million per school annually, a figure the MW can't touch despite the AAC and MW fighting for supremacy among Group of 5 conferences. If the MW could double its $1 million per school annually that'd be a big win, but the might be an overly rosy outcome. While the coaches in attendance will beat the drum for more afternoon kickoffs, they also want the most revenue from their media rights deal, which means handing kickoff times over to the national networks to a large degree.
The MW will rely on the four Rs – revenue; relevance; recruiting; and regaining more control over kick times – during the negotiations.
The AAC recently lost UConn, which announced it will head back to the Big East. After some speculation that the AAC might try and poach a MW school, the league's commissioner said the conference won't expand, at least right now. "We have no plans to add a member to replace UConn," AAC commissioner Mike Aresco said at the conference's media days. "We're not targeting anyone.” The MW is unlikely to make any moves in the near future, either, but this tends to be a topic of conversation at commissioner Craig Thompson's annual state of the conference press conference. While I will not be attending this year's event -- we are sending two other reporters -- I would like somebody to ask Thompson, "Why is San Jose State still in the Mountain West?" That would just make my day.
3. Momentum in football
The MW had its best season in football in many years in 2018 with Boise State, Fresno State and Utah State finishing in the final AP Top 25. The conference also had the best rating among the Group of 5 conferences in 2018. Can the MW keep the momentum? Boise State, Fresno State and Utah State each lost a good chunk of its personnel from last season, but seven of the conference's 12 teams were bowl eligible last season, so the league's depth was excellent. The West Division also made some gains, with Nevada and Hawaii both hitting eight wins after each winning only three the year prior. In all, four of the six West teams reached a bowl. Football still drives college athletics, so the MW being good in this sport is a top goal. The conference doesn't figure to have any preseason Top 25 teams this season (maybe Boise State), but the MW would sign up for having three teams in the final Top 25 and seven bowl eligible again in a heartbeat.
4. Trying to rebuild in basketball
One could argue last year was the worst season in the MW's men's basketball history. Yes, the conference had one Top 25 team the entire season (Nevada) and a second make the NCAA Tournament (Utah State), but from top to the bottom, the league was weak. Outside of the top two teams, none of the other nine made a postseason tournament. Plus, more teams were under-.500 (six) than over-.500 (five). Six teams were 165th or lower in Ken Pomeroy's advanced metrics compared to just three the year prior. Plus, the MW finished 15th in the RPI, only one spot ahead of the WAC. While this is a football media day, there's usually some basketball talk, too, and men's basketball has to be better for the MW to be as strong as it used to be before the massive conference realignment.
5. Any new helmets?
Every team brings their helmets and uniforms to the event, so here's a chance to see if any conference members made changes to their threads. The Wolf Pack will be using new uniforms this season. Whether they debut them at the conference media days is to be determined.
6. What will Rolo do?
Nick Rolovich, the fun-loving former Nevada offensive coordinator and current Hawaii head coach, is a wild card at these events. In 2017, he hired an Elvis impersonator at $350 per hour to shadow him. “Basically, I just said, ‘Hang out. We're friends for two hours,’” Rolovich joked. That was Plan B. Plan A was renting a monkey, but that would have cost $2,000 and required a permit. In his first MW media days in 2016, Rolovich embarked on a game of Pokémon Go that included Thompson. Last year, Rolovich hired a Britney Spears impersonator to shadow him. "I don't necessarily want to be yearly court jester at this deal," Rolovich said, "but I think we're in the battle to show how good our football is and this gets people talking about it." What will he do this year? Nobody truly knows.
7. Top challengers
The preseason poll and players of the year shouldn't yield that many surprises. Boise State (Mountain) and Fresno State (West) will be picked to win their respective divisions and Utah State QB Jordan Love and Boise State DE Curtis Weaver will be picked to win the offensive and defensive player of the year awards. The only question for me is who will be picked as the top challengers to Boise State and Fresno State. In the Mountain, it will almost certainly be Utah State, which won 11 games last season. In the West, it will be between Nevada, San Diego State and Hawaii. The Wolf Pack hasn't been picked to finish second or higher in its division in the preseason poll since 2016 when it was selected to finish second. Nevada finished third in the West that year, going 5-7 overall and 3-5 in the West and coach Brian Polian was fired after the season.