RAINBOW WARRIOR BASKETBALL
WAC getting less airtime this season
SALT LAKE CITY » With the Western Athletic Conference's national television opportunities shrinking this season, the Hawaii basketball team will still have at least one shot at getting some air time.
WAC commissioner Karl Benson said ESPN won't include the conference in its Big Monday or ESPNU packages this season.
"We were expecting that, like last year, we'd have three or four Big Monday appearances and it looks like now those will not materialize with ESPN," Benson said, during his address at the WAC basketball preview at the Hilton Salt Lake City.
The WAC has two regular-season league games scheduled to be shown on ESPN2, including Hawaii's game at Nevada on Feb. 3. The network will also televise the New Mexico State at Nevada matchup on March 3.
The Rainbow Warriors would get at least one more ESPN appearance if they reach the semifinals of the Great Alaska Shootout next month and another if they play in the championship. WAC schools can also earn more face time by being selected for ESPN's Bracket Busters Saturday in February.
"It's very important for basketball that you be on TV," Hawaii coach Riley Wallace said. "You're recruiting, if you can go in there, and even if it's one game, and you tell those kids you're on ESPN, it means something."
Whether the WAC will continue to have a chance to play on ESPN in future years is another question.
Benson said the league had been in negotiations with ESPN this summer on an extension of the current contract that runs through the 2009-10 season, but the two sides couldn't come to a financial agreement.
"ESPN is still a valuable partner to us," Benson said. "We recognize the power they have, but our presidents and athletic directors also believe that the WAC has a certain financial value that we need to get that financial value.
"Television's an important part of recruiting. We anticipate that this is short term, that we will be able to come to terms with ESPN in the future that will expand the coverage. But right now it was a business decision by our presidents to stand pat."
The Big Monday games were not part of the current contract. The WAC was among the conferences that filled the late-night time slot when the Mountain West Conference entered into a deal with CSTV.
Benson is encouraged by the early interest in the WAC.tv service launched last month with games streamed over the Internet. He said Hawaii's game at Boise State drew 2,000 pay-per-view customers.
"There have been some glitches," he said, "however I can say halfway through the football season that the potential that we expected is there."
Benson also said expansion is "on our radar screen," although adding a 10th team doesn't appear imminent.
The WAC is entering its second year as a nine-team league, and Benson acknowledged that the format and the geography of a conference spread from Louisiana to Honolulu has created scheduling problems.
"We've tweaked it each year ... to create greater balance, to eliminate some of the inequities that existed. But ideally the way to fix it is to add a team," Benson said. "It's on our radar screen and ideally it would be an institution that was a full member (with football) but the opportunities for those types of schools that are out there is pretty limited.
"It's not at the urgency stage yet, because this is only the second year as a nine-team league, but we know there's some inherent problems."
Benson also used the forum to tout the WAC's strategic plan adopted by the league's presidents this summer.
The five-year plan calls for the nine WAC schools to "take on characteristics that more resemble Pac-10 schools or the upper level of the Mountain West or Big 12 schools," Benson said.
Under the plan, which doesn't include penalties, the schools will work to enhance their athletic programs in academic performance, attendance, competitiveness (BCS and RPI rankings for example), financial investment and Title IX compliance.
"It is nine college presidents committed to each other to improve in all those areas," Benson said.