WAC on solid ground 10 years after doubts
SALT LAKE CITY » Who can blame Karl Benson for puffing out his chest a bit?
It's a decade since the Western Athletic Conference was left for dead. And the conference is still alive -- some, including commissioner Benson, would say it's riding high.
"(In 1998) we were talking about the future of the WAC, the uncertainty of the WAC," said Benson, as he addressed reporters yesterday at the league's annual football preseason media review. "Now, 10 years later to be able to stand here and brag about back-to-back BCS games, Fresno State winning the College World Series, it's safe to say those who doubted the WAC could survive and thrive are looking and saying the WAC has done that. Ten years later I'm proud to say the WAC is definitely back."
But several major issues, some new, some longstanding, make it imperative that the conference maintain its monetary and marketing momentum.
Like most institutions nationwide, college athletics faces increasing financial concerns. And although the word mid-major was barely uttered yesterday, it is no secret that money issues affect the WAC more than larger conferences.
Benson said there could be some major changes that will drastically affect scheduling in the coming years in various sports.
In September, a proposal will be discussed that would have schools consolidate men's and women's basketball events as opposed to the traditional set-up that has one gender on the road while the other is playing at home.
Some believe it could also save money if football and soccer road trips are combined. Gender equity advocates and Title IX watchdogs will eye this one closely.
"The issue will be on the agenda," Benson said. "My message is anything's on the table. The financial challenges that already existed are being compounded. They may force us to take some drastic measures. I certainly wouldn't eliminate either of those as possibilities."
Benson hopes to not shy away from far-flung WAC outposts Hawaii and Louisiana Tech hosting conference tournaments, and he said the 2009 baseball event is still slated for Hawaii. But poor attendance at last spring's tournament in Ruston has spawned rumblings to move the '09 championship to a centrally located mainland spot.
"It is premature to consider that, but it has been brought forth," Benson said.
The commissioner wants even more nonconference games with Pac-10 and Mountain West teams to save on travel costs.
"We need to do things more efficient from a scheduling standpoint," he said. "We recognize the need to work with each other."
Individual schools are belt tightening, too, thinking regional rather than continental. Hawaii athletic director Jim Donovan and football coach Greg McMackin both have said recently that another odyssey such as the Warriors' season-opening football game at Florida is extremely unlikely, given the cost of transportation.
Nevada coach Chris Ault said the Wolf Pack football team will come to Hawaii on a Friday instead of its usual Thursday for economic reasons, and it will take a bus to Fresno instead of flying.
Nevada travels to Hawaii and Louisiana Tech this year, and the state faces severe overall budget cuts as the gaming industry has suffered recently. When super fish Charles Barkley's markers get called in, you know it's for real. It trickles down to the state college's athletic budget.
While the WAC might deserve a lucrative TV contract extension with ESPN, Benson said a recently published article made such a deal seem closer to reality than it is.
"That report was not correct," he said. "I can say we've been in negotiations with ESPN for a possible extension."
One problem is there may be no conference as comparatively top-heavy and bottom-light as this one. The annual "they're getting better and are committed financially" spin was in force yesterday. But it was tempered by Benson's acknowledgment that the number of WAC football teams ranked in triple digits in Division I last year was too close to that of the hackers who didn't break 100 at the league's golf outing yesterday -- quite a few.
"I think our nine football programs, the schools that had not benefited from TV or bowl opportunities recognize that the four or five schools that have had that opportunity are setting the standard," Benson said. "I don't think the gap is growing. I think the gap is shrinking."
Whether that is true or not, there is nothing that can be done to shave the geographic distance between Hawaii and Ruston -- as well as the points in between -- and that has become more of a problem than ever.
"There aren't that many bus opportunities," Benson said.