Joe Santoro: Can Mountain West football attract attention? | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: Can Mountain West football attract attention?

Joe Santoro
For the Nevada Appeal

The Mountain West’s football media is predicting another season void of a championship for the Nevada Wolf Pack. The 21 media members who voted in the conference’s preseason poll predict the Wolf Pack to finish third in the West Division behind Fresno State and San Diego State and ahead of Hawaii, UNLV and San Jose State. Boise State, of course, was picked to win the Mountain Division ahead of Utah State, Air Force, Wyoming, Colorado State and New Mexico. Those predictions seem to be fairly accurate. Fresno State certainly deserves the role of favorite in the West, having won the division and conference championships last year. San Diego State, which slumped badly late last year, and the Pack both have some serious red flags (namely the Aztecs’ offense and the Pack’s defense) flying over their program right now. The Wolf Pack’s biggest hurdle as far as a West Division title is concerned, though, will be road games at both Fresno State and San Diego State in November.

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Boise State has a ridiculously easy conference schedule this year. The Broncos do not have to play any of the top three teams in the West Division (Fresno State, San Diego State and Nevada as predicted by the media). The only competent team seemingly standing in the way of a perfect 8-0 Mountain West season for the Broncos is Utah State. Boise State, though, could lose at Utah State on Nov. 23, and still win the Mountain Division. Utah State has to play at both Fresno State and San Diego State and will host the Wolf Pack. Six of the eight Mountain West teams that Boise State will play this season are predicted to finish fourth or lower in their conference.

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The Mountain West’s biggest concern, though, is attracting attention from outside the conference. The conference has a ton of entertaining and competitive games each season but nobody outside of the Mountain West knows it. The biggest reason for the Mountain West’s anonymity is that the games are usually wrapping up well after midnight in the eastern time zone. Television money is a necessary evil for mid-major conferences like the Mountain West. And the Mountain West has certainly sold its soul to TV. But when those so-called national cable networks (everything is national these days) force you to start at 8:30 p.m. or later east of Denver, well, hardly anybody is paying attention. That might grow your bank account but does it grow the conference?

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When the Wolf Pack made the jump from the Big Sky Conference (Division I-AA) to the Big West (Division I-A) for the 1992 season, college football in the West was much stronger than it is today. There were 10 teams in the Pac-10, seven in the Big West and 10 in the Western Athletic Conference. Now there are 12 teams in the Pac-12, 12 in the Mountain West and the Big West and WAC have gone the way of the hula hoop, telephone land lines and the dodo bird. The Mountain West now doesn’t have as large a national footprint as it once did when it had BYU, Utah and TCU. Boise State was more prevalent nationally when it was in the WAC. The only western football conference, oddly enough, which has thrived since 1992 is the I-AA Big Sky. The Big Sky now has 13 teams and has a national title to play for every year. The Mountain West, by comparison, gets to play in seclusion in the middle of the night with a chance to go to a bowl game that nobody cares about.

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Don’t blame the cable networks for treating the Mountain West like it is just another tractor pull or Australian Rules Football match suitable for middle of the night programming on the east coast and Midwest. Hardly anybody watches Mountain West football even in Mountain West cities. Only half of the dozen Mountain West teams averaged 25,000 or more fans at home a year ago. Nobody averaged more than the 33,068 that Boise managed to squeeze in its gates. The league is simply in areas that, well, struggle for attention. Nevada, Boise State, Hawaii, UNLV and New Mexico are in secluded areas. Fresno State, San Diego State and San Jose State will always play second fiddle to the Pac-12. Colorado State, Wyoming and Air Force look up to big brother Colorado as does Utah State with Utah and BYU. It’s nobody’s fault. The Mountain West does the best that it can. It’s all about TV ratings and attendance.

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Nobody expects the Wolf Pack to expand its stadium to 50,000 or more and average 40,000-plus fans a game anytime soon. But it has to start selling more tickets than it has in recent years. The Pack averaged just 17,181 fans a game last year, good for ninth in the Mountain West. The Pack also averaged just 21,621 for its road games, good for 12th in the Mountain West. It’s total average attendance for the year (home, away and neutral site games) was just 20,398, also last in the Mountain West. When you are finishing below San Jose State, UNLV and New Mexico in any sort of attendance list, well, something is seriously wrong.

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The Mountain West needs to change the way it devises a football schedule. This silly rotating schedule mess, where teams do not play an opponent for two years in a row, is hurting the league financially. The Pack, for example, does not play Boise State this year and next year and doesn’t get to host the Broncos at Mackay Stadium until 2022. That is financial suicide. The Mountain West desperately needs its best teams and rivalries playing each other every year. Put Boise State and Nevada in the same division, if that’s what it takes. Stick Hawaii in the Mountain Division and put Boise in the West. Problem solved.