As Stanford and California await a decision from the ACC on potential membership, the Mountain West Conference remains on standby and ready to respond no matter how the dominoes fall.
Following the Pac-12 collapse last week, the MWC is in a position of strength and represents a potential landing pad for the remaining four Pac-12 schools: Cal, Stanford, Oregon State and Washington.
How quickly the trickle-down effect reaches the MWC is largely determined by forces beyond its control.
“It’s about what happens to the ACC or whoever [Cal and Stanford] who we talk to,” MWC Commissioner Gloria Nevarez told ESPN on Thursday.
If Cal and Stanford are admitted to the ACC — a possibility that ran into obstacles Wednesday night — there is a widespread expectation that Oregon State and Washington State would move to the MWC, sources told ESPN.
However, if the ACC doesn’t add Cal and Stanford, it’s less clear how things will play out. Since Friday, when five of the remaining nine Pac-12 schools announced their departures, the MWC has been running through various scenarios.
“A lot of it is just trying to separate fact from fiction out there,” Nevarez said. “There’s just so much information out there about what’s going on, and not all of it is true. From my point of view it was about reaching out to our sporting directors and presidents and the contacts I have in the industry to try to provide our board with the best information out there.
The American Athletic Conference would also be willing to consider adding all four remaining Pac-12 schools, sources told ESPN.
Nevarez declined to provide details on who she communicated with or what specific scenarios were discussed, but stressed that the MWC is open to considering multiple possibilities.
One of these is the idea that Stanford and Cal belong to the MWC in all sports except football. This could happen if Stanford and Cal chose to go football independent or join a recent Power 5 conference as football-only members.
“We certainly have precedent for that because Hawaii is just an affiliate soccer member right now,” Nevarez said. “We’re open for everything. Nothing is closing at this time.”
Multiple sources this week expressed skepticism that either Cal or Stanford would be willing to become full members of the MWC, citing the discrepancies in academic standards between their schools and current conference members. However, the longer the process drags on and schools remain homeless by 2024, the more likely this attitude could change.
“The irony is that mindset has helped get where they are now,” an FBS athletic director told ESPN, noting that recent unsuccessful deliberations on Pac-12 expansion have been heavily influenced by academic profiles.
One possibility is a merger between Pac-12 and MWC. Despite the Pac-12’s demise, the league’s 108-year history offers significantly higher brand equity than 25-year-old Mountain West. However, structuring a merger would be extremely complicated.
“There’s just so many questions that need to be asked and answered, but it reminds me of how awesome the Pac-12 is and was,” said Nevarez, who studied law at Cal and worked on the Pac-12 for nine years as Senior Associate Commissioner. “Think of all the benefits, the brand, the Student-Athlete Health Summit and all the great things they’ve done.
“It just breaks my heart that these things are in jeopardy.”
Due to MWC bylaws, it is prohibitively expensive for schools to join the Pac-12 on their own. Each of them would owe about a $34 million takeover without the guarantee of a media deal, which on the other hand would be way better than what they currently have at MWC, where they make about $6 million a year earn.
The nuclear option would be for the league to disband — giving schools a chance to join the Pac-12 without requiring a buyout — but that would require nine of the 12 schools to vote in favor, which multiple sources say is unlikely to happen there is a chance event. At the very least, the Pac-12 would need to secure an ironclad media rights deal guaranteeing a significant improvement on the current MWC deal, which — particularly given the Pac-12’s difficulties in striking a deal before the collapse — is unlikely.
“It’s hard to get nine people to vote on a football plan, let alone disillusion a sure thing to maybe turn to something speculative,” Nevarez said. “I think that’s what our exit fees and our voting thresholds are designed for. If there is the will of nine, it means there is something better out there.”
On Tuesday, Stanford coach Troy Taylor expressed optimism that the Cardinal will remain at the highest level in college football.
“I think the players that chose us and came here want to play Power 5 football and that’s what we intend to do with this university,” Taylor said. “I can’t think of anything else.”
If the ACC exists, it could be forced to do so. The Cardinal might retain its Power 5 status as an independent club, much like Notre Dame, but the school would then have to decide if that’s a better existence for its student-athletes, fans, and bottom line than a move to MWC.